Walkable urbanism without many walkers

I was recently in Atlanta for the first time since the late 1980s. I had been struck then at how un-urban the place was, despite the impressive new subway. There were few pedestrians downtown, and, on a walk up Peachtree Street to Midtown—Atlanta’s “second downtown,’’ roughly two miles (3.2 km) north—I had the distinct feeling that I was in a location where I wasn’t supposed to be on foot. There were huge amounts of traffic, but, in a large dead zone north of downtown, just about no one else was walking, with the exception of (for want of a better term) a few “street people.”

Since the late 1980s, Atlanta’s hosted an Olympics; it’s grown enormously; and its government has made a real effort to encourage the construction of apartment buildings in its central core. Its tourist maps now color Peachtree Street north of downtown orange-pink, implying that the street’s a continuation of downtown.

Atlanta tourist map cropped

A small excerpt from a tourist map that I picked up at the Hartsfield-Jackson Airport in October 2016. The closest thing to a title is: Atlanta www.atlanta.net.

And, indeed, it now feels all right to walk there, at least by day. Many new apartment buildings have been built north of downtown, and there’s been some renovation of older buildings as well.

Atlanta Midtown

Peachtree Street NE, Midtown.

But there are still only a few pedestrians, walking along next to rivers of traffic. Even in central Midtown, except at lunch hour, the sidewalks are pretty empty. I didn’t have the feeling that I was violating local mores in walking there, but, on any given block at any given moment, there were probably twenty times as many cars as pedestrians.

Note that most of Midtown gets a “very walkable” walk score on the Walk Score Website, and a few small areas are even “walker’s paradises” (1065 Peachtree Street NE, for example). Midtown even boasts about its walkability (see the sign).

Atlanta, Midtown, sign advertising walkability over an empty sidewalk.

“Wonderful walkable Midtown”–but where are the walkers?

The problem with this boast is that there aren’t very many pedestrians. This seems very odd to me.

I had a similar feeling earlier this month on my first trip to Oak Park in at least a decade.

Oak Park is often (along with Evanston) classed as one of Chicago’s most “urban” suburbs. Its association with Frank Lloyd Wright and other well-known architects certainly puts it into Chicago’s intellectual orbit. And its population can without doubt be described as urbane and mildly left-leaning with a long history of doing the right thing—at least in theory–when it comes to integration. Physically, Oak Park has many urban characteristics as well. It has good CTA and Metra service, and its central residential areas consist mostly of apartment buildings.1 Oak Park gets a walk score of 74 (just behind Chicago’s 76), and central Oak Park is classified as a “walker’s paradise” with walk scores of around 90.

Oak Park, however, has a somewhat tortured history when it comes to accommodating pedestrians. In 1974 (like several other smaller U.S. cities in the same era) it turned its main street, Lake Street, into a pedestrian mall. This change apparently did little to attract large numbers of customers downtown, and the city undid the pedestrianization of Lake Street in 1988.

On my visit, I was struck by the near absence of pedestrians in downtown Oak Park. I did see one camera-toting tourist, very likely on his way to look at Wright’s Unity Temple. I also saw a couple of (again, I don’t know what phrase to use) street people. But, in half an hour of walking on Lake Street and Oak Park and Harlem Avenues, I saw no one else, except for a couple of people getting into or out of cars—who don’t count! The old downtown looked more or less prosperous. The 1920s buildings are mostly renovated. There aren’t many empty storefronts. I was impressed by the fact that most of the stores are local. They include a couple of bookstores, a movie theatre, numerous restaurants, and several specialized boutiques. But they sure don’t seem to have many walk-in customers.

Oak Park, empty sidewalk.

Lake Street, Oak Park.

There may be some technical reasons for this. The sidewalks are quite narrow. And there’s a lot of traffic, particularly on major streets like Lake Street and Harlem Avenue. Also, it turned out to be hard to cross some streets, since it took forever for lights to change, partly because drivers making turns get special signals and partly because the signal sequence takes a couple of minutes. Also, annoyingly, pedestrians are forced to press a button to get permission to cross. Suburban traffic engineers are clearly in charge of Oak Park’s traffic flow.

It took a while to realize that in most ways the traditional-looking downtown is just a façade. As in most American suburbs that have preserved some of their older buildings, there are acres of parking behind the traditional storefronts. Presumably, many (maybe most) customers come in through what were once back doors.

Oak Park, parking behind Lake Street,

Parking in mid-block, Oak Park.

But I was still a bit mystified by the absence of pedestrians in the core of downtown. You’d think that the train stations, the nearby apartment buildings, and the charming small shops would generate a few.

The afternoon when I first went to Oak Park was a muggy weekday. So I went back with a camera a couple of days later, when the weather was cooler, and it was closer to rush hour. There were a few more pedestrians (more than in midtown Atlanta), but I had to wait ten minutes to take a picture that had a lot of people in it.

Oak Park, pedestrains downtown.

Rare moment of crowdedness, Lake Street, Oak Park.

A minute later, the sidewalk was empty again. Oak Park’s downtown—and Atlanta’s Midtown—definitely feel like places where the automobile comes first.

Again, as I argued in an earlier post, real walkability (as opposed to walk scores) appears to have something to do with the pedestrian-vehicle ratio. Where there are more cars than walkers, walkers do not feel very confident that they’re in a place where they belong, and they vanish. I think this may be factor in both Atlanta and Oak Park.

This is of course a phenomenon that should surprise no one. Most American places are inhabited chiefly by people who drive everywhere. This seems to be true even in a city like Oak Park that grew up as a fairly dense railroad suburb and whose downtown must once have been filled with pedestrians, and that theoretically encourages them. It’s even won an award from the National Complete Streets Coalition and is allowing new high-rise housing in and near downtown. Atlanta has supported the “complete streets” idea too. The catch is that this has not really succeeded in changing things very much. “Walkability” has to some degree become a real estate boast that, like many other real estate boasts, has only a loose relationship to reality. This is depressing. But it’s just the way it is.

Of course, it’s no doubt a sign of real progress that “walkability” has become something to boast about. I can’t imagine that that would have been true twenty or thirty years ago.

  1. These are described in some detail in a post on the Chicago urbanist Website.
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One Response to Walkable urbanism without many walkers

  1. Interesting observations. If you think Oak Park was busy when you were there, you should see it on a Sunday morning…

    Hate to sound cynical, but to some extent we probably have to realign our expectations to a modern era where cars-per-person in the US is about .8 to 1 (probably more like 1-to-1 if you just isolate the people to adults of driving age). I have a sneaking suspicion that even the greater walkers’ paradises like Manhattan, Cambridge, or Hoboken still have far thinner volumes of pedestrians than they did 40 (and certainly 80) years ago. Walking in the US is simply a recreational activity for most people–not a utilitarian experience or a necessity. People walk in Oak Park because it’s pleasant…but they only walk after they have driven to a space and then get out of their car.

    I recently learned that quite a few states have experienced a slight uptick in no-car households (https://qz.com/873704/no-car-households-are-becoming-more-common-in-the-us-after-decades-of-decline/). But I can’t help wonder if this article belies an urban chauvinism: maybe some households are indeed ditching their car because they enjoy more urban, transit-based lifestyles (and ride sharing), but in less urban states, the rise in car-free households these last few years may also correlate to the post-recession rise in poverty.

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