Can we expect everyone to walk to the grocery store?

There are many things in Naomi Lakritz’s article on walkability in the Calgary Herald that I disagree with, but it was her quote “We can’t have a society where everyone walks to the grocery store.” that bothered me the most. The reason? It fails to acknowledge that we live in a society where not everyone can drive to the grocery store. Furthermore, the statement implies that because not everyone is going to walk to a grocery store we shouldn’t bother paying attention to the many things that could improve walkability and city streets. As the Toronto Star declared last year “Walking to the Grocery Store Shouldn’t be an Extreme Sport

The reality is that 33 percent of Canadians do not even have a driver’s license. That’s over 11,000,000 people. Furthermore many people who do have a license may not own a car or have regular access to one. And this number of non-drivers is going to get bigger. Much bigger.

Fewer young people are driving, and the demographic that is most likely to live without a car, single-person households, is the fastest growing in Canada.  Should we expect that these people will never walk to the store and buy milk cartons, glass jars, cans, ice cream or other frozen food, as Lakritz would have us believe?

It is articles like Lakritz’s that remind me why I feel compelled to write about walkability. There is a general belief that everyone everywhere has access to a vehicle. This is not true. The result is we have built most neighbourhoods since the 1950s to exclude those who do not drive. Seniors and young people deserve to be a part of the city and move around it freely and safely even if they have lost or have not yet earned the right to drive. People who work and have families should not need to feel compelled to buy a car.

For those of us who advocate for more walkable cities, it is not about building a society where everyone must walk to the grocery store, it is about building a society where everyone has the choice to walk to the grocery store.

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What Happened to Walking to School?

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Photo by kcnickerson

The Toronto Star reports that 65 percent of Canadian children live within a 30-minute walk of their school, but only 35 percent walk on a regular basis, and fewer are walking every year. For example, In the U.S., only 12.7% of K–8 (i.e., 6–14 years) students usually walked or biked to school in 2009 compared with 47.7% in 1969.

At the University of Toronto there is a fantastic team lead by Professor Guy Faulkner, focusing on studying the link between health and walking to school. Since 2009, Faulkner and his team have published 15 papers on the topic and last Wednesday presented some of their findings at a forum entitled “What Happened to Walking? Encouraging Active School Travel in Toronto.”

The best news that came out of the report is that Toronto does not seem to have experienced a dramatic decline in the number of children who walk to school. The team’s study found that an average of 70 percent of children regularly walked to school, while only 26 percent were getting to school by car. The team also found that levels of walking were relatively consistant across the city. The only area where children tend to walk less is in new wealthier neighbourhoods in Etobicoke, North York and Scarborough. Also encouraging is that around 90 percent of parents believed that their neighbourhoods are easy to walk around.

The team also discovered that walking is really important to the health of children. It’s obvious but well worth repeating that children who walk to school get a lot more exercise during the school week than children who get a drive. For children who do walk, the trip to and from school represents nearly 20 percent of their daily exercise.

Of concern is that the team discovered that girls were less likely to walk to school, which limited their ability to freely move around their neighbourhoods. As Faulkner concludes:

Girls tend to face greater barriers to active school transport; they are more likely to perceive travel distances as being too far to walk, have elevated safety concerns (from girls themselves and also their parents), and are less likely to freely move around their neighbourhood or city without adult supervision, as a result of reduced independent mobility.

Urban planners and community-based organizations who are interested in improving the built environment to encourage active mobility (e.g., walking, cycling) among children should more consciously address the barriers that girls face.

Generally, the stats within the city of Toronto are positive, but there is reason to believe that the barriers to walking are far higher outside the city. Studies that look at the Greater Toronto Area (GTA)  find that the percentage of of 11-13 year olds who walked to school between 1986 and 2001 declined from 53 to 42 percent. As the region grows, the focus really needs to be on how to integrate the schools with the new neighbourhoods around them, which are being built in a way that is denying children an important source of exercise and independence.

Walkability in Dense Places

by bennylin0724

Photo by bennylin0724

Living in Downtown and the Centres is a detailed survey produced by the City of Toronto City Planning Division.  The intent of the study is to take a measure of what people in Toronto’s Downtown and four Centres think about their neighbourhoods. Of particular interest to me is the section on why people choose to live Downtown and in the Centres.

reasons for living downtown or centres

What I find so compelling about the chart are the similarities between the reasons for living Downtown and in the Centres of the former cities of Etobicoke, North York and Scarborough. The Centres were planned as transportation hubs, so it is not a surprise that access to transit is the primary reason for choosing to live in them. Being close to work and to shops is also a major advantage of living in denser neighbourhoods.

However, there is one glaring difference between Downtown and the Centres, walkability. The “ability to walk everywhere” is the fourth reason for choosing to live downtown. In the North York, Scarborough, and Etobicoke Centres, the ability to walk everywhere does not even crack the top 15.

