Metro Detroit: The walkability factor

University of Michigan professor and Brookings Institute fellow Chris Leinberger wrote an interesting op-ed in the New York Times, The Death of the Fringe Suburb.

The article reiterates much of Leinberger’s presentation given earlier this year at CCS in Detroit. In summary, there is “great pent-up demand for walkable, centrally located neighborhoods” rather than sprawling outer suburbs.

Given this demand, he calls for increased investment in cities and its surrounding, older suburbs.

The cities and inner-ring suburbs that will be the foundation of the recovery require significant investment at a time of government retrenchment. Bus and light-rail systems, bike lanes and pedestrian improvements — what traffic engineers dismissively call “alternative transportation” — are vital. So is the repair of infrastructure like roads and bridges. Places as diverse as Los Angeles, Phoenix, Salt Lake City, Dallas, Charlotte, Denver and Washington have recently voted to pay for “alternative transportation,” mindful of the dividends to be reaped. As Congress works to reauthorize highway and transit legislation, it must give metropolitan areas greater flexibility for financing transportation, rather than mandating that the vast bulk of the money can be used only for roads.

Lisa Rayle of Data Driven Detroit (D3) wrote this great companion piece that estimates Metro Detroit’s potential walkability based on street patterns. Basically, more dense American street grids promote walkability, while sprawling, cul-de-sac designs do not. It’s something we covered some time ago since street patterns also affect bike friendliness.

D3 analyzed block sizes in Metro Detroit to evaluate street patterns and therefore potential walkability — and created a map.

The map shows average block sizes in the Detroit region. Blue indicates a walkable street grid, or something close to it. Yellow indicates streets too far apart to be walkable. (Because this map is based on Census TIGER files, not street data, it is only an approximate estimate of block size.)

Block size is not all that matters. To be walkable, neighborhoods need destinations (schools, grocery stores, jobs) within walking distance. They need a certain density (usually at least 20-25 dwelling units per acre). They need to be safe, with good sidewalks, lighting, and protection from traffic. The above map does not include any of these factors. But the map does indicate, approximately, which areas have the underlying structure for walkability, upon which more convenient destinations and a better walking environment might be built.

Rayle’s last point is important. Block size determines potential walkability. Your destinations still need to be within walking distance. A quick review of the Michigan city walkability scores brings home the reality that we have much room for improvement.

And finally, it’s no surprise that this map aligns with what we wrote late last month about the varying bike-friendliness of Metro Detroit (Macomb, Oakland and Wayne counties.) Bike-friendliness and walkability are closely related.

UPDATE: Rayle also wrote this interesting look at how the street grid (and walkability) in Downtown Detroit has degraded over time.

Tags: , , , , , ,

One Response to “Metro Detroit: The walkability factor”

  1. Andrew Mutch Says:

    This was an issue that came to light working on the non-motorized transportation master plan in Novi. Ironically, many of the areas of the city with the highest density were developed before the city required sidewalks. Retrofitting the infrastructure for walking and biking in these areas is one of our biggest challenges. Even in those areas with sidewalks, much of that residential development is the classic suburban cul-de-sac style and making those areas more walkable is going to take a lot of work. As you noted, it’s a lot easier to make an area walkable when the basic infrastructure is already in place.

Leave a Reply