Walking Blind

In March this year, a Globe and Mail article about walkability told the woeful tale of a property owner on the Swansea side of Bloor West Village bemoaning his score of 39 (out of 100, where the higher the score, the more walkable the neighbourhood in which the score is based. Like him, I was surprised as his property is two (admittedly longer) blocks south of  BWV proper.

Being curious, I checked out ours: 78. Phew. We are  further from BWV, but close to Annette Village, a more modest but functioning business area. It is typical post-WWII residential subdivision with a variety of mid-century building styles.

post-WWII residential streetscape

Then being even more curious, as new employee at the City of Mississauga, I wanted to see what the score was for my workplace, a mid-sized office tower surrounded by surface parking, accessed via a seven-lane road with wide boulevards and populated by similar office buildings, high-rise apartments with no retail storefront as such, concrete/asphalt surfaces largely as far as the eye can see (201 is the building on the right). How low could it be, I chortled: 15? 9?

City Centre

Guess again: 93. 93?

So, an examination of what these walk scores do and do not consider. They do consider proximity to restaurants, groceries, retail, errands, parks, schools and culture/entertainment. There is also a transit score, that that isn't part of the walk score.

The "City Centre" area (not a downtown, though it encompasses City Hall) did not evolve to a high-density area from an early settlement or small-town downtown. In the 1970's, this was farmland: when it was chosen as the local seat of government and centre of high-density development consummated using contemporary planning models. It likely has a high walk-index because of it's proximity to the Living Arts Centre, Central Library, City Hall, some schools, and restaurants on the main floors of office towers, like mine. A major factor is probably the location of
Square One, a large indoor mall seen below. 

Square One Mall

Leaving aside the planning behind this configuration, to me there are other measures of 'walkability' that the walk index misses. Large (seven lane) arterial roads are not friendly to pedestrians wanting to get to the other side, particularly when formal pedestrian crossings, of 30 metre rights-of-way are located only at only traffic lights,  separated by 250-500 metre intervals. While the residential towers do have some commercial amenities, they are typically professional services, like dentists or pharmacies, or the occasional micro-grocery store. The streetscape is typified by very wide setbacks, with the separation of buildings further emphasized by the expanses of surface (and some modest two- or three-level parking garages, above and below ground).

Walkability is also a factor of 'accommodation': as in, is there a walking amenity? While there are sidewalks along rights-of-way, the rights-of-way are roadways, designed for cars and trucks, not pedestrian travel. The shortest distance between, say, a bus stop or office building and Square One is not the road, but typically through a parking lot, where walkways are not provided: they are designed for cars parked, parking, or decamping, and are more hazardous to pedestrians than roadways. As private property, where the Highway Traffic Act does not apply (which drivers realize, and so are more inclined to use mobile devices as they drive through them), it is fraught. Another factor is the environment itself: large, dark asphalt surfaces being heat sinks, making those summer days hotter: fine for people in the AC comfort of their cars, less so for the residents and office workers humping it through the parking areas to get to the mall, bank, pool, or library.  As for winter, ploughing windrows oriented for parking of cars are not sympathetic to pedestrians, either.

The above observations are relatively, well, pedestrian, related to functionality of space and motion, where the focus of design on cars has placed a higher cost on pedestrians. At another level there is some form of functionality where walking along a high-speed (if not legal, then easily attainable and fairly common) arterial roadway, populated by deeply setback towers separated by large areas of surface parking, does not serve any  function other than getting from A to B. Distraction by low to zero setback residential or commercial buildings (or even mixed use), which can allow for nipping in and out of units at minimal  expense of time or effort, and where crossing a 15 m Right-of-Way for a distraction on the other side is not a serious time/effort or risk to one's safety, provides for a more interactive and even entertaining or enjoyable trip from A to B. Yet further, the proximity and scale (let alone style) of building fabric also contribute to the walking aesthetic.

So, the walk-score is in sore need of improvement. It wouldn't be hard to incorporate additional data (hello Google) like width of right-of-way, intersection/cross-walk intervals, zoning setbacks for buildings and existing setbacks, along with surface parking metrics and measures of walking amenities to provide a more functional measure of walkability for people, and not simply proximity to destinations.

Remember, walkability is absolutely not about the destination, but about the experience of getting there. Otherwise, you might as well just drive.

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Joseph Muller
Phone: 416-766-6704, mobile 647-761-2863
37 Saint Marks Road, Toronto, ON M6S 2H5
last modified 2018-07-08