I see lots of people talking about “walkable cities”, praising them for their goodness and charm and how everything is a short stroll away from one’s residence or from a mass transit network that’s easily accessible from one’s residence. I like a good, walkable city, as well, but I’d hate to be snobbish about it.
First of all, the words – “walkable city”. That implies that, for those who walk without issues, this is a great place to be. For those with mobility issues, however, we may be casting our eyes about for ramps and sloped crossings and non-cobbled pedestrian zones. Now, I can navigate the curbs well enough with my disability, but those cobblestones are deliberately trying to give me a twisted ankle as I painfully navigate my way across them. And when it comes to stairs, I prefer lifts. Ramps will also do, but it’s a lot more walking on them, if they’re sloped correctly. If they’re too steep, then it’s something that forces me to use the stairs and the folks in wheelchairs have to have assistance to get up those too-steep things.
When we look at mass transit, we can often talk about switching modes as if we were just hopping on and hopping off of them. Most people are. Now, let’s ask the people who don’t hop with ease and ask them about intermodal switches. Where others hop, people in wheelchairs have to endure a slow ascent/descent procedure that makes them agonizingly aware that they’re the center of nearly everyone’s delay. For those who can walk with assistance, there are often steps to clear without handrails that give us great pause as we assess the best way to improvise an injury-free crossing. For all of us, once we get from one to the other, we have to re-engage a potentially hostile commuter who thinks we’re “not disabled enough” to surrender a seat clearly marked as one to surrender to anyone who asks. We still have a long road ahead of us with disability rights.
Then there’s the matter of the local climate. Weather is one thing – I can’t go bawling to the city council if I’m caught out in a surprise rainstorm without an umbrella, those things just happen. Climate, however, is what every day is like when we’re not having weather. Once the local climate crosses out of a temperature band that’s comfortable for most people to walk in, we begin to face miserable conditions. My hometown of Dallas, Texas is a prime example of misery for the 4-5 months of the year we call “summer”. Our late spring and early fall are hot enough for others to find uncomfortable, but our midyear heat coupled with humidity are so bad that other people with similar conditions somehow feel better if theirs are worse than ours – and we somehow feel vindicated if ours are the worse of the two being compared. It’s an odd thing we humans that endure extreme climates go through when what we should be doing is expressing concern and sympathy. But I digress.
In cities with temperate climates that don’t get all that hot or cold, most of the year is a walker’s dream and the praise of walkable cities flocks to their stately names. In cities where things get miserably hot, we build roads to handle the capsules of controlled climates that make daily activities possible. On the hottest days, people could actually become ill or die from exposure to the heat, and that’s the case even in a shady bus stop. The concrete will radiate heat ferociously, making conditions on the street even more miserable than the ones at the local weather station. A short walk to a bus stop with a short wait for the next bus becomes a calculation on whether or not one’s life is worth the trip.
In colder places, where they’ve got 4-5 months of harsh winter, it’s the inverse with temperatures, but the same concerns about one’s health after exposure. Once we get out of a temperate band, the walkable city vanishes and all those personal automobiles look like life-savers for getting around town. Accommodating them means the city itself grows and develops in ways that are less walkable and much more rollable.
Working from home and handling services online can go a long way towards getting rid of the daily commute and the need to be in person to handle certain things, but those don’t make a city any more or less walkable if the climate isn’t temperate or the mass transit isn’t truly accessible – or the destinations aren’t accessible, either. For a city to be truly walkable, it needs to stop being a heat island. But the very building materials that allow us to have more people closer to cool stuff like attractions and mass transit are also the building materials that trap that heat and make things much more miserable when the thermometers rise. And there’s the problem I don’t have an answer for. So, until then, I’m a champion of rollable cities.