Creating Walkable Cities through Transit-Oriented Development

As older American cities like Philadelphia continue to grow and evolve, the need for well-planned, pedestrian-friendly environments becomes all the more important. In this post, we will underscore the importance of walkable cities as a means to address environmental, social, and economic challenges. We will also explore the role of Transit-Oriented Development (TOD) in fostering walkability, sustainability, and human health through efficient public transportation systems focused around communal green spaces. Together, these elements form the bedrock of more livable, eco-conscious urban spaces. Read on to learn more.

Understanding Walkability in Urban Development

walkable cities
  • Walkability in the context of urban planning refers to the ease and convenience of walking within a city. A walkable city is characterized by pedestrian-friendly infrastructure, well-designed sidewalks, clearly marked crosswalks, and easy access to destinations such as shops, schools, parks, and public transportation.

    The benefits of walkable cities are manifold. They include reduced traffic congestion, decreased air pollution, boosted public health due to more physical activity, and stronger local economies as walkable areas tend to attract more businesses and visitors. Moreover, walkability fosters a sense of community by promoting social interactions and a higher quality of life for residents.

Key Components of Walkable Cities

Walkable cities share several key components that contribute to their success. Accessibility is paramount, with well-connected streets and pathways that allow people to reach their destinations efficiently. Safety is another critical factor, ensuring that pedestrians can traverse streets without fear of accidents.

Adequate lighting, visible crosswalks, and traffic calming measures enhance safety. Comfort plays a role as well, with amenities like benches, shade trees, and public art making walking a more enjoyable experience. Furthermore, mixed land use, where residential, commercial, and recreational spaces are interwoven, encourages walking by reducing the need for long commutes. Walkable cities also prioritize sustainable transportation options such as biking and public transit to complement walking.

Successful Walkable Cities Around the World

Several cities around the world have embraced the concept of walkability and have become models for sustainable urban development. Copenhagen, Denmark, consistently ranks among the top walkable cities, with a comprehensive network of pedestrian-friendly streets, dedicated bike lanes, and an emphasis on green spaces. Curitiba, Brazil, is celebrated for its bus rapid transit system integrated with pedestrian-friendly planning, while Bogotá, Colombia, has pioneered car-free Sundays to promote walking and cycling.

Closer to home, Portland, Oregon, is celebrated for its pedestrian-oriented neighborhoods, robust public transportation, and efforts to create accessible and enjoyable streetscapes. San Francisco’s compact neighborhoods, historic streets, and iconic landmarks like the Golden Gate Bridge make it a walkable city. The city also has cable cars and a well-connected public transit system.

Philadelphia’s Quest to Become a More Walkable City

Philadelphia is one of the countries most walkable cities

Philadelphia is a city that combines elements of both transit-oriented development (TOD) and walkability. While it may not be as extensively walkable as some other cities like Portland or San Francisco, it still has several neighborhoods and areas that are pedestrian-friendly.

Philadelphia’s city center, including areas like Center City, Old City, and Rittenhouse Square, is known for its walkability. These neighborhoods feature pedestrian-friendly streets, a mix of residential and commercial developments, and numerous amenities within walking distance.

Philadelphia has taken a number of steps to optimize pedestrian infrastructure, including the creation of pedestrian plazas, bike lanes, and streetscaping projects to enhance the walking experience. Philadelphia also has several parks and green spaces, such as Fairmount Park and Schuylkill River Trail, which provide opportunities for recreational walking and outdoor activities.

Benefits of Living and Working in a Walkable City

The following studies and reviews collectively affirm the multifaceted benefits of walkable cities and transit-oriented design, spanning physical and mental health improvements, enhanced social interactions, and contributions to sustainability. They identify and underscore walkability as a key factor in urban planning and design that can significantly impact public health, social well-being, and environmental sustainability.

Physical and Mental Health Benefits

Walking is a low-impact, accessible form of physical activity beneficial for people across all age groups, including those in rehabilitation from illness or injury. Doctors and physical therapists often recommend walking for individuals suffering from conditions like osteoporosis, cardiovascular diseases, chronic musculoskeletal pain, and is even beneficial for cancer patients to improve sleep. 

According to this 2021 study published in Frontiers in Built Environment, there is a notable negative correlation between walking and depression symptoms, particularly in older adults. This activity fosters a sense of control, maintains social skills, and enhances overall quality of life due to its simplicity and accessibility for daily activities​​. The academic review referenced above identifies walkability as a “Core urban feature designed to link and improve upon three basic needs, 1—the health of residents, 2—livability and quality of life for members of the community, and 3—long-term sustainability.”

