Jeff Speck on Why Bikes Make Streets Safer for Everyone
Jeff Speck’s not-so-secret weapon—his “special sauce,” as he likes to call it—is his ability to make urban planning accessible. “Frankly, the most compelling arguments are the most entertaining arguments,” he says. “I learned that from Andres Duany. I’ve also found that people’s minds are never as open as when their mouths are open, laughing.” With his mentors Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, Speck co-authored Suburban Nation, a lively and unlikely bestseller about (of all things) zoning and sprawl. He pulled off a similar feat in 2013, with the publication of Walkable Cities, a thoroughly engaging and utterly practical treatise on urban rebirth. His newest book, Walkable City Rules: 101 Steps to Making Better Places (Island Press), is every bit as engaging as the others, but is fundamentally something different, a “tool-kit for urban activists.” Recently I talked to Speck about the audience for the book, first steps in walkability for city leaders, and the importance of biking in walkable cities.
MCP: Martin C. Pedersen
JS: Jeff Speck
I enjoyed Walkable Cities a lot. When I received Walkable City Rules in the mail, I started jumping around, because of the list format. How did you decide on that as an organizing principle?
The real story is about how I observed people using and responding to Walkable Cities. I’d be invited to a place to speak, and the people in the community who were excited about making change had read the book, and distributed it to their friends. Or even read it and distributed to the city council. It was gratifying seeing the book motivating people, but Walkable City was not designed to be a tool, and it was leaving them a bit flat-footed. It was designed to be literary non-fiction, a readable book for everybody about the current situation in our cities. It included a lot of advice and instruction about making cities better, but that simply wasn’t the format or the intention. And yet some of the people who read the book were already activists, starting to use it as a tool. It was effective in motivating them, but it wasn’t giving them all of the help they needed to fully argue their points, or to implement the types of changes that they were advocating. The other part of it is, I go from community to community and do this work, and it’s not that hard. But it’s also not that obvious. I’m always telling people: “Here’s what you need to do. You can do it yourselves.” All that led me to believe that I could teach more people to fish, rather than me bringing them fish.
I would disagree. It’s not that hard to understand these ideas, but it’s devilishly difficult to enact them as public policy.
That gets back to the motivation. Once you know the techniques, the principle impediments are political. And what better way to overcome the political impediments than to get more people educated about what works?
That is true about a bigger problem, climate change. We know how to fix climate change. The problem isn’t technical know-how. It’s political will.
Yes. And in order to generate political will you must have the best arguments. That’s all a big set-up for realizing, when I wrote Walkable Cities, there was this other need for a tool kit. The book weaponizes Walkable Cities for deployment in the field.
Who was your ideal reader for this book?
I always write my books for an aspirational audience. In the case of Walkable City, the aspirational audience was an armchair urbanist. Someone who reads The New Yorker or New York Review of Books, someone who likes to read about a wide range of issues and suspects that urban planning is something that might be interesting. The goal there, of course, is that this makes more people in the general public interested in these issues. The aspirational reader for Walkable City Rules is more likely to be a community activist. By design, it’s a smaller audience than Walkable City. I’m hoping that most people in the urban planning world will feel obliged to read it, as a resource, but my goal is to reach every city activist who is focussed on the physical form of their communities, who will make use of it. They’re the ones who have the most to gain from reading it.
What are some of the first moves for cities that aren’t walkable but aspire to be? There are 101 rules in the book and you certainly can’t tackle all of them at once, or even 20 of them. You have to start somewhere. Where does a mayor or a city councilperson start?
The last part of my book, titled “Do It Now,” is aimed directly at your question. In Walkable Cities, I talked about this concept that I call the General Theory of Walkability. It’s a useful framework, because it says that in order to get people to make the choice to walk, the walk has to accomplish four things: it has to be useful, safe, comfortable and interesting. If you consider that framework, three of those things—useful, comfortable and interesting—are principally an outcome of the private buildings that surround the street and public spaces. So do you have a proper balance and mix of uses that gives you a reason to walk from place to place? Are the places comfortable, because they’re well shaped by street walls? Are the faces of those buildings friendly and likely to make you want to be there? Those things are long-term goals that governments can influence. But they’re achieved through two things, zoning and investments, such as TIFs and tax abatements. Both are long term efforts.
Most mayors and citizens now are asking: what can we do in two or three or four years? That’s the window in which people really need to see change happening. And, frankly, with the crisis of climate change, we don’t have much time to make our cities more walkable, if that’s going to have an impact on carbon. So that leaves the second category, the safe walk. This is entirely the function of the design of the street, which belong to the city. Of course some streets don’t belong to the city, they’re state or county roads, and that’s an impediment. But most downtown streets, in most cities, belong to the city. And with a very limited investment, in a focussed way, a city can make its streets much safer for walking. And they can do it principally with paint, not infrastructure. In ten years I went from being a building designer to being an urban designer, to being a city planner, and now I’m mostly just a street striper. Because the goal is to have as much impact on communities as quickly as possible. And you learn very quickly that the individual building doesn’t mean shit in a failed urban form. And an urban form doesn’t mean anything if the surrounding area is not good. Even the best urbanism won’t generate walkability if people think they’re going to die every time they walk out on the street. Still, most American cities that developed pre-war have a downtown. And today many have virtually everything they need in terms of walkability—except they’re utterly unsafe.
