Hyde Park is what most people would consider a very walkable neighborhood. My Hyde Park apartment is in a “Walkers’ Paradise” according to Walk Score. And indeed, as a young, healthy individual, I can get wherever I want to go in Hyde Park on foot without too much difficulty.
But just because I can walk around does not mean that all is well in this walkers’ paradise. If it were, why would parking spots and bus service be such popular local issues?
The walkability of Hyde Park comes with several large caveats. First, walking around Hyde Park at night, although much safer than many residents seem to believe, is at the very least unpleasant due to the lack of other people walking around. The fact that the university provides bus service to compensate for this perceived danger only makes things worse. Most of Hyde Park seems utterly deserted during the night, which is not conducive to safe, enjoyable walking.
Secondly, walking around Hyde Park in winter is often made difficult because of snow and ice. In principle, owners are supposed to clear snow and ice on the sidewalks in front of their buildings, but in practice, this often doesn’t happen in a timely or satisfactory manner. Having to walk through snow, slush, and ice can turn quick, enjoyable walks into slow, tedious, and dangerous ones.
Thirdly, while destinations within Hyde Park involve reasonably short and aesthetically pleasing walks, the same is not true if one wishes to leave the neighborhood. Aside from the Metra, which has a sometimes inconvenient schedule and no fare reciprocity with CTA, the only way to travel to more distant parts of Chicago without a car involves either hopping on a bus or passing through significant amounts of both green space and urban decay. And even if one wants to visit the surrounding neighborhoods to the south and west, Washington Park, the Midway, and Jackson Park add extra distance to these journeys.
We can very roughly group the difficulties associated with walking into three main categories: distance, safety, and aesthetics. These categories are not entirely independent, nor necessarily all-encompassing, but most of the problems I mentioned above fit into one or more of them. I want to argue that these three classes of impediments are very deeply rooted in the way in which we design our streets, and more generally the way in which we allocate space between buildings.
The distance we have to travel to get from one place to another depends on two factors: the street layout, and how much stuff is between the two places. The Hyde Park grid is a bit long in the north-south direction, but overall is not a bottleneck for efficient travel distances. Rather, the problem is how much stuff we put between destinations. The typical Hyde Park street has two lanes of traffic, two lanes of parked cars, two green strips, two sidewalks, and in some cases one or two lawns. As a result, the facade-to-facade distance between facing buildings often makes up a significant fraction of a horizontal block. For example, the facade-to-facade distance on Blackstone north of 58th street is generally more than 100 feet, while the distance between Blackstone and Dorchester is under 400 feet: the width of the street makes up more than a quarter of the total distance! And this doesn’t include extra space beside and behind buildings. All of this space adds up. Too much space between buildings means too much distance between destinations. (Note, too, that the more space we put between buildings, the less of it will get cleared in the winter. This only adds to walking times!)
When we increase distance between destinations, we decrease the density of people out walking on the street, both because we have increased the overall amount of street per person, and because longer distances discourage walking trips. (Of course, the average walking trip will be longer, but this effect is smaller than even the first alone.) Fewer people out on streets make them easier targets for crime. And the more space we put between our buildings, the more difficult is for law enforcement to patrol this space. Furthermore, we relegate walkers to the peripheries of our streets to accommodate high-speed automobile traffic, which is itself a significant danger.
The most subjective category is aesthetics. I find the most enjoyable places to walk are places where there are lots of shops and people and activity, but I can certainly believe that other aesthetic preferences exist. Nevertheless, I expect that few believe that the aesthetic quality of a walk is improved by constant traffic, abandoned buildings, rows of parked cars (or worse, sprawling parking lots), and empty lots. And while the Midway Plaisance may have aesthetic value to some, there is very little variation across its one mile east-west expanse: how much marginal aesthetic value does each additional east-west block of the Midway provide, anyway? Would a half mile-long Midway be significantly less beautiful than the current one? The little green strips between the sidewalk and parked cars likewise have some aesthetic value, but how many additional people could live in Hyde Park if those strips simply weren’t there and we could fit a few dozen more low-rise apartment buildings worth of people? I contend that those would-be residents would receive (and also provide!) far more total aesthetic value from living in Hyde Park than those little strips of grass.
The idea behind small streets urbanism is to eliminate all of these barriers to walking by eliminating their root cause: too much space between buildings. The ideal is not to be car-free by decree, but to create an environment in which few will prefer to travel by car, an environment designed with people, not vehicles, in mind. It is unproductive to blame people for driving instead of walking. Everything about our cities, from the way we lay them out to the way we zone them to the way we fund their infrastructure, incentivizes people to make the decision to drive.
Advocates of walkability often have to hedge their enthusiasm with statements of the form, “I don’t want to take away your car.” And I don’t. I want to take away a system of urban planning and regulation that coerces millions into buying cars. I want to provide a place where almost no one will drive, not because they are not allowed to, but because they will not benefit from it.