Health Impact Assessments (HIA)

A systematic review of HIA related to walkability in urban environments included studies that evaluated the real or projected health impacts of policies, programs, or projects aiming to enhance walkability. The review process was thorough, with screening at multiple levels to ensure the inclusion of relevant studies. The findings from these assessments showed benefits in reducing mortality and non-communicable diseases, indicating the positive impact of walkable environments on health outcomes​​.

walkable cities
Reducing Chronic Diseases

Regular walking and living in walkable neighborhoods have been associated with lower risks of obesity, Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and colon cancer. This lifestyle not only improves physical fitness but also increases resilience against chronic diseases, demonstrating the profound health benefits of investing in walkable communities​​. The opposite is also true. A 2019 study published in the Journal of the American Heart Association found that “Adults living in less walkable neighborhoods had a higher predicted 10‐year cardiovascular disease risk than those living in highly walkable areas.”

Limiting Pollution

Transit-oriented development often leads to reduced dependence on personal vehicles, which can significantly decrease air pollution levels. Several studies have pointed out the environmental benefits of reducing vehicular emissions, including improved respiratory health for city residents.

Social Benefits

Walkable communities foster social interaction, which is crucial for building a sense of community and neighborliness. Studies have shown that environments that encourage walking and other outdoor activities increase social interactions among neighbors. For instance, the design of pedestrian-friendly community layouts and diverse natural environments promotes more engaging social health. This intensified use of public spaces raises the frequency of informational interactions among citizens, strengthening ties among neighbors​​.

Economic and Environmental Sustainability Benefits

Walkability contributes to economic, social, and environmental sustainability. It is a mode of transportation that does not require external energy sources, thus supporting public health, environmental care, and economic activity without the unsustainable use of resources. The ability to walk to different destinations enhances public satisfaction with transportation arrangements and supports a sustainable urban development aligned with Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)​​.

Understanding Transit-Oriented Development in Urban Planning

Transit-Oriented Development (TOD) is a transportation planning and design strategy that aims to create high-density, mixed-use communities within walking distance of public transportation facilities, thereby fostering a reduction in car dependency. The principles of TOD revolve around the integration of residential, office, retail, and recreational spaces into compact, pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods. Key to this development strategy is the provision of a diverse mix of amenities and housing options to accommodate a wide range of socio-economic groups, thus promoting inclusivity.

Transit oriented developments also emphasize the importance of sustainable urban growth, leveraging public transport infrastructure to encourage modal shifts away from private vehicles towards more environmentally friendly forms of transport. This approach not only aims to enhance urban livability by reducing traffic congestion and improving air quality but also seeks to create vibrant, accessible communities where people can live, work, and play in proximity to efficient public transport options.

Benefits of TOD for Urban Communities

The benefits of TOD for urban communities are multifaceted, impacting social, economic, and environmental spheres. Socially, TOD promotes inclusivity and accessibility, making it easier for all residents to access essential services and amenities without the need for private vehicle ownership. Economically, TOD can stimulate local economies by increasing foot traffic to businesses, raising property values, and attracting investment in areas surrounding transit hubs.

This development model can also lead to the creation of job opportunities within the community, both during the construction phase and in the long-term through the businesses and services that set up in TOD areas. Environmentally, TOD contributes to reduced greenhouse gas emissions by encouraging public transport use, walking, and cycling, thus playing a crucial role in combating climate change. Additionally, by concentrating development around transit hubs, TOD helps to preserve open spaces and reduce sprawl, contributing to the conservation of natural resources and biodiversity.

walkable cities and transit oriented development

Recent Examples of Successful TOD Projects

Several successful TOD projects around the world exemplify the benefits and principles of this development strategy. One notable example is the Orenco Station in Hillsboro, Oregon, which is often cited for its effective integration of residential spaces with retail, office, and recreational facilities, all within a short walk from the light rail system. This project has been praised for its ability to create a vibrant, community-focused neighborhood that promotes sustainable living practices.

Another example is the Vauban district in Freiburg, Germany, which is often cited for its green living initiatives. Vauban is designed with a focus on public transportation and pedestrian-friendly streets, significantly reducing the need for cars.

