Walkability Audit with Dan Burden
This weekend at the New Partners for Smart Growth Conference, NewPublicHealth attended a walkability audit of downtown San Diego with the inventor of the tool and "Johnny Appleseed of walkability," Dan Burden. In 2001, TIME magazine named Burden one of the world’s six most important civic innovators. He is currently a senior urban designer and executive director of the Walkable and Livable Communities Institute, and previously co-founded Walkable Communities, Inc., and the Bicycle Federation of America. Burden has worked in more than 3,000 communities and led more than 4,000 walking audits throughout North America.
Walking audits have been happening for about 25 years now, though they are a skill and a field now coming into their pinnacle—the first official course on walkability audits was taught recently in Tucson to a mix of health, planning and engineering professionals. “A very big part of the walkability audit is to start to break down the walls between disciplines. It really helps open people’s eyes. It’s been a very powerful tool.”
A walking audit is an assessment of the walkability or pedestrian access of the built environment in a community. Burden created this tool to help communities understand how their environment encourages or discourages its residents from walking.
“America became something different. We lost our focus. We stopped designing cities for people,” explained Burden.
Dan Burden began to run walking audits about 25 years ago during his tenure at the Florida Department of Transportation. He realized that the engineers never went out and walked the streets they’d designed. “As we went out, we realized more and more how wrong the designs were.”
In his presentation, Burden shows photos of places that make you want to stay inside your house (or get in a car) rather than walk anywhere—deteriorating or no sidewalks, dangerous intersections built for cars that leave scarcely enough time for a healthy person to cross, acres of asphalt littered with bottles and trash with no green space in sight, and unlit alleyways that seem built to shelter crime.
“Over 80 percent of Americans want to be able to seamlessly switch modes of transportation,” said Burden. “That’s not what we’re funding.” In fact, he said, less than 1 percent of federal transportation dollars go toward supporting walking and biking infrastructure, and even those scarce funds are under threat.
Burden typically takes anywhere from one to 100 people with him on his walkability audits (though he recommends a group of 30 for less seasoned walkability gurus), inviting city planners, elected leaders, citizens, advocates, police officers, persons with disabilities and public health officials—anyone with a vested interest in creating a better community.
Before he brings in the whole group, though, Burden tries whenever he can to take a first pass through a neighborhood on his own to connect with residents, kids and local retailers to get their take about what’s working and not working in the community. One six-year-old told him all she wanted to do was to walk to school and play with her friends, but she was afraid to be outside by herself. The goal of the walkability audit is to find out what steps the community needs to take to get it to be a place its residents can be proud of and happy to live in.
The components of a walkability audit get very nitty gritty: the exact width of the “walk-and-talk zone” of a sidewalk (ideally four feet, leaving another two to four feet on either side as a buffer and a place for sidewalk “furniture” such as benches, bus stops and street lamps), the number and width of lanes for cars, the average speed of cars and average traffic volume on each block, and more. But what’s most critical is not the sidewalks or traffic patterns—it’s how the land is used, how connected are the hubs of activity, and how much open space there is. While sidewalks are important, they’re useless if they don’t lead somewhere people want to go, said Burden.
While the walkability audit of San Diego at the Smart Growth conference was quite literally, at times, a walk in the park on a beautiful, sunny day, that’s not always typical. Burden’s longest audit spanned 16 miles on a day when the temperature peaked at 120 degrees. Another audit could only be conducted 10 minutes at a time because the temperature dipped below a frigid –54 degrees. Yet on the 16-mile, 120-degree day, a woman in a wheelchair stuck it out for the entire audit to help show her community the challenges she faced daily in navigating a city that simply was not built for her.
What makes a community work? Five key aspects, said Burden:
There’s both an art and a science to walkability. The science involves a set of measures and ratings, described in detail in the Environmental Protection Agency’s Walking Audit tool, co-designed by Burden (and admittedly still “in beta”—more will likely be added to the tool as it is continually tested and refined).
Though health is not the primary goal of a walking audit, it is a critical outcome of a walkable community.
>>Read more NewPublicHealth coverage from the New Partners for Smart Growth Conference.