When it comes to transportation, urban planners have different definitions of the 15-minute city or neighborhood. But most agree, pedestrians are the priority.
“The definition I’ve always worked with is, a neighborhood where all residents are within a short walk of school, transit, access to fresh food, parks and other necessities,” said Beth Osborne, vice president of transportation for Smart Growth America.
“Two things are fundamental,” Osborne said. “The things you need are put close to you. And you won’t die on the way to it.” Osborne spearheads an annual program called “Dangerous by Design,” with a list of 10 U.S. cities that have had the most pedestrian deaths in the past year. She’s well aware of the potential hazards of neighborhoods that are not designed with pedestrian safety in mind.
Amanda Leahy, president of the Association of Pedestrian and Bicycle Professionals and associate planner for Kittelson and Associates, is based on the west coast and has a slightly different view of the 15-minute neighborhood. It should have walkable places and offer a mix of uses that allow people to reduce their transportation footprint, Leahy said. To that end, she includes transit.
Andres Duany, a founder of New Urbanism and founding partner of DPZ CoDesign, Miami, called the 15-minute city a “slippery ideal” in a recent piece in UrbanProjectization.com. Although transit is an important transportation option in a sustainable city, Duany noted that including it as a way to reach a destination in 15 minutes depends on the time needed to travel to the transit stop, wait for pickup, travel on the bus or other mode, and walk to the destination on the other end. There are too many unknowns that affect reliable timing.
Car as an Option
Most planners agree that residents’ ability to access their daily needs in 15 minutes does not include driving a car to get to them.
“We want to design a place where you would like a car as an option,” Duany told “On Common Ground.” “We want your car to be an instrument of liberation, that’s elegant and comfortable and that gets you out into the country. You don’t want it to become a kind of wheelchair, just used for daily needs.”
As a planner, “you have to have a positive attitude toward the car,” said Duany. “Otherwise, you just sound like a Martian.”
Driving is also entwined with economic equity. Cities like Minneapolis are trying to make it easier for those without a car to get around by making other options, especially walking and bicycling, more available. But, Duany said, “as people arrive in [higher] social strata, people who haven’t had a car want a car.”
Racial equity comes into it, too. Toronto-based urban designer Jay Pitter, speaking at the recent CityLab 2021 conference, said that marginalized communities often resist beneficial concepts like walkability and bike lanes because those changes have often brought gentrification.
Americans’ attachment to the car is not simply a matter of culture or convenience. The federal government created current land-use regulations in 1924 to accommodate highways, said Osborne of Smart Growth America.
“I blame misapplied rules,” she said. “Rules that were applied for a highway setting are now applied as one size fits all. Engineers are given the specs.
“Walkable communities are not built anymore,” said Osborne. “They’re illegal according to most land-use codes. But demand has skyrocketed.”
The NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF REALTORS® 2020 Community & Transportation Preference Survey found that approximately 50 percent of respondents would forgo a single-family home and live in an attached dwelling (townhouse, condo, apartment) if it meant that they could walk to most of their daily needs.
Still, some cities are planning for 15-minute neighborhoods with a variety of transportation options. There are many benefits when a city makes it easier to walk, bicycle, or use a wheelchair or newer modes like e-scooters. It’s good for residents’ health and the environment. Those without a car might find it easier to meet their basic needs. And with fewer traffic jams and associated noxious fumes, the quality of life improves.
Walkability for Older Residents
Can transportation for the elderly be accommodated in a 15-minute neighborhood?
“Most [older] people can walk longer than they can drive,” said Duany, who designed a neighborhood in Atlanta for the AARP. “They don’t want to walk long distances. They want to sit down and rest along the way.” More benches and shade may be needed.
There are many benefits when a city makes it easier to walk, bicycle, or use a wheelchair.
“People are not going to walk more than a quarter-mile,” he said. “They will walk to their neighborhood medical center. It’s much easier than driving.”
The medical center should not be the only place within walking distance for seniors, Duany said.
“What’s underestimated is the need to have fun,” he said. “People will walk for fun to bands, dances, restaurants. They’re not going to walk to the grocery store to carry milk home.”
Here are three cities of varying sizes that are incorporating 15-minute neighborhood transportation into their planning.
Minneapolis: Aims to Cut Driving by 37 Percent in 10 Years
Minneapolis created a 10-year Transportation Action Plan in December 2020, based on city values. “Our streets will be designed to address a climate emergency by emphasizing low- or no-carbon travel,” the report states. Other priorities are addressing racial inequities and adding protection for people walking and bicycling.
“We’re trying to open up options so people aren’t forced to do one thing,” said Kathleen Mayell, transportation planning manager for the Minneapolis Department of Public Works. The order of priority in the plan is walking, bicycling and transit.
But “we’re still planning for people driving,” said Mayell. The plan envisions that solo car trips will drop from 40 percent of all travel in 2019 to 20 percent in 2030. Three of every five trips will be taken by walking, biking or transit.
The goal is to cut driving by 37 percent by 2040 to meet the city’s Climate Action Plan. That means the average resident would have to drive just four miles less a day.
With mass transit, the goal is to connect people over greater distances than they can cover by biking or walking.
“We’re working on mobility hubs,” Mayell said. “They will bring together a lot of different modes of transportation — scooters, bicycles, carshare. This plan is aligned with the 15-minute city.”
Mobility hubs will bring together a lot of different modes of transportation — scooters, bicycles, carshare.
The city’s goal is to increase transit coverage so that by 2030, three-quarters of residents live within a quarter-mile of high-frequency transit corridors, and 90 percent live within a half mile.
How has the pandemic affected the city’s transportation plan?
