COVID-19: The Recovery will Happen in Public Space

Virtual Walk Audits: The Good, the Bad & the Ugly

Ian Thomas
Oct 2, 2020
Oct 2, 2020

Ian Thomas is the State and Local Program Director at America Walks. During our recent online Walk/Bike/Places conference, he helped lead two interactive virtual walk audit sessions. In this article, he talks about how to lead a walk audit virtually, and shares the results of those sessions.

To paraphrase our friends at GirlTrek, “a Walk Audit is a radical act of advocacy” for the national walking movement.

We scout the route—noting safety concerns, conditions that make the walk unappealing, and ideas for improvement. We gather the group—taking care to include people of different ages and abilities, as well as a planner, engineer, or elected official. And we set out together—map, checklist, and pencil in hand, for the shared experience of discovery.

But what happens when public health orders require physical distancing or prohibit gatherings of people from multiple households?  What happens when Project for Public Spaces' Walk/Bike/Places conference changes its plans to bring hundreds of advocates together in Indianapolis, and moves its entire program to an online format? Well, that’s when it’s time for a Virtual Walk Audit!

Anatomy of a Virtual Walk Audit

There are a number of ways to use technology to do a Virtual Walk Audit. For example, Google Street View combined with videoconferencing enables online participants to study a specific street corridor, just as long as nothing has changed since the last time the Google car came through. Alternatively, a small number (1-3) of physically distanced on-site organizers can lead the Walk Audit and use Facebook Live to broadcast their observations to the online participants and facilitate an interactive experience. When the Walk/Bike/Places conference invited America Walks to design a Virtual Walk Audit, we elected to involve everyone in physical Walk Audits in their own neighborhoods all across the country and the world!

The event was organized as two early evening sessions, with a prize built in to encourage active participation. During the first session on August 4th, Danielle Arigoni with AARP Livable Communities presented her organization’s new and convenient Walk Audit Checklists, which were made available for download to the 100+ participants. I then introduced America Walks Board Member Karin Korb and past Walking College Fellows Faye Paige Edwards and Garrett Brumfield to describe their recent Walk Audits and display their photographs in three categories—The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly! Finally, we asked all the participants to lace up their walking shoes and head outside for their own Walk Audit, with instructions to take photos of examples of Good, Bad, and Ugly walkability and accessibility, and upload them to the conference app.

Author Ian Thomas comments on the finalists of the Ugly category during Walk/Bike/Places.

The second session, which was held the following evening, was billed as a happy hour and everyone was invited to gather online with their beverage of choice. To kick off the program, America Walks’ new Executive Director Mike McGinn, who was appointed in July, joined us to discuss his vision for increasing walking and expanding walkable communities across the USA, and how our organization plans to continue leading that effort. Mike is a long-time activist for livable, walkable neighborhoods. From 2009-2013, he was Mayor of Seattle, where he advocated and legislated successfully for walking, biking, and transit improvements and presented stiff opposition to the badly-conceived tunnel replacement to the Alaskan Way Viaduct.  

Then, with the excitement mounting, I welcomed back my fellow judges, Faye and Garrett, to present the results of the prize photo contest. A total of about thirty entries had been received and, earlier in the day, we had winnowed the list down to four finalists in each category. Selection of the winners was to be determined through a live, online poll of all the participants.

The Good

Faye went first and evaluated the finalists in the Good category. These consisted of photos of two artistic examples of tactical urbanism (one a curb extension and the other a crosswalk), a nice smooth sidewalk separated from the street with ten-foot median containing attractive shade trees, and a creative design for a boardwalk to provide safe, pedestrian, and wheelchair accommodations alongside a “trench and tunnel” highway.

A clock on the side of a roadDescription automatically generated
A (likely non-compliant) painted crosswalk in Spartanburg, SC. Photo by Sherry Dull.

The clear winner of the online poll was the jolly, painted crosswalk in Spartanburg, SC, photographed by Sherry Dull. A commenter noted in the Zoom chat box that this design is likely non-compliant with the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices, while another observed, “I love that everyone prefers the one that is illegal federally! Just goes to show how undemocratic traffic regulations are!”

The Bad

I reviewed the Bad finalists. The selection process had been quite difficult, given the impressive examples of efforts to make roads inaccessible, inhospitable, and unsafe for anyone not in a vehicle that Virtual Walk Audit participants had captured. The winning photograph, showing a vulnerable pedestrian trying to cross a yawning 6- or 7-lane highway, was actually taken from a vehicle.  

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A vulnerable pedestrian tries to cross a highway in Spartanburg, SC. Photo by Sherry Dull.

When it was discovered that Sherry Dull (winner of the Good category) had also taken this one, the prize was awarded to the second-placed photo in the online poll: a dilapidated ramp up to an overgrown sidewalk and lot in Memphis, TN, submitted by current Walking College Fellow, Marilyn Livesay

A sign on the side of a roadDescription automatically generated
A curb cut to nowhere in Memphis, TN. Photo by Marilyn Livesay.

Two other pictures of curb cuts—one located in a confusing location relative to a large intersection and the other containing a small garden as a result of poor storm water design—received “honorable mentions.”

The Ugly

A car parked on the side of a buildingDescription automatically generated
A wheels-to-steps accessibility nightmare in Brasilia, Brazil. Photo by Gabriela Tenorio.

The role of presenting the Ugly examples went to Garrett. Everyone marveled at an unmaintained sidewalk, a crossing in a construction site, and a chain link fence positioned to force sidewalk users into the highway in order to access the a shop with “Good Tacos”! But the undisputed winner was an extraordinary example of designing for able-bodied people in cars and no-one else, sent in from Brasilia, Brazil, by Gabriela Tenorio.

Congratulations to all three winners, who will receive free registration to next year’s Walk/Bike/Places conference in Indianapolis, Indiana!

Ian Thomas
Ian Thomas
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