Accessible, fair and vibrant communities

An accessible city offers its inhabitants access to its different components and activities no matter what is their social position or how much they earn. Equity is the core aspect of accessibility. For over 50 years, cities have evolved around the concept of car mobility, mostly leaving the other transportation modes out of the equation – including walking, the natural way of moving around. Separation distances between land uses naturally leads the commuter to get into his car, and neighborhood and road network configurations even more so. In addition to the high costs it entails for individuals and society alike, such a system penalizes a significant proportion of the population. Wether by choice, because of physical limitations or old age, or for financial reasons, many people don’t have easy access to a car.

Human-centered planning and design

Accessibility for all can be achieved in cities by thinking their planning in terms of their main component, which is the human being, and its primary travel mode, which is walking. It thus naturally follows that measures fostering active transportation also have positive impacts on accessibility.

Here are some of the important aspects that need to be taken into account when considering the issue of accessibility in our cities:

  • Permeability, which shortens pedestrian routes;
  • Safety and perception of safety;
  • Equitable sharing of public space, including streets, between users;
  • Visual, olfactory and accoustic comfort for pedestrians;
  • Proximity to the various activities (housing, shops and services, recreation and parks).

When all these elements come together in a coherent fashion, the car no longer comes to mind as being indispensable. In such an environment, it becomes possible for a majority of the population to easily meet its daily needs locally by taking advantage of direct routes in safe environments where pedestrians comfortably share the street network with other users.

In the Vauban neighborhood in Germany, mix of uses and various choices for transportation are key elements of accessibility – Source: Vivre en Ville

Of course, the intended result here isn’t to force the entire population out of their car and on the sidewalks, but rather to ensure that as many people as possible have various transportation options, and that walking becomes a efficient way of moving around most of the time. Besides, such pedestrian-friendly environments are usually quite compatible with other alternatives to solo car driving, without causing major obstacles to car drivers. And these other alternatives are a crucial part of the plan: beyond a certain distance, say 1 to 2 km, walking becomes increasingly difficult, which hinders access to areas and activities of the community.

For longer trips, cycling and public transit take over

Biking and public transit are important vectors of accessibility for those greater distances that walking cannot address. The issue is both local (at street and neighborhood levels) and regional (at city or metropolitan levels). Indeed, a proper strategy lies with the implementation of relevant infrastructure which also displays pedestrian-friendly characteristics, among which are the following:

  • Well located and distributed mass transit stops and stations;
  • Bikeways;
  • Secure bike parking.

But in order to turn biking and public transit into credible transportation alternatives and thus increase the accessibility level of a community, the two travel modes must be part of a systematic planning strategy that goes beyond the neighborhood scale. It is thus important to provide a complete and coherent public transit and bikeways network that gives quick and easy travel options to as great a number of people as possible.

Laneways fit for active transportation in Vauban – Source: Vivre en Ville

It should also be noted that better accessibility leads to increased commercial activity and social interaction, while at the same time reducing GHG emissions thanks to fewer car trips.

Simply put, accessibility is key in understanding and addressing a number of problems – like those related with the issues of density, mix of uses, active and public transportation – with the efficiency of an integrated approach.

Useful readings

  • Claude Villeneuve, Yan Kestens, Rémy Barbonne, Jeanne Robin & Céline Bourel, 2006. “Exploring Alternatives to Sprawl in the Quebec Metropolitan Area”, In The International Faces of Urban Sprawl.
  • Gehl Architects (Web site)
  • Luca Bertolini, Frank le Clercq & L. Kapoen, 2005. “Sustainable Accessibility: A Conceptual Framework to Integrate Transport and Land Use Plan-making. Two Test-applications in the Netherlands and a Reflection on the Way Forward”. Transport Policy, vol. 12.
  • Victoria Transport Policy Institute, 2009. Transportation Affordability: Evaluation and Improvement Strategies. (PDF)

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