In Asia, Singapore’s Housing and Development Board (HDB) towns are exemplary, with their integration of public housing with commercial, recreational, and transport facilities, demonstrating how TOD principles can be applied to create inclusive, sustainable urban environments. These examples showcase the versatility of TOD in adapting to different geographical, cultural, and economic contexts while achieving the common goals of sustainable urban development, improved livability, and enhanced community well-being.

TOD Targets in U.S. Cities

Many cities—like Portland, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and New York City—have set TOD targets as part of upzoning plans. Each city’s TOD targets reflect a tailored approach to integrating transit accessibility with urban development, aiming to create more sustainable, livable urban environments. Portland focuses on leveraging a typology-based strategy to guide investments and development, Los Angeles sets specific targets for housing near transit stations, and New York City emphasizes the integration of the majority of new housing within accessible distance of transit facilities.

Philadelphia’s approach to Transit-Oriented Development (TOD) and upzoning as part of its urban development plans involves a multifaceted strategy aimed at increasing housing availability, promoting affordable housing, and enhancing transit accessibility. Let’s take a closer look at Philadelphia’s ongoing and future application of transit-oriented development principles.

Philadelphia’s TOD Plans

walkable cities and transit oriented development

A significant aspect of Philadelphia’s urban development strategy is the focus on creating a comprehensive plan that includes setting policy goals for expanded transit systems and housing production, such as the proposed target of 30,000 affordable homes and more mixed use development. This ambitious goal is intended to influence zoning remapping and other changes, encouraging the development of housing that is accessible and affordable to a wide range of residents. The emphasis on affordable housing aligns with broader efforts to ensure that every neighborhood contributes to solving the housing crisis, adhering to a principle of shared responsibility across the city​​.

Philadelphia’s upcoming TOD and transit projects are also characterized by proposals to expand the scope and effectiveness of its TOD ordinances. Key recommendations include extending the radius for TOD zones from the current 500 feet to 2,000 feet around transit stations and eliminating parking mandates within these zones. This approach aims to make it easier to build denser, multi-family housing near transit stations, catering to residents who prefer or rely on public transportation. By reducing parking requirements in local communities, the city seeks to promote more sustainable development patterns that emphasize walkability and transit use over car dependency​​.

Additionally, the Philadelphia City Planning Commission (PCPC) has engaged in zoning remapping efforts in areas like northern Germantown. This initiative involves updating zoning rules to better reflect community goals for growth and development. The proposed changes aim to support new businesses and homes along Germantown Avenue, correct zoning in residential areas to align with the existing built environment, and address issues like flooding. An overlay zoning district is also proposed for Germantown Avenue to guide the appearance of new buildings and manage parking requirements, further illustrating the city’s commitment to thoughtful, community-informed urban planning​​.

The Interplay Between Transit and Walkability

Public transportation systems are fundamental to enhancing walkability in urban environments. They serve as the backbone of sustainable urban mobility by reducing reliance on personal vehicles and promoting pedestrian-friendly urban forms. Efficient public transit networks enable denser, mixed-use development patterns that support a variety of amenities within walking distances. This symbiotic relationship starts with transit hubs, which act as focal points for pedestrian activity, catalyzing commercial and residential developments around them.

Such transit-oriented developments (TODs) inherently encourage walking by integrating living spaces, workplaces, shopping areas, and recreational facilities into compact, accessible areas. The availability of frequent, reliable public transit options also extends the range of walkability, allowing residents to access more distant destinations without a car, effectively knitting together diverse parts of the city into a cohesive, pedestrian-friendly urban fabric.

Another issue plaguing Philadelphia’s affordable housing market is the lack of investment in low-income neighborhoods. Many areas with higher poverty rates and predominantly minority populations have been neglected by developers and investors. This perpetuates a cycle of disinvestment and neglect, making it even harder for these communities to access safe and affordable housing options.

Furthermore, the city’s policies regarding affordable housing have not been effective in addressing the crisis. While there are programs in place to assist low-income individuals and families, they often fall short in providing long-term solutions. As noted in the statistics segment of this article, the waitlists for these programs can be extensive

The Importance of Integrated Transportation Networks

Integrated transportation networks, which seamlessly combine various modes of transit, including buses, trains, bike-sharing systems, and pedestrian paths, are crucial for maximizing urban walkability. This integration facilitates easy and efficient transfers between different modes, significantly improving the accessibility and attractiveness of public transit as a viable alternative to driving. A well-integrated system reduces travel times and costs, making it more convenient for people to choose walking and public transit over private vehicles.

