Walk-a-what? What Walkability Means, and Why It’s So Important

You may have heard people talking about how walkable an area is (or isn’t) and how this impacts them. Then, you may have wondered what in the world they were talking about or what can even be done about it. Walkability encompasses a lot of aspects of the built environment, but essentially, it describes how friendly an area is for pedestrians – whether walking or using a mobility device.

With the current reality of COVID-19 necessitating that people stay close to home, more of us are exploring our neighborhoods outside of a vehicle, and the value of walkable communities is becoming more apparent than ever. The walkability of our neighborhoods influences whether we are able and willing to engage in physical activity and relates to our health outcomes.

What makes an area walkable?

At the most basic level, the walkability of an area is impacted by:

  • The presence and condition of sidewalks;
  • Easy transitions to the street level at crossings (known as curb cuts) – not too steep and not with large differences in height between surfaces – with detectable pavement markings and/or bumps to warn people with visual impairments; and
  • Safe, well-marked places to cross the street.
Broken Sidewalk and Tree
Good luck navigating around this tree while pushing a stroller or using a mobility device!
Curb without ramp to crosswalk
Lack of curb cut (i.e., ramp) to the intersection crossing, but at least there is a crosswalk.
Smooth Curb Cut to Crosswalk
Clearly marked and level transition to the crosswalk

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Your walking experience is also greatly affected by the feeling of safety you have when you’re walking. Is there a strip of vegetation, street trees spaced at regular intervals, or some other form of a barrier between you and the road (also known as a buffer)? Is there adequate lighting available for early morning or evening walks? I personally avoid walking alongside a busy street in my neighborhood where the narrow sidewalk is directly next to the road, unless my destination is only accessible off this road.

Narrow DeKalb Ave and Cars Approaching
A well-maintained sidewalk segment does not feel walkable when it is along a busy road without any buffer.

If you’re in a commercial area, walkability can be enhanced with occasional benches for you to stop and rest, ample space on the sidewalk to pass others, and inviting storefronts in buildings along the sidewalk. With the importance of social distancing for slowing the spread of COVID-19, wide sidewalks are even more inviting.

 

What can you do to improve walkability in your community?

The first step is to critically assess and document the area you’re concerned about. It’s a great idea to include people of other ages and abilities than you in order to gather a broader, inclusive perspective on the walkability of your community. Someone in their teens that does not use a mobility device might not recognize the challenges that someone in a wheelchair or pushing a stroller experiences on a bumpy sidewalk without a curb cut at the crosswalk.

You may want to scope out the walkability in your community on your own or in a small group first to get a feel for where it stands before inviting others to join you, but remember, in order to advocate for change, you’ll need to involve those that are responsible for making any needed improvements.

With that in mind, it is helpful to invite someone from whatever entity is responsible for the sidewalks in your area. This will depend on the location, but most likely will include someone from your city’s public works department, transportation department, and/or planning department. If you’re in a commercial area, there may be a business district organization to invite that also has a stake in the community’s success. Lastly, it’s always worthwhile to invite your elected official or other decisionmakers for your community.

To conduct an assessment, often called a “walk audit”, you can simply print or draw a map of your area and mark-up notes as you walk along the route, taking pictures of issues as well as good examples to help you remember later and to show others. There are also many useful and free walkability assessment tools available online that guide you through things to look out for, such as:

Once you have a good idea of what’s working well and where the walkability gaps are in your community, you can better articulate potential changes needed to improve the walking experience. Involving additional community members in your request to decisionmakers to improve the walkability of your neighborhood will amplify the message and help build support for improvements. The entity responsible for the sidewalks and other aspects of walkability will depend on the location, but don’t let this deter you from sharing what you’ve learned. For all types of locations, your elected official can serve as a good point of contact to ensure the appropriate entities are engaged.

I hope you enjoy your walk!

Boy and dog walking on tree-lined sidewalk

Arin Yost

Arin is a Lead for America fellow with the Aging & Independence Services Group working with the Live Beyond Expectations team to identify and address disparities in life expectancy throughout the Atlanta region. In their free time, Arin enjoys gardening, creating zines, and spoiling their pet tortoise, Michel.