Making Northwest Arkansas walkable will bring benefits, require change, expert says

Posted: February 1, 2018 at 1:06 a.m.

FAYETTEVILLE -- Northwest Arkansas has a good start on making its city centers walkable and bikeable but must progress further and in new directions to become truly pedestrian-friendly, an urban planning expert said Wednesday evening.

American society has spent decades designing itself to make driving more convenient than other kinds of transportation, said Jeff Speck, a city planner and author who spoke to around 200 people at the Fayetteville Town Center. His talk was the second in a four-part series organized by the Northwest Arkansas Regional Planning Commission and Walton Family Foundation to explore ways to improve mobility in a growing region.

Jeff Speck

• Speck, who spoke to Northwest Arkansas leaders on the benefits and requirements of walkable cities, is the author of Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time and other books.

• He’s a city planner and urban designer who leads Massachusetts-based Speck & Associates.

Source: Northwest Arkansas Regional Planning Commission

Speck argued undoing the driver-centric trend can make people safer and healthier and communities more vibrant thanks to less pollution, isolation and other driving side effects.

"Walkable places are thriving places," he said. "The simple answer is the walk has to be as good as the drive."

Speck said doing so requires four ingredients: Making the walk safe, useful, comfortable and interesting. They depend on a mix of local government policy-making and private-sector development. Without all four, people won't walk or bike unless they have no other choice, he said.

Making the walk safe, for example, means slowing down vehicle traffic, shrinking city blocks and devoting more of a given downtown street to people-powered movement rather than engine-powered. Narrowing lanes by only a foot or two can trim traffic speeds and cut pedestrian deaths from accidents with no loss in traffic capacity, Speck said. The rate of those deaths in New York City is less than a fourth of the rate in Arkansas, for instance.

Changes such as these can be as simple as striping a street to have fewer lanes or a separate bike lane, Speck said. He also implored the crowed to resist widening streets and highways because they're congested. Congestion is one of the few incentives to avoid driving, he went on, and trying to build around it only draws in still more drivers.

Making the walk useful and comfortable and interesting, meanwhile, means encouraging a compact, diverse mix of land uses and building styles with city policies. Someone's home, job, shopping and recreation could all be within a few blocks of each other in an ideal downtown, Speck said, adding many real downtowns have too much parking and too little housing for that.

The area's governments and nonprofit groups for years have worked to improve walkability, extending and widening paths and tweaking development rules. Speck praised Springdale's downtown revitalization project on Emma Avenue, the Razorback Greenway and the dense, grid-like layout of the major cities' downtowns, which he called good bones.

A good transit system can connect those walkable areas, Speck added. The mobility series' first talk late last year focused on transit and how to design a well-used system.

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But he suggested improvement. Many four-lane roads could comfortably become three lanes with the leftover space given to walking and biking, he said, pointing to College Avenue near downtown Fayetteville as a good example. City leaders also should focus on improving walkability in one area and working outward instead of trying to sprinkle it here and there, Speck said.

His comments touched on a longstanding tension between some government officials and the Arkansas Department of Transportation. College Avenue and other major Northwest Arkansas thoroughfares double as state highways, meaning the department has a say in any alterations to them.

Fayetteville planners and City Council members have proposed shrinking College's lanes or making other changes that the Transportation Department vetoed. A department spokesman at the time said the department takes local input into account but is focused on moving vehicle traffic as quickly and safely as possible.

Fayetteville Mayor Lioneld Jordan said he uses one of Speck's books on urban planning as a reference for his decisions and stands by the push for walkability.

"We've got to plan for the future right now," he told the crowd before Speck spoke. "The decisions we make today will affect our children and our children's children."

Fayetteville resident and self-described trail enthusiast Harriet Jansma attended the talk and said she's seen the difference a little more walkability can make. A while back there was no sidewalk on East Dickson Street, meaning she and others had to walk in the street to get to West Dickson or the public library before it moved. Recent years have seen sidewalks added all around her home on Mount Sequoyah.

"It dawned on everybody, 'Hey, we can walk to town,'" Jansma said.

Jansma's friend, Annee Littell, pointed to the importance of good lighting and housing that's affordable to lower incomes even in desirable, walkable areas. Several recent urban apartment projects in the region have monthly rents of $1,000 or more.

"Average people can't live in those," Littell said. "That's a problem."

NW News on 02/01/2018