So is the automobile fundamentally the enemy of walkable streets?
As I say in Walkable Cities, cars moving slowly are the lifeblood of the American city. I wish that it were not the case—I wish we were closer to the European model—but the typical American downtown relies on a steady flow of automobiles to keep it alive. However, whether those cars are moving above or below twenty five miles per hour is a fundamental determinant as to whether there are other ways to get around as well, including walking and cycling. The easiest way to make a typical American city better is simply to reduce illegal speeding. In public meetings, I don’t say, “Slow the cars down,” I’ve learned to say, “Let’s reduce illegal speeding.” Most of our downtowns have speed limits that are about right, but cars are travelling a full ten to fifteen miles per hour faster. And they’re going that fast because the streets have been engineered to invite speeds faster than the speed limit. This is the great, industry-wide malpractice of the traffic engineering profession, which, quite honestly, has killed more Americans than virtually any other. And it’s done that because there was a misunderstanding, a belief that you could make streets safe by making them more “forgiving.” The definition of forgiving was to invite higher speeds. It makes sense on highways, where people set their speeds based on the speed limit. But applying that same logic to downtown streets, where people set their speeds at the rate they feel comfortable driving, has killed thousands of Americans. Most traffic engineers practicing today still design streets for higher speeds than they want cars to drive on them, with unsurprisingly deadly outcomes. We can fix this problem by making lanes the right width, by having no more lanes than we need, by making one-way streets two-way again as they once were, by bringing back parallel parking that protects the curb, by adding bike lanes. Once you’ve resized the streets for the right speed, and the correct volume of vehicles, you create extra asphalt, and that can immediately be dedicated to bicycles and/or parking, both of which make downtowns healthier. My strategy when I go into a downtown is to propose restriping of the entire downtown. Almost every street has an opportunity for better safety, efficiency, and multi-modal transportation.
Do you get pushback from transportation engineers?
Always. Now, having done this for twenty years, I can tell you the predicted Carmaggons never happen. The gridlock that the engineers predict, when you make these changes, has yet to appear in any of these projects. I have participated in major street reconfigurations in a dozen cities, and we’ve never had a congestion problem.
Last month Madrid announced a plan for a total ban on cars in the central part of the city As someone who does this work here, what do you make of that?
These wonderful ideas coming from Europe can be a little bit of a red herring when applied to the American scene, because they’re so ambitious as to perhaps impede efforts towards more achievable and still impactful outcomes, like just giving pedestrians a fighting chance. There’s the real conundrum here. You have a lot of cities in which, as we learned with the pedestrian malls of the mid to late 20th century, if you take the cars away the stores will die. In most of these communities, there’s someone right now who’s 27 years old and has no recollection of the 180 failed pedestrian malls between 1960 and 1980, who’s saying “Let’s pedestrianize our Main Street!” This person isn’t wrong. The proper response isn’t that we shouldn’t do it, but we should find a way to model it. Test it. Everyone wants to do a “study” when they should be doing a test. Thanks to the leadership of the folks promoting tactical urbanism, we’ve been able to test things rather than spending forty thousand dollars on a study that may be wrong. Instead, we just throw out a couple of police cars, block a few lanes, and see how that works. When it comes to pedestrian zones, you definitely want to test it inexpensively and see how it performs before you commit to wonderfully positive approaches that may or may not work.
You have a whole section on bicycling titled “Sell Cycling.” Explain that idea.
It’s about how to convince communities to embrace cycling, because it’s so hard to get the automotive hordes to give up even an inch of the roadway that they’ve been told they’re entitled to for so many years. When you try to insert or succeed in inserting bike lanes, you often have what’s called a “bikelash.” You get a lot of pushback. So you need to be armed with the best arguments for convincing people about cycling. Many people percieve of cycling as an elitist, urbane activity. But, in fact, if you’re interested in equity, cycling is a good a tool as you can employ, because fully 39% of people who cycle to work are from the poorest quartile of income earners.
This is especially true in New Orleans. We were a biking town long before it became a trendy urban activity.
New Orleans is a great city for biking. There are many reasons to sell cycling, but probably the most effective one, when I’m working in communities, is telling leaders that for them to attract talent they need to have a good cycling network. And a good transit system, because young, educated talent demands it. That’s the most effective argument. But most surprising is the equity argument.
And yet there’s still pushback to cycling, even today.
Still, it’s an argument that can be effective, because we’ve all been intimidated by cyclists. And the reason we’re being intimidated is because they have to mix with us in crosswalks, because they haven’t been provided a proper cycling network. So the right response to the fear of cyclists killing and injuring pedestrians is to admit that this wouldn’t be happening if there was a more robust network. And also to acknowledge that streets that have bikes in them are statistically safer for all users. New York City found that with protected bike lanes, serious injury and accidents to all users—not just cyclists but drivers, too—dropped by about two thirds. Everyone is safer in a street that has bikes, because the drivers will be less threatening to the pedestrians as well.
Featured image via Wikipedia Commons.