There is a strong correlation between land use and the mode of transportation that it encourages. The contrary also is true: The transportation network that we provide also influences the type of development for that area. In other words, transportation and land use are like different sides of the same coin: They are inseparable, and it would be inadequate thinking to analyze either in isolation.

However we look at it, San Antonio is a suburban city that relies heavily on motor vehicles. But in the last decade or so, we have experienced an ever-increasing demand for livable places.

Livable places generally means a built environment where people can easily walk, mostly a mixed-use development where one can function without being dependent on a motor vehicle. There are many and rightful reasons for this demand. The major reason is that it is simply healthier to live in a place where one can walk safely.

In addition, this type of place creates a vibrant social environment that increases the chances of striking up a conversation with others who share the same space. Like walking, we need social interaction to lead a healthy life.

Finally, the occurrence of high-speed car crashes will be reduced or completely eliminated in these types of places. Overall, it is healthier and more sustainable to live in such places.

The advantages of livable places don’t end there. The return on investment is quite high for the public sector as well. When so many residential areas and businesses are located within a concentrated area, it generates much higher value (compared to motor vehicle-oriented suburbia) and tax base per acre for the local government. At the same time, it requires much less infrastructure to build and maintain. Other municipal services, like police and fire, will not cost extra since this type of development usually takes place in an infill area where these services already exist.

Walkable Urban Places

How can we define a walkable place? It should be a safe place to walk, there has to be sidewalks or any other type of hard surface to walk on, elements like trees or awnings to provide shade (since we are in south Texas), a degree of connectivity (meaning no cul-de-sacs or dead-end streets), and destinations within short distances. The space should be in human scale, the architecture and disposition of the structures should enable interactions between humans themselves, and there should be amenities like benches in a public right-of-way.

Finally, there must be people – many of them – living nearby (hence the high density residential use). Based on the climate, culture, and socio-economic factors of any given community where this walkable place is situated, each factor mentioned earlier will come to play in various degrees.

One other important aspect of creating a walkable place is the aspect of continuity. Walkable places are like healthy tissues – the blood will flow through as long as they are connected and continuous. In this case, pedestrians are the blood cells that provide life and health to the system. When we insert other forms of development that intervene into this healthy circulation, then we are working against healthy connectivity.

A good example is a compound surrounded by walls and fences that doesn’t allow pedestrian access. Even long blocks in an urban area with empty buildings or buildings that are designed for non-human interaction may have similar effects, even though there may be complete sidewalks on that block. People would not want to walk there.

Walkable places should be of sufficient size that they contain large numbers of people living there to sustain businesses, and to cater to the pedestrian-based market. In other words, building a small compound of truly mixed-use, pedestrian-oriented places will not mean much when we consider the rest of the entire city as being automobile-oriented.

Creating a walkable place is not about building a block or two of it; it should combine multiple neighborhoods with a concentration of various distinct uses. Some areas could be more residential in use with a touch of neighborhood-oriented commercial use, whereas other areas could be heavily office use mixed with entertainment use. But overall, the place should be quite walkable, well-connected, and if big enough, it could accommodate a transit system, too.

Creating a walkable place is not an easy task since it is a delicate act of balance of many different factors, and it depends on the successful mixture of many different moving parts. But when it is achieved, the returns in terms of health, economy, and sustainability are great as well.

Places for Motor Vehicles

Typical characteristics for automobile-oriented places are roads with smooth pavement, roads where drivers can go fast, and plenty of parking space at the destination so that drivers do not have to walk. Structures should be positioned to create space for motor vehicles and their parking needs.

An average parking space for a vehicle occupies 350 square feet. This is a lot of space that does not generate any revenue, but consumes a lot of resources. It makes a place quite undesirable to be at, let alone to walk through.

The Complexity of Coexistence

There isn’t one single, common factor between these completely different sets of attributes for walkable versus motor vehicle-oriented places. Therefore, places that are convenient or attractive for pedestrians are inconvenient for the motorists most of the time.

A typical example is where there are wide sidewalks, narrow lanes, intersections with traffic signals on short blocks, limited parking, and paid parking in a place like downtown. A place like this may be convenient for pedestrians, but it is definitely inconvenient for drivers. These two completely different types of places, with their distinct mode of transportations, do coexist in a place, but one type will easily dominate the other. If a community prioritizes one mode, the other one will remain on the back burner.

As a result, these two types of places and the mode of transportation that they encourage are completely incompatible. They exclude each other. In a basic sense, as the former Mayor of Bogotá, Colombia, Enrique Peñolasa stated, “A place can be pedestrian-friendly or it can be automobile-friendly, but it cannot be friendly to both.”

Therefore, we need to make a choice and prioritize one over another to be able to provide a high degree of convenience to the users at any given place. Since we already built entire cities for drivers, then we need to build pedestrian-oriented, walkable urban places for health, safety, sustainability, and welfare purposes.

What San Antonio Needs and a Challenge We Are Facing

San Antonio needs more walkable urban development for the merits of this type of development pattern mentioned above. Even though there is an increasing demand for urban living, residents who want to live in urban places still feel like they need cars, and developers seem willing to accommodate this tendency. The challenge we face is how to accommodate all those vehicles when we decide to create walkable places. It is simply impossible to have that many cars in a place and still call it a walkable urban place.

Note: Opinions here were influenced by many well-known urbanists like Nikos Salingaros, Andres Duany, Jeff Speck, Chuck Marohn, Howard Kunstler and other The Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU) supporters.

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John Osten

John Osten is an urban planner at a local government in the San Antonio area. He is a member of the American Planning Association (APA), American Institute of Certified Planners (AICP), and a strong supporter...