Moreover, the presence of safe, well-maintained pedestrian infrastructure connecting different modes of transportation—such as wide sidewalks, pedestrian plazas, and crosswalks—ensures that walking is not only possible but also a pleasant and safe experience. The goal is to create an urban environment where residents can move smoothly from one mode of transportation to another, encouraging a shift towards more sustainable and active forms of mobility.

City Planning Initiatives for Walkable, Transit-Oriented Cities

Comprehensive zoning and land-use policies are foundational to the development of walkable cities. These policies dictate how land within urban areas can be utilized, influencing the density, mix, and placement of buildings in a way that can either enhance or hinder walkability. Effective zoning policies for walkable cities typically promote mixed-use developments that integrate residential, commercial, and recreational spaces within close proximity. This proximity allows residents to meet most of their daily needs within a short walk from their homes.

Additionally, zoning can regulate building setbacks, height limits, and floor area ratios to ensure that urban form supports a pedestrian-friendly environment. By carefully planning land use, cities can create vibrant, diverse neighborhoods that reduce the need for car travel, thereby encouraging walking as a primary mode of transportation.

Infrastructure Development and Maintenance

The development and maintenance of infrastructure are crucial for walkable cities. This includes not only the sidewalks and pedestrian pathways that directly support walking but also the broader network of streets, crosswalks, lighting, signage, and public spaces that make pedestrian navigation safe, comfortable, and enjoyable. Good infrastructure design prioritizes pedestrian safety through traffic calming measures, well-marked crosswalks, and protected pedestrian pathways.

Maintenance is equally important, as poorly maintained sidewalks or inadequate lighting can deter walking. Urban planners must also consider the needs of all users, including children, the elderly, and people with disabilities, ensuring that infrastructure is universally accessible and supports the mobility of the entire community.

Equity and Inclusion in Urban Planning

Urban planners and developers must recognize and actively address the diverse needs of residents, including those who have historically been marginalized or underserved by urban planning processes. Equity in walkable city planning involves ensuring that improvements and infrastructural developments do not disproportionately benefit wealthier neighborhoods while neglecting lower-income areas.

Urban planners must ensure that safe, high-quality pedestrian infrastructure—sidewalks, crosswalks, lighting, and green spaces—is uniformly distributed across the city, enabling people from all socioeconomic backgrounds to enjoy the benefits of walkability. This includes access to public transit, since walkability and transit accessibility are deeply intertwined, especially for those who rely on public transportation for their daily commutes.

Social inclusion, meanwhile, extends the concept of walkability beyond the mere physical to the socio-economic and cultural. It involves designing public spaces that are welcoming to diverse populations, including children, the elderly, people with disabilities, and minority communities. This can mean incorporating features that cater to different ages, abilities, and cultural practices, as well as ensuring that public spaces are sites of cultural expression and community gathering, not just transit.

Addressing equity and inclusion also means engaging these diverse communities in the planning process itself. Community engagement is crucial for understanding the unique needs and desires of different groups, and for building urban spaces that reflect and accommodate these needs. Inclusive planning processes can help prevent the displacement that can sometimes accompany gentrification, ensuring that walkability improvements lead to benefits for all residents, not just an influx of wealthier newcomers.

importance of walkability in mixed income communities

Focusing TOD Around Sustainable Design and Green Spaces

Incorporating sustainable design principles into urban planning, especially within the context of Transit-Oriented Development (TOD), is crucial for creating cities that are not only more walkable but also environmentally responsible and resilient. Sustainable urban planning emphasizes the minimization of environmental impact through efficient land use, energy conservation, and the use of renewable resources. In the context of TOD, this means designing developments that are compact, mixed-use, and located in close proximity to public transportation facilities, thereby reducing the need for car travel and lowering carbon emissions.

Sustainable design principles also advocate for buildings that utilize green technologies, such as green roofs, solar panels, and energy-efficient lighting and heating systems. These technologies not only reduce a development’s environmental footprint but can also lead to significant cost savings over time. Moreover, sustainable urban design prioritizes the preservation of natural areas and the incorporation of green infrastructure, such as permeable pavements and rain gardens, which manage stormwater naturally, reducing urban runoff and improving water quality. At AVLV, we integrate such systems into each of our projects, whether mixed-use or residential.

