Personal reflections on urbanism, urban life and sustainable urban design in Wellington, New Zealand.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Walk this way

My last post on the Johnsonville Town Centre Plan seem to have generated a little bit of controversy, primarily involving an anonymous commenter with a familiar style. Just for the record: no, I'm not intimately familiar with J'ville and its environs, which is why I was asking for those with local knowledge to assist me with understanding why some seemingly handy blocks were omitted from the "intensification zone". It does sound like there are some access difficulties, though as this map (adapted from NZTopoOnline) shows, the overall gradient between there and the station seems relatively gentle by Wellington standards: only about 20m rise over a distance of 500m.

Johnsonville intensification zone with contoursThis all goes to show how complicated it is to define what a "walkable" distance is. The website Walk Score (via Lifehacker) allows you to search for an (American) address, then tells you how walkable that neighbourhood is by working out how far it is to the nearest shops, schools, parks and other amenities. Most of Manhattan scores near 100, while typical suburban and exurban locations are way below 50. It's a good concept, but the methods they use a far from perfect.

For a start, they use direct "as the crow flies" distances, thereby assuming that people could walk through the middle of rivers, buildings, railway tracks and motorways. This thereby ignores connectedness of the pedestrian network, which is a vital ingredient in a walkable neighbourhood. It also ignores terrain, which as the recent comment-storm has shown, is an important influence in a place like Wellington. The location and classification of the amenities they show is only as good as the data in the Google API, which is one reason why it won't work here yet: even though ZoomIn, for instance, has a database of many such amenities, it's not quite complete or organised enough to use for this purpose at the moment. Nevertheless, the Walk Score site gives a moderately useful indicator of mixed use and density, and is promoting a very important message.

Walk Score analysis for southern Las VegasI've been thinking about setting up some routing algorithms for walking distance in NZ, and while the basic concept should be simpler than for driving (there are no one-way streets or turn restrictions to worry about), it's much more complicated to come up with a truly realistic model. As well as distance, one would have to think about:
  • slope
  • waiting time at crossings (and we know how important that is!)
  • joining up the entrances and exits of parks and squares
  • opening hours of "quasi-public" shortcuts (e.g the lifts between Lambton Quay and the Terrace)
  • foot traffic (grr, slow walkers on Willis St at rush hour!)
That should give a pretty good estimate of the shortest time it would take someone to walk from A to B, and thus the number of Bs there are within a given number of minutes from A (if that makes any sense). But even that is only part of the story: sure, maybe you can walk from A to B in five minutes, but would you want to? A blank, featureless environment makes a given distance feel much longer (hello, Harbour Quays), and shelter can have a major impact too: I'll often choose a longer route to work via Lambton Quay than the shorter but bitterly exposed walk along Customhouse Quay. Safety (or at least the perception thereof) is another factor, especially at night when routes that are too dark and deserted (most parks) or too rowdy (Courtenay Place late on a Friday night) will be avoided by many.

To their credit, Walk Score recognises the limitations of their technique, and link to some good articles on the complexities of walkable communities, much of which will escape the analytical capabilities of even the most subtle GIS system. It takes more than a direct, flat path to make people want to walk somewhere for something other than the daily trudge to and from work, and the irregular shape of the intensification zone shows that the planners have been taking at least some of these into account. The plan seems to be aiming for all the right things to make central Johnsonville into a place where people would not only be able to walk to work or the station, but actually feel good doing so and feel like hanging around at the weekends too. They've got a long way to go, but it's the necessary first step.


At 8:18 AM, July 25, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Back to J'ville for a sec - sometimes the Council holds very good seminars on things like the J'ville Town Centre Plan. It would be worth getting in touch with the planners responsible for projects you're interested in, and asking to be invited.

At 8:35 AM, July 26, 2007, Anonymous a said...

Another great post Tom. What are the green dots on your map?

I do like the walkability of my part of J'Ville. Shops, library, pool, rugby club, train station, playgrounds for the kids, kindy, school, the odd (substandard) restaurant all within 10 mins.

But you're right about the view. I'm less inclined to take the scenic route, so I guess I should think twice before bitching about the ugly carpaks. They're pretty hard to avoid though.

I do find it hard to understand why anyone would buy a home which is walking distance from nowhere. To be so reliant on a car would scare me.

At 11:24 AM, July 26, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"I do find it hard to understand why anyone would buy a home which is walking distance from nowhere. To be so reliant on a car would scare me."

Most people don't have the freedom to buy a home based on being able to walk everywhere. Also, most towns in this country aren't designed for walkability. Wellington, thanks mainly to its restrictive geography, is a rarity.

At 11:58 AM, July 26, 2007, Anonymous a said...

I appreciate the cost of housing has gone to insanely unaffordable levels. However, looking at some of the mansions going up in the new subdivisions it seems people are sacrificing walkability for extended personal living space. It's not just a price thing.

As for other centres. If they're not designed for walkability, maybe they need to be redesigned. But then I guess it's cheaper and easier to accomodate increased population by simply converting more of the surrounding farmland.

At 12:22 PM, August 09, 2007, Blogger Glougs said...

A couple of extra comments for someone who lives in J'vile:
1) People generally choose to live in the northern suburbs because they can affordably live in suburbia, if they want to live intensive developments surely they would rather choose to live somewhere that is attractive (cf Eastbourne) or ammendable (cf thorndon). J'ville isn't the prettiest place and it's not close to town.
2) The place is a wind funnel, any urban design in Wellington should aim to construct buildings as wind break, having the main shopping street running north-south is stupid.
3) The problem is cars; and making it easier for people to drive will mean more cars. What about blocking off the motorway on ramp!
4) Johnsonville lacks community facilities... where in the plan is a sports centre (indoor netball, soccer etc). A cinema or other entertainment venues.
5) The plan seems another in the long line of consulting and promises with no real advance.. when are the trains going to be upgraded/ there's money but no action. Where are new buses?
6) For the buses... what about some bus lanes, wouldn't be hard to do...
7) For cyclists... haven't heard anything about improving routes?
8) Why is there parking on the main street / why is the road 50m wide?
9) Crossing the road at the bottom of Fraser Ave to get to the bus stop is a real gaunlet.

At 4:04 AM, December 13, 2007, Blogger Dasha said...

I believe that walk score is cool, but nowadays more and more people prefer to drive cars. Homes are often located in an area where some establishments are easier to get to by car than on foot. I've recently found a type of service on drivescore which is called Drive Score. It shows a map of what establishments are in your neighborhood and calculates a Drive Score based on the number of places within a convenient driving distance. It doesn’t mean that drive score is better than walk score – they are equal and both necessary in the modern world!


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