Why? Probably because you cannot walk everywhere. 45 percent of Downtown residents walk to work versus less than 10 percent of residents in those Centres. Clearly a missing ingredient in the Centres is employment density.

Despite this difference, there are many commonalities with how residents in the Centres and Downtown perceive walkability in their neighbourhoods. Overall the impression is that neighbourhoods are not pedestrian friendly, despite them being some of the most accessible and densest neighbourhoods in the city. Furthermore, residents in every neighbourhood, when asked about neighbourhood amenities and services, were least satisfied with pedestrian walkways, public spaces, and bike paths. This represents a significant failure to leverage density and access to public transit to build attractive and inviting walkable places across the city.

Politics and Sidewalks in Canada

Photo by Loozrboy

During the election Nate Silver tweeted

“Heuristic: if a place has sidewalks, it votes Democratic. Otherwise, it votes Republican.”

The presence of sidewalks is also a pretty good indicator of how someone will vote in Canada. The trend can be seen clearly in the graph below with the PC/Reform/C.A. getting more of the  suburban (i.e. no sidewalk) vote and the NDP more of the urban  (i.e. sidewalk) vote. This trend has clearly been growing since the 1970s.

Source: Walks, Alan (2007) “The boundaries of suburban discontent? Urban definitions and neighbourhood political effects” The Canadian Geographer, vol 51. No. 2

The divide was also pretty stark in the last Toronto municipal election between the older and newer neighbourhoods:

Map by Marc Lostracco/Torontoist.

Why the divergence? Bill Lindeke at Streets.MN provides two explanations about why sidewalks make a good political litmus test. First, that individuals tend to sort themselves so they live closer to like minded people; with people on the political left moving into older neighbourhoods and those on the political right moving into newer neighbourhoods.

The second, and more controversial explanation is that sidewalks and denser urban environments actually change the way people think. As Lindeke muses,

Might sidewalks foster tolerance? Do they actually have an effect on people, changing how they think about their neighbors?…Does walking around one’s neighborhod increase tolerance? Does walking your dog make you more likely to talk to, and try to empathize with, your neighbors? Does having a corner coffee shop foster social capital?

Personally, I  feel it has more to do with life cycles, demographics, and housing type than sidewalks. Household tenuredwelling type, and commuting behaviour are very different in older and newer parts of the city, and families and income rise as you move away from the city centre. These factors surely explain a significant amount of the divergence.

Clearly there is some link between built form and political values. How much do you think your politics are a product of the neighbourhood you live in?

Infographic: Health and Transportation

I enjoy a good infographic and NewPublicHealth has created an excellent one. As NewPublicHealth explains the infographic:

tells a visual story on the role of transportation in the health of our communities.

Some Highlights:

  • Public transit users walk an average of 19 minutes getting to and from public transportation.
  • Countries with lower rates of obesity tend to have higher rates of commuters who walk or bike to work.
  • The risk of obesity increases 6% with every additional mile spent in the car, and decreases 5% with every kilometer walked.
  • Lengthy commutes cost $100 billion each year in excess fuel costs and lost productivity.
  • More than 30,000 people died in car wrecks in 2010.
  • Strong seatbelt and child safety laws resulted in a 25% decrease in car accident deaths since 2005.

Continue reading below to see the full size infographic

Continue reading

Broken Sidewalks

I’m dedicating my first post to the sidewalk. Why? As I wrote in my About page, I want to use this space to focus on topics around walking and biking, and what could be more basic to the topic of walking then sidewalks?

Yet, for a generation we stopped building and maintaing this basic piece of infastructure and now the costs are mounting. Our broken relationship with sidewalks is now costing governments billions, hurting your health, and is making you poorer. How?

There is a monetary cost to ignoring sidewalks. In Los Angeles, sidewalks have become a $1.5 Billion problem. Years of neglected maintenance has taken a toll. L.A now has almost 5,000 miles of bad sidewalks. Thats enough bad sidewalk to stumble from L.A. to New York and then back again.

There are also health costs. Doctors and public health professionals are finding evidence that one cause of the current obesity epidemic in North America is linked to people lacking access to sidewalks.  Medical research has shown that merely the presence of sidewalks increases physical activity and fitness among neighborhood residents.

Ignoring sidewalks also has economic costs. The Brookings Institute found that neighbourhoods that were less walkable suffered far more during the great recession, while walkable neighbourhoods were able to maintain higher rents and home values.

Lastly, sidewalks save lives. Pedestrian crashes are more than twice as likely to occur in places without sidewalks. Streets with sidewalks on both sides have the fewest crashes.

So don’t ignore the lowly sidewalk. Its far more than just a place to walk.