Waste in the name of walkability
Let’s talk about dollars spent. Millions of dollars. 7.2 million dollars specifically, of which 5.5 million came directly from the local economy. The goal? At least according to local leadership, it was to increase quality of life via improved walkability.
First, a caveat: This isn’t going to be one of those pieces denouncing government spending as inherently bad. But neither will it be one that suggests all is well when spending gets characterized as an investment rather than a mere expenditure.
After all, investment itself is a neutral term. There are good investments and bad ones. Smart investments and, well, not so smart ones.
So let’s look at some specifics.
A fairly typical context
South Dekalb County, Georgia, is not all that different from a lot of places. Originally rural and agricultural, it began developing after World War II in the typical suburban pattern of the day — separated uses, subdivisions and strip commercial, and dendritic networks of local, collector, and arterial roads.
Then, in the 60s and 70s, it suffered the scourge of white flight and has been dealing with the challenges of disinvestment — and commensurate efforts to turn it all around — ever since.
Many of these efforts have been rooted in infrastructure improvement. Local leadership calls them investments in the future, which makes for a nice sound bite but also invites the question: How good of an investment is it?
One particular instance
Let’s look at one example, a 3.7 mile stretch of GA-155, also known as Candler Road, that’s ripe for a renaissance local officials have been courting for years. Like in 1999, when adjacent property owners were offered grants of up to $55,000 to construct new buildings or renovate existing ones.
But still, the area has struggled. So when the prospect is raised to spend 7.2 million dollars to spruce it up and make it more walkable, it sounds like a win. The suggestion is that nicer pedestrian infrastructure will make the corridor more inviting, renewed interest will lead to new investment, and new investment will pay off in the form of an improved tax base.
But the devil, at least in my experience, is absolutely in the details. Because investing in pedestrian infrastructure and making a place more walkable are not necessarily the same thing.
Let’s take a look
The investment took the form of new sidewalks, road striping and repaving, landscaping for medians, decorative hardscape, and street lamps.
Local leadership has specifically stated that the money was being spent to improve quality of life by making the corridor more walkable so it makes sense that the results be evaluated according to that ambition. It’s not particularly difficult. Fairly easy, actually, because encouraging walkability is not an arbitrary endeavor. It’s been studied for some time now and the contextual characteristics that contribute to it are well known.
Perhaps the definitive text on the matter is Walkable City by Jeff Speck. My colleague, Kaid Benfield, summarized Jeff’s 10 steps of walkability on his blog a few years ago. Let’s consider the example at hand through that lens:
1. Put cars in their place. This endeavor contains no reconfiguration of traffic lanes to reduce width and, with it, speed. It does nothing to remove or redistribute lanes either. In fact, the width of public right of way devoted to automotive throughput is identical to what it was before the $7.2 million was spent.
2. Mix the uses. The county’s physical overhaul of the corridor did not include any modifications to the surrounding zoning. It remains single use, auto-dependent commercial.
3. Get the parking right. The Candler corridor has always been over-parked and new development remains subject to a development code whose default outcome is set back strip or pad retail with parking in the front.
4. Let transit work. As a primary corridor, Candler features a MARTA bus route. But none of this pedestrian upgrade, as best I can tell, included bus stop infrastructure or other means of improving the transit experience.
5. Protect the pedestrian. These infrastructure investments do include some features that draw attention to pedestrians, such as crosswalks, but they include no changes that actually privilege pedestrians over surrounding vehicles.
6. Welcome bikes. As mentioned previously, Candler’s lane configuration remains the same. No bicycle facilities have been added.
7. Shape the spaces. Outside of a few spots dating back to the 40s, the present conventional zoning ensures that any future development will include parking setbacks. There is no expectation that street-fronting retail or other space shaping arrangements will materialize.
8. Plant trees. The Candler corridor upgrade includes some ground level median plantings but nothing in the pedestrian realm.
9. Make friendly and unique [building] faces. This is kind of a moot point because there is no expectation of street facing development. With no pedestrian oriented buildings there are no contributing details to consider.
10. Pick your winners. Speck is known for advocating a triage approach to pedestrian infrastructure, wherein ped-related investment is directed specifically to walkable or potentially walkable places where the most good can be done. The Candler corridor fails to meet this standard.
So what’s the point?
When political leadership justifies an expenditure of $7.2 million by saying it will make a place more walkable and yet the completed project, even generously assessed, fails to meet even one of the ten steps towards achieving walkability, it deserves scrutiny.
If I were to ask, I’m sure I’d hear all kinds of reasons why — reasons I acknowledge constitute very real and very common obstacles. It’s a state route and the DOT strong-armed the design (while covering just 24% of the cost). Long term changes to zoning are a separate initiative that may or may not come to pass. Etc. Etc.
Yet ultimately, these enhancements were intended to leverage walkable quality of life to secure new investment and an increased tax base. When that doesn’t come to pass, will leadership answer by saying, “Well, the important thing is that we tried. We had no way of knowing it wouldn’t work”?
I hope not. Because if they do, I’ll feel obliged to point them to this study from Wei Li and Kenneth Joh that explored the financial returns of walkability investments in different scenarios. Consider this:
We found that the highest premiums for walkability are in the most walkable neighborhoods: a 1 percent increase in walkability yielded a $1,329 increase in property values; a 1 percent increase in sidewalk density generated a $785 increase in property values. Homes in neighborhoods that are at least somewhat walkable and very walkable also experienced premium increases, although correspondingly less. In contrast, increasing walkability and sidewalks in car-dependent neighborhoods did not have any significant impact on property values. (emphasis mine)
D’oh! That’s awkward.
So, if we’re not going to pursue walkability in a meaningful, systemic way based on the principles that actually deliver results, and we have the data available showing that pedestrian lip service in car dependent places has no appreciable impact on property values, then exactly why are we — or any of the countless places around the country doing similar projects — spending millions of dollars anyways?
Your guess is as good as mine.
Scott Doyon is principal, director of client marketing services with Placemakers, a planning, coding, marketing, and implementation firm. This article was also published on PlaceShakers and NewsMakers.