insight : features & articles : three perfect days in silicon valley
I was in the Silicon Valley for a training course for the staff of six Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPOs) selected to implement a series of eight Walkability Audits in their local communities. Sponsored by the Pedestrian and Bicycle Information Center and managed by Walkable Communities Inc., the grant program is jump-starting Walkability Audits (an evolution of the Pedestrian Roadshow pioneered by the Federal Highway Administration and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) in MPOs.
Six Successful MPO's
The six MPOs implementing the Walkability Audits were chosen from 24 applicants for the cost-sharing grant program. The successful communities are:
Most of the bikes are tagged with their origin and destination to help fellow riders stack their bikes alongside those with a similar or later destination, and as the train rolled through the Silicon Valley an increasing volume of riders got on and off. At each station, a well-rehearsed dance was played out:
As the train nears a station, riders gather to unhook their bikes; fellow passengers helpfully hold one or more bikes while others are maneuvered into place to disembark. Riders wait for other passengers to get on and off before exchanging places with the cyclists waiting on the platform, and the bikes are hooked into the appropriate stack of bikes.
Always, riders are helping each other to make the system work. At the Mountain View Station the conductor announced that the car was full (24 bikes) while at least one rider remained on the platform. A woman on board quickly counted the bikes and argued that there were only 22 bikes and thus space was still available…but the train hade moved on, leaving the stranded rider with a 20-minute wait for the next train.
A quick round of introductions revealed wide geographic and organizational diversity, but a remarkably similar list of questions, concerns and desires from the training. In an MPO covering dozens of jurisdictions, how would we choose just eight to get one of the workshops? What was the appropriate role for regional planning agency in something as local and detailed as improving conditions for walking? How did these "audits" work and who was it most critical to get to attend? What if an agency wanted to do more than eight? And what makes an environment walkable anyway?
Two and half days later, instructors Peter Lagerwey and Dan Burden (with the help of encyclopedic local color commentator, Patrick Siegman) had answered all these questions and many more that the enthusiastic MPO staff hadn't even thought of. Site visits, a community workshop, a walking audit, a bike ride, and a "survivor"-like test ("we're gonna drop you off here, you have to find your own way to the hotel by 7.00pm") taught us all about in-fill development, "scrapes", the best size for tree-wells, the difference between roundabouts and traffic circles, the pros and cons of angle-parking, the astonishing cost of housing in the region, and why curb-and-gutter is better than rolled-curbs.
What Are Walking Audits?
A walking audit is a tool to enable people in a community to identify barriers to more and safer walking. Typically four hours long, the audit is an evolution of the Pedestrian Roadshow pioneered by the Federal Highway Administration and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. They quickly and effectively raise awareness of the political, technical, and practical issues that combine to make a street or neighborhood walkable, and they begin to identify potential solutions. Although every walking audit is a little different, they usually include the following key elements:
b) a local presenter who describes particular local problem or situation
c) a walk in the community to identify good and bad conditions
d) a discussion of people's observations on the walk, and
e) agreement on possible action items and/or proposed improvements
are MPO's Involved in Walking Audits and Walkability?
b) pick an accessible location, preferably one that does not require any additional transportation for participants to do the walk.
c) ensure the venue can comfortably accommodate about 50 people and can be darkened (all the way) for slide presentations
d) ensure all the audio visual equipment is working and has back ups (bulbs, extension cord etc)
e) be flexible about the format. The local organizer and the folks they invite may change their minds about the focus of the meeting, and that's OK.
f) work with the local organizer to identify key participants (e.g. the Mayor, head of traffic, local council member etc) and bona fide local residents! Members of the public don't have to worry about (or even be aware of) offending their boss (the mayor or head of traffic) or treading on politically sensitive issues. This openness can help move meetings along.
g) the local presenter should provide useful background information about the community or specific site without droning on about meaningless committee meeting debates or presenting loads of pointless statistics about the region.
h) stress that the audit is primarily designed to identify problems and issues rather than finding the perfect solution. The audits are great at raising overall awareness and showing people a range of potential solutions, but aren't usually the appropriate place to come up with a detailed solution.
This, of course, is the $64,000 question that has dozens of possible $64,000 answers. We visited areas in San Jose, Watsonville, Santa Cruz, Los Gatos, Mountain View, Palo Alto, and Los Altos during our brief stay in the region and saw examples of everything from curb cut designs that do and don't work to in-fill housing developments with hundreds of units and regional trail projects, all of which dramatically affect the walkability of a community. The themes that emerged from our three days included:
c) land use is critical. Communities with mixed-use, moderate to high densities and housing downtown were lively, thriving places with people everywhere. The single use, low-rise business parks were surrounded by big, busy and very unwalkable roadways.
d) people are key. People crave interaction, even just to watch other people. Public space, whether it was the downtown plaza in Watsonville or Los Gatos or the bustling sidewalks of Palo Alto's main streets, has to be inviting, welcoming, safe and accessible for people rather than just for motor vehicles.
f) codes and manuals. Patrick Siegman's seemingly photographic memory of area building codes, zoning policies, traffic manuals, and permitting processes enabled us to realize both the tyrannical impact of codes that are inflexible and the potential for codes to enable creativity and innovation that result in more walkable and desirable development.
g) connections make everything possible. Simple alleyways between buildings make parks and train stations and main streets more accessible, and even the alleys themselves can be made interesting with murals, small shops and services etc. Palo Alto's bike boulevard connects low volume residential streets and creates a wonderful, direct route through the heart of the city.
What Happens Next?
Fired with enthusiasm, the six MPO staff attending the training are now back in their respective communities figuring out how, where and when they are going to host their week-long series of eight walking audits. One criteria by which the six MPOs were selected was also their expected ability to eventually host many more than the original eight audits, and the program was established in the hopes that these MPOs would be a very visible model for other MPOs to follow.
Indeed, the announcement of the grant program has already spurred more walkability workshops. The Puget Sound Regional Council has scheduled a number for mid-May, and the Baltimore MPO, one of the unsuccessful applicants, has already contracted directly with the instructors to go ahead and do a series of workshops anyway. In Colorado Springs, the Pikes Peak MPO has hired two other instructors (Charlie Gandy and Kit Keller) to run the show for them in late April and early May. Gandy also says there's strong interest in the New York City area and in central Utah.
If you want to bring a series of these workshops to your community, contact any of the following folks:
Dan Burden at Walkable Communities
Charlie Gandy at Livable Communities Consulting
John Williams at BikePlan
For More Information:
www.walkable.org is the home site for Dan Burden's Walkable Communities, Inc., and has an extensive array of graphics, reports and other information about walkable communities. It also has Dan's calendar…so if you're hoping to bring Dan to your community, book early and book often.
http://safety.fhwa.dot.gov/roadshow/walk is the home page for the FHWA's Pedestrian Roadshow.
www.apbp.org is the home of the Association of Pedestrian and Bicycle Professionals. Their site has an extensive series of links to state and local pedestrian programs.
www.americawalks.org is the home of America Walks, a national coalition of pedestrian advocacy groups.
www.walktoschool-usa.org is the home of the hugely popular Walk to School Day event scheduled for October 2, 2001. You can also link to an international site documenting similar events in many other countries.