Stepping Toward Walkability

By Desiree Asteria, Contributing Writer

Transportation is about connection. In the United States, early city planning forgot this by designing for cars, and not humans. Yet, feasible and simple options for change exist. Transportation modifications that reduce emissions can also enrich communities.

Walkable districts are one such aspiration. The concept aligns with our tendency toward convenience. A walkable district means an area is conducive to walking as the primary mode of transportation because of resource accessibility and pedestrian safety. We prioritize convenience throughout our lives, yet, transportation has developed in a pattern counter to it. Trending toward neighborhood walkability promotes convenience by increasing accessible resources within an area, and cultivates connection and safety by increasing the amount of human interaction within said area.

Walkable mixed-use areas (residential with commercial, etc.) create a chain reaction of positive impacts within a community. Mixed-use areas cast a wider net for public interest and engagement. If walkable, this increases the amount of people active on the street; more “eyes on the street” creates a culture of safety by increasing the visibility of street interactions. Additionally, a walkable mixed-use area benefits local businesses by boosting their exposure to potential customers. Conveniences of being close to home, or in proximity to other popular resources, or both, increase the likelihood of an individual engaging with products they normally wouldn’t, or would seek out somewhere else.

In 2012, the EPA conducted a Walkability Audit through their Building Blocks for Sustainable Communities program for Thurston Regional Planning Council (TRPC). The audit concerned Olympia’s Martin Way District, Tumwater’s Brewery District, and the Woodland District of Lacey. These areas were selected because they have homes and businesses along high-use transportation corridors with significant barriers to pedestrians.

Sidewalks were a unifying theme across districts; widening sidewalks, increasing signage and pavement markings. Other projects included examining the feasibility of a roundabout, and setting a new pattern of development oriented to the street. While both of these projects would considerably improve walkability, they are also high in cost, labor, and time–which is the typical assumption for city-changing projects. As important as these projects are, conducting short-term scalable projects such as signage and pavement markings, is necessary to prioritize the transition to walkability. Another recommendation of the audit, is to augment community outreach and partnership programs with applications and tools of walkability. Communicating the benefits and feasibility of walkable districts to locals will uplift sense of place, community identity, and safety.

A future with fewer cars is just a walk away; so long as the walk takes you to your city council meeting, your neighbor’s house, your family and friends. Communicating what is possible is our most powerful asset to changing our environment. And on that walk, you just might wander into a shop, a cafe, or see new folks on the street. These simple everyday connections are what build robust, unified communities. We can redesign our cities to be accessible, opportune, and affordable for everyone, we just need to do it together.

Photo From Thurston Regional Planning Council’s Thurston Here to There,  How will you get there? Walking page, which includes an Olympia Walking Map, Google Maps Walking Directions, School Route Walking Maps, and Trails Resources.

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