Necessity truly is the mother of invention.
About 20 years ago, I found myself at a disadvantage with my engineering counterparts in the Florida Department of Transportation. I was reviewing plans for an intersection and I realized many of the elements that support people, not just cars, were being left out. As I spoke, the engineers’ eyes glazed over. I said, “My ideas aren’t coming across, so let’s take a walk!”
We drove to the intersection — because, ironically, there weren’t safe sidewalks for us to use. With engineering drawings spread on car hoods, I explained how the proposed design would not work for people using “active” modes of transportation. I suggested that to refine the design, it would be helpful to study what people were doing—or attempting to do—at the intersection.
- We saw a parent and child start to cross with the “WALK” signal, but then quickly return to the curb when the signal flashed, “DON’T WALK.”
- We saw vehicles cutting off pedestrians as they attempted to cross.
- With each crossing we successfully made, and with each observation, eyes were opened wider and wider: it was a series of ‘a-ha’ moments.
Thus was born the now-popular walking audit. Since that day, I’ve conducted thousands of walking audits in communities all over North America, and am happy to see that many of these places have turned their streets around and are seeing not only better public health, but better economic development and social health.
Why are walking audits so powerful?
- Well, they help participants see streets through a different lens, one focused on people.
- They also help community members understand that they have many shared values; almost all of us—whether we live in rural, suburban or urban places—want our communities to be safe, healthy, economically vibrant and socially connected.
- Getting people out on walks together helps them see those similarities.
- It also cuts through theoretical discussions and “aerial” planning, and focuses on what’s really happening on the ground.
I’ve seen many changes in thinking since I started leading walking audits. I’ve seen fire marshals who insisted they needed broad cul-de-sacs change their thoughts after a walking audit.
During a walk, all people become equal; issues are clearly identified; and reasonable, practical solutions are found.
It is easy to organize and conduct a walk. In fact, a non-expert can organize one to teach friends, neighbors, elected leaders and government staff where shortcomings exist and how people have been left behind and turn their roads into complete streets.
Numerous organizations, including the WALC Institute, AARP’s Create the Good, the Pedestrian and Bicycle Information Center, the National Center for Safe Routes to School, WalkScore.com and others provide walkability checklists and guidance.
Why not download some online resources and go out, take a walk and see for yourself how your streets are performing? Document what you find, and you can be part of making active living and active transportation a natural and safe activity again.
Dan Burden is the executive director of the Walkable and Livable Communities Institute.