Mot-clé : Proximity

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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A beneficial proximity

Diversity is made possible by having a variety of different activities (residential, commercial, institutional…) taking place in the same area. On the contrary, separating activities in distinct areas creates so-called monofunctional environments (bedroom communites, highway-accessible big boxes and shopping centers…). This separation of activities multiplies travel needs to the point where we sometimes have to burn a gallon of fuel to buy milk!

The American dream? A low-density (approximately 8 inuts/ha) monofunctional neighborhood in Georgia – Source: Flickr / Mark Strozier

A diversified city: city of short distances

Mixing activities within an area reduces travel distances for daily activities. This gives residents easy access to local businesses and services by foot or bike. Indeed, mix of uses and GHG emissions are directly connected: the more products and services a neighborhood is able to provide, the fewer the need for its inhabitants to use their car. Vehicule kilometers traveled (VKT) by residents of mixed-use neighborhoods is on average 45% lower than in monofunctional areas[1]. People are also more active in the former. When their home is located at a short walking distance of stores and other services, people are 2.4 times more likely to achieve the 30 minutes of recommended daily exercise than when distances make the use of car almost inevitable.

Cartier street in Quebec City – Source: Christian Petit

Mix of uses and economic well-being

A mixed-use street contributes to the economic vitality of the neighborhood, and indeed the entire city. Therefore, revitalizing the commercial fabric of a street is an efficient way to induce the same effect for the whole community. Moreover, since main streets often are also the oldest, they are built on a human scale and offer pedestrians an appealing architecture, provided they are well maintained and safe to walk instead of appearing neglected and blighted.

Complete and friendly living environments

The mix of uses contributes to creating living environments that are complete, appealing and appreciated. It also creates lively and socially active neighborhoods all day long, which tend to be safer and certainly friendlier.

Also essential to an area’s diversity are the parks, squares and other public spaces that, if well designed, foster social interactions and active transportation[2]. Inhabitants of mixed-use neighborhoods show higher levels of trust and community participation. And it works the other way around too: shops, stores and all manner of community events located near friendly public spaces directly benefit from having more people.

Notes

  1. [1] Sun et al., cited in Linda Bailey, Patricia L. Mokhtarian et Andrew Little, 2008. The Broader Connection Between Public Transportation, Energy Conservation and Greenhouse Gas Reduction. (PDF)
  2. [2] Institut national de santé publique du Québec. 2010. L’impact de l’environnement bâti sur l’activité physique, l’alimentation et le poids.

Useful readings

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