Photo Credit: Car Free Day 2017
Nature has made Vancouver a paradise for outdoor enthusiasts. Especially in summer, I like walking along the English Bay during the blue hour, just to indulge in the enchanted beauty of clear blue sea around gorgeous architectures and ferries, with salubrious breezes, ample green spaces, and stunning mountain views. Not many metropolises in the world offer such a combination of landscapes to enjoy.
But it requires more than nature to become a pedestrian-friendly, and therefore a more liveable city.
The Car Free Day which occurred last week demonstrated a great ambition of all Vancouverites to promote a car-free lifestyle and active transportation. I think it is a sign of optimism as it shows a strong aspiration of the people and the acknowledgment of the importance of walkability towards a zero-waste society. So here I would like to explore a little bit of what we should do in the next step, in order to achieve improved walkability.
So why does walkability matter anyway?
We have to admit, most Canadian and North American cities are historically designed for cars, not people. This is especially true when comparing us to our European counterparts such as Amsterdam and Copenhagen to name a couple. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, each additional hour spent in a car per day was associated with a 6% increase in the odds of being obese. A significant number of Canadians has fallen victim to health diseases such as high cholesterol as a result of the reluctance of doing exercise and the over-reliance on automobiles. We, therefore, face a crucial problem; if we expect our city to be sufficiently lively and vibrant, then we must expect a situation which has a certain degree of verve in it.
Misconception: Closer to Destination = More Walkable?
Not very long ago, a Seattle-based company, Walk Score, released a report called “Walkability Index” which surveyed and ranked all major cities across the U.S., Canada, and Australia in terms of walkability, livability, quality of place and so forth. According to the Index, Vancouver was placed as the most walkable city in Canada and the 6th amongst selected cities (you can click here to learn more about the result).
Debating the validity of this ranking is could take forever. But what really drew my attention are the criteria being used in the survey. What they used to bear testimony to the index was essentially a measure of the density of destinations within a specific walking distance. It shows a common misconception amongst many city-dwellers. For example, a city that contains communities in which people can reach supermarkets, restaurants, clinics, and schools within a walking distance will be assigned a higher walkability score. What is missing? Well, it's a question of defining 'walkability'. If you ask me, “Is distance necessary for defining walkability?” Absolutely. But I would add that the quality of sidewalks, lighting, security, as well as the aesthetic and spiritual side of a city, should also be taken into account.
Features that a Pedestrian-Friendly City Should have:
- Density of public transit: There is really no need to peremptorily cut the use of cars by force. In a walkable neighbourhood where residents can have effective access to destinations by public transport, people would make a choice against driving.
- Sense of safety: Will you be comfortable walking on a dark and isolative street where you feel unsafe from other passersby's and cars? Without feeling safe, walkability becomes a nonsensical proposition.
- Aesthetics: I like to call it an “incentive” for people to walk instead of driving or staying indoors. Imagine you are walking in a neighbourhood consisting of beautiful city landscapes and design. By looking at what is happening around us with eyes and curiosity, we gain a more active lifestyle and maintain the vibrancy of our spirit. It is the softer side of us. If all we have is infrastructure without a sense of being part of the community, then something is missing.