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insight : features & articles : three perfect days in silicon valley

By Andy Clarke (with apologies to United Airlines)

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Instructor Dan Burden describes the detail of Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz, to the staff
Imagine you are driving to work one day and drivers actually wave you safely into traffic instead of trying to block you out; where you greet your fellow commuters with a friendly nod of recognition and idle chatter about current events instead of giving them the finger; and a stranger remonstrates with others to let you onto the already packed highway. Sound too good to be true? Well, it happens every morning in the bicycle cars of the Caltrain service between San Jose and San Francisco.

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

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The six MPOs implementing the Walkability Audits were chosen from 24 applicants for the cost-sharing grant program. The successful communities are:

Caltrain Service
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Cyclists aboard the Caltrain service.
Even though this was primarily a walking visit, I had heard so much about the Caltrain service for bikes that I couldn't resist the chance to see it in operation for myself. So I climbed aboard a free Valley Transportation Authority shuttle to Caltrain, paid a whopping $2.00 for my peak-hour, 30-minute ride from to Palo Alto, and joined two cyclists and about 20 passengers at the Santa Clara station. When the 8.02am train pulled up, the two cyclists waited for other cyclists and passengers to get off the train before climbing aboard and strapping their bikes to the 20 or so already inside the purpose-built cars (check out bicyclinginfo.org's transit section for more).

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.

Riders boarding the Caltrain Bicycle car.
While I was riding the rails, my fellow trainees and instructors were gathering at the San Jose Airport Doubletree hotel, site of many common walking problems (missing sidewalks and crosswalks, wide roads, fast traffic, and airport and hotel staff who denied it was possible to walk the ¾-mile between the two places) that we were to leave behind for a few days.

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?

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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:
    a) a visual introduction to walkability drawing on national and local examples
    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
Depending on the community hosting the workshop, the session may focus on general walkability issues, specific problems within a community, or a single site or roadway with particular problems such as a school, main street, or major intersection.

Why are MPO's Involved in Walking Audits and Walkability?
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MPO staff are in the unique position of working with transportation professionals in numerous township, city, and county government agencies: they know the opinion leaders, funding gatekeepers, and community activists who are necessary to change the status quo. They are also ideally placed to be the catalyst for new ideas and initiatives that benefit their "member" jurisdictions and can coordinate the implementation of a project like this. Ultimately, the MPO also has some influence over funding for transportation projects in a region and can help to prioritize pedestrian improvements.

Lagerwey and Burden shared their experience working in the Detroit area with the South East Michigan Council of Governments (SEMCOG), where more than 50 walking audits or roadshows have been presented. "SEMCOG discovered this was an inexpensive program that was hugely popular with their members and produced both short- and long-term results," says Lagerwey. "Communities redesigned main streets and state highways, they initiated traffic calming projects, and built better sidewalks and crosswalks as a direct outcome of these workshops. Projects were on the ground after just a couple of years, in some cases."

Dan Burden also notes that, "over time almost every SEMCOG staff person was assigned to help organize and attend one or more of the workshops, effectively training the entire staff to be more sensitive to walking issues."

What Makes for a Good Walking Audit?
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An audit underway in Los Altos, focused on improving school safety.
Obviously the answer depends a little on the type of workshop being organized: dealing with a single site requires a little different preparation than a general "awareness raising" workshop that also includes a walk. However, the instructors identified a number of critical tasks for the MPO staff that would help ensure the success of most of the workshops. (Lagerwey stressed that of the eight workshops to be held in each of the six MPOs one or two might be a bust, "and that's OK.")
    a) find a good local organizer in each community who knows the area, the players, and the real issues

    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.
What Makes a Community Walkable?
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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:
    a) sidewalks and crosswalks are the obvious building blocks of a walkable community. One must be able to walk along and get across roads without fearing for your life. But we saw sidewalks that were too narrow and even some that were inappropriately wide (and thus robbing the street of the activity and interaction that should make them attractive); we saw crosswalks that worked and some intersections that even with crosswalks were too scary for people to cross.

    Street trees create bulb outs and establish a canopy for walkers in Santa Cruz and Palo Alto.
    b) the devil is in the detail. The main streets of both Santa Cruz and Palo Alto use street trees to create bulb outs and to establish a canopy; but the planters used in Santa Cruz weren't large enough and vehicles parking on the street were clearly hitting the trees!

    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.

    Simple alleyways between buildings make parks and train stations and main streets more accessible
    e) diversity is also critical to a truly walkable community. A mixture of chic boutiques and hardware and grocery stores; a mixture of income levels, race, age and gender; a mixture of travel modes; a diversity of architecture and landscaping, all contribute to a more fascinating and thus more enjoyable public place.

    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.

    h) access is more important than mobility: the ability to get somewhere is more important than the ability to move. This is reflected in the priority given to one street over another and in the choices that are made on the allocation of road space.

What Happens Next?

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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
email: dburden@aol.com
website: www.walkable.org)

Charlie Gandy at Livable Communities Consulting
email: gandy1999@aol.com

John Williams at BikePlan
email: john@montana.com
website: www.bikeplan.com)


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.