“It reinforces a lot of the work and the planning,” said Mayell, “having these safe, comfortable ways to get around, having transit networks that work well. It’s a good alternative to driving, as people are vaccinated.
“We’re converting our street space to more biking and walking areas,” she said. “We worked with the park board to provide space for people to be outside more comfortably.”
Part of the transportation plan is an all-ages-and-abilities bicycle network, protected bikeways separated from fast moving traffic.
The transportation plan is also based on Vision Zero, a national program adopted by the city, with the aim of zero pedestrian deaths. In Minneapolis, planners are focused on sidewalks, the safety and comfort of walking, and pedestrians’ ability to safely cross the street. In November, the speed limit was lowered on all city-owned streets. Residential streets are 20 mph, busier ones 25 mph, and a few are 30 mph.
Portland, Oregon: Neighborhood Greenways, Slow Streets
Instead of the 15-minute neighborhood, Portland planners use the term “complete neighborhood.” Complete neighborhoods emphasize pedestrians, bicyclists and transit as the best ways to access parks, healthy food, commercial services and schools. The goal of the Portland Plan, adopted in 2012, is that by 2035, 80 percent of Portlanders will live in a complete neighborhood, up from 63 percent in 2019.
To make walking, bicycling and rolling safer, the city has developed a network of neighborhood greenways. (Rolling refers to people in wheelchairs or using micromobility options such as skateboards and e-scooters.) Greenways have little car traffic, and the speed limit is low, often 20 mph. They are the backbone of Portland’s Safe Routes to School network and aim to connect neighborhoods, parks, schools and business districts. The city has more than 100 miles of neighborhood greenways, and more are planned.
The city’s 2020 status report on neighborhood greenways explains the problem starkly: “Portland is growing but our roadway space is not. If we don’t provide better travel options, we’ll have an additional 110,000 cars on the streets by 2035, a 54 percent increase.”
Complete neighborhoods emphasize pedestrians, bicyclists and transit as the best ways to access parks, healthy food, commercial services and schools.
To allow more space for physical distancing during the pandemic, Portland created the Slow Street initiative. On neighborhood greenways, “temporary signs and traffic control devices limit auto traffic to local trips and emergency vehicle access only,” the report says. Traffic control devices include speed bumps, median islands for pedestrians to use when crossing bigger roads, and signs diverting cut-through traffic to main thoroughfares. The Portland Bureau of Transportation recommends continuing a seasonal Slow Streets program limiting cars to local access once the pandemic winds down.
Many cities have adopted Slow Streets, including New Orleans, San Francisco and Washington, D.C.
Neptune Beach, Florida: Complete Streets Policy Stresses Safety
Fred Jones is senior project manager at Michael Baker International, a proponent of walkable cities and vice mayor of Neptune Beach, Fla., a suburb of Jacksonville. He was not happy to see Jacksonville sixth on Smart Growth America’s “Dangerous by Design 2019” list of America’s 10 most dangerous cities for pedestrians.
Jones is well aware that Florida metro areas claim seven of the top 10 spots on the 2021 “Dangerous by Design 2021” list. Jacksonville, at least, has gone from sixth to tenth.
“Once air conditioning became prevalent in Florida, it was all high-speed, high-capacity thoroughfares through communities,” Jones said. “Most issues are around arterial roadways designed for faster traffic. You mix that with walking, it’s a dangerous scenario.”
Neptune Beach passed a Complete Streets policy two years ago. Smart Growth America has identified the elements of a Complete Streets policy designed to “ensure streets are safe for people of all ages and abilities, balance the needs of different [transportation] modes, and support local land uses, economies, cultures and natural environments.”
Even though Neptune Beach is a suburb of one of the most dangerous cities in North America for walking and biking, said Jones, “it also embodies active transportation — walking, biking to the beach.
Neptune Beach embodies active transportation — walking, biking to the beach.
“So, it makes sense to pass a resolution to make sure when we approach infrastructure design, we look at it from the standpoint of safety, mobility and complete streets. It provides accessibility to destinations.”
Emphasizing the safety aspect helped Jones sell the plan to the city council, which was mainly concerned that it would obligate the city to set aside funding for complete streets projects.
“It’s not going to change our budget,” Jones said, “just how we do projects.”
Neptune Beach now has planned several projects for greenways, walking and biking trails, and pedestrian-friendly street design. Especially significant was its decision to resurface A1A, a major road, and add a flashing overhead sign that tells cars pedestrians are crossing.
The city also built a greenway on 3rd Street, through the center of town. It is part of the East Coast Greenway that runs the length of the East Coast. Listings on Realtor.com and Zillow now add “access to East Coast Greenway” as a selling point for a home.
The greenway also makes it easier for residents to walk or bike to the beach or to other daily needs.
“The great thing about the 15-minute city is, it recognizes we used to have this five-minute walk shed, with everything built around the scale of a single neighborhood,” said Jones. Newer mobility options such as e-scooters or e-bikes expand the options for ways to get around the city without driving. After all, the city is just two square miles.
After the Pandemic
Before COVID-19, commuting accounted for 20 to 25 percent of all trips, said Osborne of Smart Growth America. With more people working at home, the proportion of commuting trips is much lower.
“Nonwork trips are much shorter,” Osborne said. “That’s the beginning of the 15-minute city. If we started caring about the nonwork trip — which is more likely to be taken by a woman — how could we remove barriers, so she could walk to pick up her kids from school and pick up groceries on the way home? It could be something as simple as a wider sidewalk.”
After a year, “the pandemic has changed the way we interact with our neighborhood,” said Osborne. “Cities have been forced to experiment. Restaurants have decided to take away parking, offer more outdoor seating and more space to pick up carryout. There’s more space for people to be able to walk.”
That part, at least, might be a good result of a very difficult year.