“When we plan for walkability, we need to factor in behavior”: the case for continuous pavements

Little Green Street, Kentish Town, north London. Image: Getty.

An extract from a new book, Soft City: Building Density for Everyday Life.

Jan Gehl frequently reminds us that human beings are biologically designed to walk. Walkability is about accommodating walking, making it easy, efficient, and enjoyable.

Walking will always be a vital component of urban life. It is the most essential and basic form of mobility. Every journey, regardless of the mode of transport, begins and ends with walking. You walk to the carpark or the bicycle shed; you walk to the bus stop; you walk to the metro platform. Walking is what makes all of the connections to the city possible, what connects us to the places in closest proximity, and what has the potential to get us beyond our immediate surroundings.

The pace of walking allows for a rich, sensory experience, promoting social interaction as well as connections to the surrounding environment. Urban spaces can be designed to enhance these experiences, improving overall walkability. This means creating comfortable, attractive, and continuous walking surfaces, and spaces that make it safe, easy, and intuitive for diverse groups of pedestrians to move among the other forms of traffic sharing the same spaces.

Unlike other forms of transport, people can have total control when walking— spontaneously stopping and going at will. Walking is the form of transport that is most responsive to what is going on around us and offers the most opportunities for connection. The short walks to connect to other modes of transport are particularly important.

If you drive straight into an underground garage from the street and then take a lift up to your home or office, you are denied the opportunity to connect with place, people, and planet. Simply separating the place for storing cars from the home or workplace with a small walk, apart from having some obvious health benefits, opens up the possibility of connecting. It offers a chance to see what is happening on your street, to see other people, and to feel the weather on your skin.

Different kinds of people walk in different ways, with different stuff. Designing for walkability must take into account the diversity of people walking and their circumstances. Some are in a rush to get their bus, where every second counts.

Others are strolling and looking for excuses to stop. Some people are actively engaging in exercise while others, like the postal carrier, are at work. Some will be wearing sensible walking shoes, while others will be in high heels or rubber boots. These different people with their different needs and different paces share the same sidewalk.


In the same way, there is also a range of urban equipment that people may have with them, allowing them to do more and be more comfortable as they move about the urban environment. The prams and strollers, shopping trolleys, walking frames, wheeled suitcases, tote bags and shopping baskets, rucksacks, folding bicycles, headphones, mobile devices, water bottles, coffee cups, umbrellas and parasols all influence the way pedestrians move and use space. When we plan for walkability, we need to factor in this equipment and the accompanying behavior, and understand how it might help or hinder how people move and the space that they need.

In the hierarchy of urban streets, it makes sense to let the vehicle traffic flow uninterrupted along more-important streets, and have traffic stop and yield on more-minor or side streets. The same should be true for pedestrian traffic. Why should pedestrians on a main thoroughfare have to stop and wait at every single side street when the vehicles travelling in the same direction don’t have to? Pedestrian crossings sometimes force those walking to make detours, throwing them off their natural direction or desire line, to allow for a road geometry based on the turning circle of large vehicles. Pedestrians often far outnumber vehicles in an urban setting. Who should be prioritised when designing the street?

In Copenhagen and other cities, walking is prioritized by designing the sidewalk as a continuous surface, to stretch over side streets. This effectively transforms several smaller blocks of sidewalk into a single, long block. Turning cars have to carefully negotiate their way across the sidewalk, observing and respecting the pedestrians, and always yielding to them.

Redesigned side-street crossings that prioritise the pedestrian alter the balance of who has the right-of-way in traffic. People on foot are favored because motorists come as guests in the pedestrian realm. The crossings are a simple change, but make a huge difference for pedestrians in terms of level of access, comfort, and safety on the sidewalk.

The continuous sidewalk can eliminate frequent and annoying changes in level, which makes things easier for people using wheelchairs, prams, and strollers, wheeled luggage and shopping trolleys, scooters, and kick bikes. Overall, the continuous sidewalk creates a more comfortable, safe, and pleasurable experience for people walking. It is also faster since there is no time wasted waiting for traffic at side streets. The continuous sidewalk means that children can be more independent, exponentially expanding their everyday networks – walking to school, visiting friends, and performing errands are possible without adult supervision. Having this safer mobility option can open up a whole new world of freedom, learning, and experience for a child, and can give free time back to their parents.

Architect David Sim is partner and creative director at Gehl. Soft City is out now from Island Press.

 
 
 
 

Urgently needed: Timely, more detailed standardized data on US evictions

Graffiti asking for rent forgiveness is seen on a wall on La Brea Ave amid the Covid-19 pandemic in Los Angeles, California. (Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images)

Last week the Eviction Lab, a team of eviction and housing policy researchers at Princeton University, released a new dashboard that provides timely, city-level US eviction data for use in monitoring eviction spikes and other trends as Covid restrictions ease. 

In 2018, Eviction Lab released the first national database of evictions in the US. The nationwide data are granular, going down to the level of a few city blocks in some places, but lagged by several years, so their use is more geared toward understanding the scope of the problem across the US, rather than making timely decisions to help city residents now. 

Eviction Lab’s new Eviction Tracking System, however, provides weekly updates on evictions by city and compares them to baseline data from past years. The researchers hope that the timeliness of this new data will allow for quicker action in the event that the US begins to see a wave of evictions once Covid eviction moratoriums are phased out.

