Brooklyn's Court Street is often bustling with pedestrian activity. / Photo: PPS

“Walking: It’s What You Do Once You’ve Parked Your Car…”

Or so lamented Traffic author Tom Vanderbilt, in his keynote address at last week’s Walking and the Life of the City Symposium, organized by the NYU Wagner School’s Rudin Center for Transportation Policy and Management. Vanderbilt set the morning’s theme by charting the history of walking from its criminalization with the first jaywalking laws in 1915, to its sharp fall from public favor in the 1970s following a spike in vehicle miles traveled (VMT), changes in land use (widened streets, trees removed between roads and sidewalks), and the popularization of our favorite modern conveniences, like drive-throughs and escalators.

“Walking is like sex” Vanderbilt postulated. “Everyone is doing it, but nobody knows how much.” Quipping that we haven’t yet had “the great Kinsey report of walking,” he proposed that much work needs to be done to define not just the quantitative indicators for walking, but also the qualitative indicators that can help us understand how to make truly complete streets. Together, the researchers’ presentations started to present a Kinsey-like breadth of information about the role that walking plays in contemporary culture. Full presentations will soon be available online here, and a publication of the day’s proceedings is in the offing. In the meantime, brief summaries of the presentations are coupled below with a big question raised by each researcher’s findings.

  • Pedestrian satisfaction is closely linked to motivation; vibrant walking streets like this one in Lisbon can encourage people to get out and enjoy traveling on two feet. / Photo: B G via Flickr

    McGill University’s Kevin Manaugh aims to fill the gap between behavioral psychology and the built environment. Arguing that there’s a difference between choosing to walk (the environmentalists), and having no choice but to walk (poorer populations), his research categorized types of walkers to understand who’s doing the walking and why they’re doing it. Manaugh’s research shows no relationship between the distance walked during a trip and the satisfaction experienced by the walker, illustrating how the enjoyment of walking relies heavily on one’s motivation. How can we motivate more people to start walking by choice?

  • Picking up where Manaugh left off, Dick Ettema, of Utrecht University, explored how well-being has been defined by academic researchers. He suggested that urban design could be improved through deeper research into the relationship between sensory experience and behavior change, noting that “Physical experience is much more important when walking [than other modes of travel].” Ettema’s research into understanding optimal arousal for pedestrians raises an interesting question for anyone interested in the idea of re-thinking Streets as Places: What are the qualitative indicators that can help us understand how to make out streets truly complete?
  • Columbia University’s David King looked at the relationship between transportation system funding and walkability, making a strong case for “person-oriented development” by highlighting key problem areas, such as fuel taxes driving transit investment decisions, wealthy areas enjoying the majority of bike and pedestrian investment, and a planning preference for increasing speed. With lawsuits against cities for decades of underinvestment in pedestrian infrastructure and non-ADA compliance becoming increasingly common, he asked “Are pedestrian environments something we should be engineering, the same way we engineer road environments?
  • The second panel of the day kicked off with the Rudin Center’s Andrew Mondschein, who discussed his research into how people cognitively map their streets and neighborhoods. Presenting different processes of spatial learning, he explained how we engage in ‘active learning’ when walking, noting that frequent pedestrians tend to have a better understanding of their streets and neighborhoods than transit riders. With this in mind, Mondschein raised the question: Might mobile apps, GPS, and other ICT platforms be chipping away at our ‘walking IQ’ by making us less reliant on our cognitive maps?
  • Sarah Kaufman, also of the Rudin Center, also presented research on the impact that digital technology is having on walking. “Right now,” Kauffman explained, “we know that physical & augmented reality are separate; in future, we will feel more transported and immersed by AR apps…especially in areas such as navigation, tourism and translation.” Kauffman’s primary question, regarding the future of this field, is worth repeating verbatim: “Are we aiming to augment reality, or substitute it?
  • Data on mid-block crossings is hard to come by, but important / Photo: Ian Muttoo via Flickr

    UC Berkeley’s Robert Schneider’s work aims to better quantify pedestrian activity by gathering more complete data. Explaining the need for different types of data that are currently lacking (middle-block crossings, trip generation, travel within activity centers and parking lots, and movement within multimodal trips key among them), his talk highlighted innovative forms of data collection which might make this process easier, such as video and GPS tracking using stationary cameras and smart phones. If we’re currently missing a great deal of data on shorter walking trips, how might collecting that data more efficiently change how we design for walking?


So what do you think? How can we get more people walking? Are digital apps the answer–or do they just raise even more troublesome questions? Is contemporary research on walking even asking the right questions, to begin with? Join the discussion commenting below!

Six Big Questions From the Walking and the Life of the City Symposium was last modified: June 21st, 2012 by Natalia Radywyl