By integrating these principles, TOD can contribute to the creation of urban environments that support the well-being of their inhabitants while protecting and enhancing the natural environment. This approach ensures that developments are not only accessible and convenient for residents but also contribute to the broader goals of sustainability and environmental stewardship.

The Role of Green Spaces in Enhancing Walkability and Urban Livability

Green spaces play a pivotal role in enhancing walkability and urban livability, serving as vital components of a healthy, vibrant city. Parks, gardens, greenways, and other forms of green space provide urban dwellers with much-needed areas for recreation, relaxation, and social interaction, contributing to the overall quality of life in dense urban areas. For TOD projects, the integration of green spaces is essential in creating attractive, livable environments that encourage people to walk and use public transportation.

Green spaces within walkable distances of transit hubs and residential areas can significantly increase the appeal of walking as a mode of transport. They offer scenic routes and destinations that make walking a more enjoyable and rewarding experience. Furthermore, green spaces have been shown to improve mental and physical health, reduce stress, and enhance cognitive functioning, making cities more conducive to active, healthy lifestyles.

Moreover, the presence of green spaces can increase property values, making TOD projects more economically viable and appealing to developers and investors. They also play a critical role in urban ecology, providing habitats for wildlife, contributing to biodiversity, and mitigating the urban heat island effect through natural cooling.

Common Challenges in Achieving Walkability and TOD

Creating walkable communities and effective transit-oriented development (TOD) presents several challenges. One major hurdle is overcoming existing urban sprawl, which prioritizes car travel over walking and public transit. Such sprawl leads to lower density developments where homes, workplaces, shops, and amenities are too spread out to be easily accessible on foot or by public transport. Another challenge is the resistance from communities and stakeholders due to concerns about increased density, traffic, and changes in neighborhood character.

Financial constraints also pose significant challenges, as developing and maintaining the infrastructure for walkability and TOD can require substantial investment. Additionally, outdated zoning laws and regulatory frameworks often limit the ability to implement mixed-use developments or pedestrian-friendly urban designs. These challenges are compounded by the need to ensure accessibility for all, including the elderly, children, and people with disabilities, requiring thoughtful design and additional resources.

Strategies and Innovative Solutions to Overcome Obstacles

To overcome the obstacles outlined above, cities are adopting a variety of strategies and innovative solutions. One approach is to revise zoning codes and land-use policies to allow for higher densities and mixed-use developments, which are crucial for walkability and TOD. Implementing form-based codes can also encourage designs that prioritize pedestrian experiences.

Financial incentives, such as tax abatements or grants, can encourage developers to invest in TOD projects. Public-private partnerships are another avenue to pool resources and expertise for developing walkable infrastructures.

To address community concerns, engaging stakeholders through transparent and inclusive planning processes can build support and tailor solutions to local needs. Cities are also experimenting with pilot projects, like pedestrianizing streets or offering car-free zones, which, if successful, can be expanded and permanently integrated into the urban fabric.

Final Thoughts on Creating Sustainable, Highly Walkable Neighborhoods

Our shared goal of prioritizing walkable cities and Transit-Oriented Development (TOD) is grounded in the pursuit of a sustainable urban future. This approach addresses critical urban challenges, including congestion, air pollution, and the loss of community spaces, by promoting a model of development that reduces reliance on cars, enhances public transport usage, and fosters vibrant, livable neighborhoods.

Walkable cities and TOD not only contribute to environmental sustainability by lowering greenhouse gas emissions but also support economic growth by improving access to jobs and services, and social inclusion by providing equitable access to amenities and public spaces. As urban populations continue to grow, the shift towards walkability and TOD becomes not just preferable but essential for creating cities that are resilient, healthy, and capable of supporting diverse and thriving communities.

Developers and investors can foster walkable cities and incorporate Transit-Oriented Development (TOD) principles by focusing on mixed-use developments that integrate residential, commercial, and leisure spaces, thereby reducing the need for vehicular travel. Investing in pedestrian-friendly infrastructure, such as wide sidewalks, safe crosswalks, and bike lanes, alongside ensuring easy access to public transit, can significantly enhance urban mobility.

They should also collaborate with local governments to support policies and planning guidelines that prioritize walkability and transit accessibility. Through strategic site selection, advocating for zoning reforms, and incorporating green spaces and community amenities, we can make significant improvements.

Together, developers, investors, and designers have the power to create vibrant, healthy, and sustainable urban environments that encourage walking and efficient public transportation use.

Philadelphia is a walkable city



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