But, due to a lack of standardization in eviction filings across the US, the Eviction Tracking System is currently available for only 11 cities, leaving many more places facing a high risk of eviction spikes out of the loop.

Each city included in the Eviction Tracking System shows rolling weekly and monthly eviction filing counts. A percent change is calculated by comparing current eviction filings to baseline eviction filings for a quick look at whether a city might be experiencing an uptick.

Timely US eviction data for a handful of cities is now available from the Eviction Lab. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

The tracking system also provides a more detailed report on each city’s Covid eviction moratorium efforts and more granular geographic and demographic information on the city’s evictions.

Click to the above image to see a city-level eviction map, in this case for Pittsburgh. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

As part of their Covid Resource, the Eviction Lab together with Columbia Law School professor Emily Benfer also compiled a scorecard for each US state that ranks Covid-related tenant protection measures. A total of 15 of the 50 US states plus Washington DC received a score of zero because those states provided little if any protections.

CityMetric talked with Peter Hepburn, an assistant professor at Rutgers who just finished a two-year postdoc at the Eviction Lab, and Jeff Reichman, principal at the data science research firm January Advisors, about the struggles involved in collecting and analysing eviction data across the US.

Perhaps the most notable hurdle both researchers addressed is that there’s no standardized reporting of evictions across jurisdictions. Most evictions are reported to county-level governments, however what “reporting” means differs among and even within each county. 

In Texas, evictions go through the Justice of the Peace Courts. In Virginia they’re processed by General District Courts. Judges in Milwaukee are sealing more eviction case documents that come through their courtroom. In Austin, Pittsburgh and Richmond, eviction addresses aren’t available online but ZIP codes are. In Denver you have to pay about $7 to access a single eviction filing. In Alabama*, it’s $10 per eviction filing. 

Once the filings are acquired, the next barrier is normalizing them. While some jurisdictions share reporting systems, many have different fields and formats. Some are digital, but many are images of text or handwritten documents that require optical character recognition programs and natural language processors in order to translate them into data. That, or the filings would have to be processed by hand. 

“There's not enough interns in the world to do that work,” says Hepburn.


Aggregating data from all of these sources and normalizing them requires knowledge of the nuances in each jurisdiction. “It would be nice if, for every region, we were looking for the exact same things,” says Reichman. “Instead, depending on the vendor that they use, and depending on how the data is made available, it's a puzzle for each one.”

In December of 2019, US Senators Michael Bennet of Colorado and Rob Portman of Ohio introduced a bill that would set up state and local grants aimed at reducing low-income evictions. Included in the bill is a measure to enhance data collection. Hepburn is hopeful that the bill could one day mean an easier job for those trying to analyse eviction data.

That said, Hepburn and Reichman caution against the public release of granular eviction data. 

“In a lot of cases, what this gets used for is for tenant screening services,” says Hepburn. “There are companies that go and collect these data and make them available to landlords to try to check and see if their potential tenants have been previously evicted, or even just filed against for eviction, without any sort of judgement.”

According to research by Eviction Lab principal Matthew Desmond and Tracey Shollenberger, who is now vice president of science at Harvard’s Center for Policing Equity, residents who have been evicted or even just filed against for eviction often have a much harder time finding equal-quality housing in the future. That coupled with evidence that evictions affect minority populations at disproportionate rates can lead to widening racial and economic gaps in neighborhoods.

While opening up raw data on evictions to the public would not be the best option, making timely, granular data available to researchers and government officials can improve the system’s ability to respond to potential eviction crises.

Data on current and historical evictions can help city officials spot trends in who is getting evicted and who is doing the evicting. It can help inform new housing policy and reform old housing policies that may put more vulnerable citizens at undue risk.

Hepburn says that the Eviction Lab is currently working, in part with the ACLU, on research that shows the extent to which Black renters are disproportionately affected by the eviction crisis.

More broadly, says Hepburn, better data can help provide some oversight for a system which is largely unregulated.

“It's the Wild West, right? There's no right to representation. Defendants have no right to counsel. They're on their own here,” says Hepburn. “I mean, this is people losing their homes, and they're being processed in bulk very quickly by the system that has very little oversight, and that we know very little about.”

A 2018 report by the Philadelphia Mayor’s Taskforce on Eviction Prevention and Response found that of Philadelphia’s 22,500 eviction cases in 2016, tenants had legal representation in only 9% of them.

Included in Hepburn’s eviction data wishlist is an additional ask, something that is rarely included in any of the filings that the Eviction Lab and January Advisors have been poring over for years. He wants to know the relationship between money owed and monthly rent.

“At the individual level, if you were found to owe $1,500, was that on an apartment that's $1,500 a month? Or was it an apartment that's $500 a month? Because that makes a big difference in the story you're telling about the nature of the crisis, right? If you're letting somebody get three months behind that's different than evicting them immediately once they fall behind,” Hepburn says.

Now that the Eviction Tracking System has been out for a week, Hepburn says one of the next steps is to start reaching out to state and local governments to see if they can garner interest in the project. While he’s not ready to name any names just yet, he says that they’re already involved in talks with some interested parties.

*Correction: This story initially misidentified a jurisdiction that charges $10 to access an eviction filing. It is the state of Alabama, not the city of Atlanta. Also, at the time of publication, Peter Hepburn was an assistant professor at Rutgers, not an associate professor.

Alexandra Kanik is a data reporter at CityMetric.