Friday night, I had the pleasure of attending WalkAustin’s first ever Happy Hour and meeting many wonderful people interested in making Austin more walkable, including many who work for municipal government. As this blog gets its name from the nexus of walking and activism, I’ll take this happy occasion to start setting out an agenda for improving walkability in Austin.
This is preliminary. I’d love feedback and filling in details! I’m covering a lot of issues I only know in passing. Also, this is an agenda for plausible things that would improve walkability. Some of them may conflict with other goals you have; that’s fine. Walkability isn’t the only goal in setting public policy.
Much of the city is missing sidewalks, including some dense areas that would otherwise be good for walking. Adding sidewalks would provide safety and comfort for walkers.
The Great Streets program has been doing wonders for walkability downtown, adding safety and comfort for walkers. This should not only be continued downtown, but be extended to selected other areas of the city.
More and Better Lighting
Even where there are sidewalks, many areas lack adequate street lighting, discouraging walkers due to safety reasons.
Better Grid Connectivity
Especially in South Austin, many streets fail to connect. This adds inconvenience for drivers, bicyclists, and pedestrians, as all must take circuitous routes, but it especially impacts pedestrians. A 1 mile detour adds 3 minutes to a drive, but 20 minutes to a walk. Take this walking route I just found by clicking around on google maps. In order to walk from one house to another without cutting through private property, neighbors whose back yards adjoin must walk 1.8 miles, or more than half hour, to cover a final distance of approximately 20 feet. This doesn’t just affect these two houses, but all residents on either side of this lack of a connection. I just found this situation by clicking on google maps, so perhaps there’s a walking easement not shown here, but there are plenty of these situations in Austin.
As a special case of grid connectivity, in some parts of the city, streets connect for cars, but due to the lack of crosswalks, they do not connect for pedestrians. As an example, I recently stayed at a rental apartment on Alpine St. near South Congress. Google maps advises me that walking to either Opal Divine’s or the Northbound 801 stop takes 2 minutes:
However, there is no crosswalk at South Congress across Alpine Street, not even one that only triggers when a pedestrian presses a button. In order to cross safely, and legally, I had to zoom out the map and walk about 12 minutes via the intersection of South Congress, Lightsey and Woodward.
For comparison, this is about time-equivalent to a driver having to drive an extra 5 miles at city speeds. Adding crosswalks at intersections such as these (especially across from bus stops!) would aid walkability considerably.
Fill out Crosswalks
Even where there are crosswalks, sometimes they have been designed in a way I have never experienced outside Austin, what I have come to call an “Austin crosswalk.” Instead of allowing one to cross a street directly, they are designed to force you to cross 3 times, waiting for the light each time. For example, at 29th and Guadalupe, there are crosswalks on the North, East, and West sides, forcing a pedestrian on the South side of 29th St. crossing to the South side of 29th to cross 29th to the North, then Guadalupe East or West, then 29th again back South:
Filling in the final crosswalk would make Austin more walkable.
Do a better job of Intermodal Pedestrian-Transit Connections
This was covered somewhat above in discussion of placing crosswalks near bus stops, but it also is true of, say, the Amtrak station. On Google Maps, Amtrak appears to be well-connected to 3rd and Lamar and the downtown grid:
However, zooming in reveals the pedestrian path Google has highlighted to be an unmarked, most likely illegal track crossing, not separated from automobile traffic:
Land Development Code
With the exception of some cases listed above (areas without sidewalks, crosswalks, or grid connectivity), for the most part the number of destinations a given walker can reach within a given time is limited by the density of destinations. The more that the land use code allows for greater density (e.g. allowing taller buildings, greater ratio of usable floor space to footprint, smaller setbacks from the street), the more useful walking becomes. This is true at all scales, from downtown developments to small neighborhoods, although the greatest benefits will be seen in places where demand for large buildings is highest.
More density especially near already walkable areas
Obviously, this is a special case of “more density,” but it’s important to note: there are some areas where density would be especially useful to pedestrians. These are areas that are adjacent to other, already walkable areas like downtown or West Campus. The more people who are allowed to live in these areas with easy walks to destination-rich areas like West Campus or downtown, the more people who get to experience the solid walkability of Austin’s most walkable areas. As I said above, there are other reasons why some people might oppose this (e.g. in Judge’s Hill, people might prefer historical preservation to walkability), but from the perspective of walkability, dense areas in walking distance of walkable, destination-rich areas are very useful.
End parking minimums
A special case of density limitations is those imposed by the city requiring homes, businesses, and everything in between to provide parking. Obviously, those who walk to a destination do not use these parking spaces. Yet, they must pay the costs of these spaces being built in the form of higher rents or higher prices. These spaces limit the density that many developments reach because the cost of building structured parking or underground parking is so high that developers will build a building small enough that they can provide all required parking spaces on the surface or above.
More mixed use
People don’t just need to travel between random destinations; they frequently need to go from home to a business, whether it be a grocery store, restaurant, hardware store, office, etc. However, much of the zoning in the city is built on the premise of separating these uses out. This single usage zoning requires walkers to go longer distances to reach from the edge of the residential zone before they can reach many of their destinations. Encouraging greater mixed use would allow more shorter, walkable trips.
This could be accomplished by adding horizontal mixed use (i.e. different uses side-by-side) or vertical mixed use (i.e. residential on top of commercial in the same building). Some ways to allow these mixed uses would be:
- Add more acceptable light office uses (e.g. lawyers’ offices or other by-appointment style offices) to generally residential areas, allowing more people to work close enough to home to walk.
- Add more acceptable retail uses to selected corners in residential areas, allowing more people to walk to shop. For example: bodegas, small neighborhood restaurants, etc.
- Make it easier to build residences in commercial areas, whether they be vertical mixed use or horizontal.
Require new stores to orient themselves to the sidewalk
In many parts of Austin, store fronts are literally oriented toward parking and not toward pedestrians. Take the building which houses REI, Anthropologie, and Book People at 6th and Lamar. This is the view a pedestrian on 6th St has when next to the building:
Two locked service entrances (quite dirty when I walked by them this last week). The entrance to the stores are actually on the other side, oriented toward the parking lot:
The walk around the building itself isn’t unsafe, and is only mildly inconvenient for most who walk. However, it destroys some of the great joys of walking: window shopping and impulse purchases, and replaces them with an unsubtle message that this area is meant to be driven through, not walked in.
A lot of good work regarding this issue and the next has been done in the East Riverside Corridor plan.
Require new stores to place parking behind the store, not in front.
There are far too many examples to list here, everything from small neighborhood restaurants:
By requiring pedestrians to walk through parking areas, you create stress, danger, discomfort, and another unsubtle message that cars are more important than pedestrians. And yet, it would be easy for stores to be built so that drivers must drive behind the building in order to park. Again, the East Riverside Corridor plan has done good work on requiring stores to place stores between the pedestrian and the parking, instead of placing parking between the pedestrian and the store.
That’s my list for now! I’m sure there are many more, and I’d love to hear them (or disagreements with the ones I’ve got). This is a direction, not just an end goal, so walkability really comes in to play in a wide variety of different municipal policy decisions.