Modern city growth has been led by the car. But new walking apps – and maps that help journeys seem more walkable – may lead to healthier, happier urban environments.

The most striking change to one of the largest cities on the planet can be seen easily from the air. All its freeways have been turned into public spaces, their multiple lanes of traffic replaced with extensive linear parks. Down the centre of each of these parks run wide bus boulevards, protected cycling lanes and excellent walking paths. This network of urban trails connects each of the neighbourhoods so it’s possible to get nearly anywhere in the city on dedicated foot or bike infrastructure – although the comprehensive rail system is usually faster.

The transformation transcends the physical environment. A cultural shift has occurred and residents in general choose to live near where they work. Education has improved as well, with children walking or biking to quality schools close to where they live. Health has improved dramatically and people are living longer. Most people don’t own cars, and those who do usually only drive them as a hobby, since they’re relics of a bygone era.

This is the Los Angeles of the future.

It's certainly not the Los Angeles of today, the land of 20-lane interchanges and parking lots the size of football stadiums and mind-bending, soul-crushing, life-altering traffic. LA's seemingly brilliant plan half-a-century ago to re-engineer its urban environment for cars has become a global affliction. There are now 60 million new cars being added to the planet every year, and with those vehicles come more smog, toxic emissions and dependency on rapidly depleting resources. As we embrace the car, our cultures become more sedentary and rates of obesity and heart disease increase. Cars not only make our cities unhealthy, they also make our cities dangerous: 270,000 pedestrians are killed by cars every year.

To undo these decades of suburban propaganda is to essentially unravel the American Dream; one which has since travelled around the world. But there is a new dream. Walkable City author Jeff Speck said it best in his recent TEDCity2.0 talk: "Sustainability – which includes both health and wealth – may not be a function of our ecological footprint, but the two are deeply interrelated. If we pollute so much because we are throwing away our time, money, and lives on the highway, then both problems would seem to share a single solution, and that solution is to make our cities more walkable."

Virtual beginnings

Walking is the simplest, most cost-efficient way to improve a city's economic and environmental viability, and it creates healthier, happier residents. Choosing walking can help designers build more inviting streets, and allow cities to prioritise their people over cars.

The campaign to make our cities more walkable begins in the virtual world. There are apps such as Walk Score, a tool which measures the distance to amenities such as restaurants, stores, and public transport, and tells you how “walkable” your location is. Walk Score has been gaining serious traction in the US real estate market by promoting walkability as a factor in choosing where to live. The site recently started featuring apartment rentals with Walk Scores prominently displayed – a different way to place value on what we pay in rent.

Car-free neighbourhoods are already a reality in places like Vauban, Germany, where the cars are banned and a tram to nearby Freiburg runs through the town. The Great City, planned for Chengdu, China, is even more ambitious, intended to house 80,000 people in a completely car-free centre with regional mass transit connections. Architects Adrian Smith and Gordon Gill estimate that residents will be able to walk anywhere in the city within 15 minutes.

Knowing how long a walk will take makes all the difference. Walk Score features travel time maps, which allow you to see how far you'll be able to walk, bike, drive or take public transport in a certain amount of time. Google Maps’ addition of walking, biking and transport options to its directions has been the greatest game-changer for increasing walking. With a click of a button, what was planned as a journey in a car becomes a possibility on foot.

Reroute.it allows you to compare your journey for several modes of transportation at once across many different factors: price, time, calories burned, and the amount of CO2 emissions your trip will generate. Suddenly a walk becomes more appealing when calculate other benefits: even though it will take twice as long, for example, you'll spend no money and could burn up to 500 calories. Even more fascinating is another app named Re:Route, which rewards Londoners who choose foot or bike transit with points that can be exchanged for discounts from a wide range of partners. That’s extra motivation to get walking.

Minutes, not miles

This is only the beginning. With Google Glass and other augmented reality devices, the route information we receive on our smartphones will be displayed in the urban environment, in real time. This month, transit directions have been added to Glass, to complement the existing walking directions. Such information could be tacked onto our Nike FuelBands and FitBits, which would calculate how much walking we could add to our commute to achieve our daily step goal – maybe nudging us to get off the bus a stop early.

But even with Google Glass at the ready to tell us our favourite bar is a 400-calorie walk away, we still need physical reminders our city is walkable. Intelligent signage can help. Legible London, a city-wide system, is one of the best examples out there, and New York City recently implemented WalkNYC

The signs, in a sense, convert the invisible app data into a kind of value proposition for the walker. Landmarks are pointed out, of course, but the most powerful part of this signage is that it doesn't express distances in miles or metres – it measures in minutes. This is a small but important detail. If you tell someone a coffee shop is two miles away, it feels far. But if you say it's a 40-minute walk, suddenly this starts to sound far more accessible. 

You might physically be able to walk to a grocery store, but buckled pavements or poor street lighting might make the walk less than pleasant – meaning you may be less likely to do it again. A site called Walkonomics takes into consideration eight additional factors ranging from safety to beauty when ranking walkability. Instead of scoring an address, streets are ranked green, yellow and red based on how good they are for walking.

But only a human can stand on a street and get a feeling for how it feels to walk there and what could be improved, a process that planners call walkability audits. According to Walkability Asia's 2011 study, improving pedestrian infrastructure is the lowest priority for transportation in Asian cities; 67% of people surveyed in those cities said walking was so bad they would rather drive or ride motorbikes. The group developed an app so anyone can gather information ranging from sidewalk quality to the speed of cars in 23 Asian cities. The work of this organisation is especially valuable because it's helping these cities to develop more locally relevant pedestrian features which serve the needs of Asian cultures – accounting for street markets and vendors, auto rickshaws and motorcycles – rather than "one-size-fits-all" Western street design.

Perhaps the biggest deterrent for walkers is the perception that it's unsafe, which can mean anything from the poor street lighting to badly marked crosswalks to high crime. But walking is the only option for a large percentage of the world's population that cannot afford a car, which puts the planet's most vulnerable citizens at risk – even by 2020, it's estimated that 78% of the households in China will still not have a car.

In emerging megacities Mumbai in India, narrow roads and paths designed for walking have now become overrun by vehicles. Some 40% of people walk to work, and an astounding 57% of all people killed in traffic accidents are pedestrians. In Chennai, a local newspaper launched a movement called Right to Walk which encouraged residents to photograph poor walking conditions in an effort to hold government leaders more responsible. It would appear that this advocacy is working: one of Chennai's densest neighbourhoods is planning a pedestrian zone.

Reclaiming the streets

In the near future, the proliferation of self-driving cars like General Motors’ EN-V could help prevent collisions with pedestrians (and other automobiles), and reduce the amount of urban space devoted to cars. These smart cars would act more like a fleet of shared, self-driving taxis.

But another safety concern is our quickly aging population, which can't navigate the city as efficiently on foot. Transport planners are now redesigning cities for elderly walkers using a special suit developed by researchers at MIT called AGNES (Age Gain Now Empathy System) which mimics the speed, strength and dexterity of a person in their 70s. Using the suit, everything from crossing signals to kerb heights can be adjusted.

Redesigning for accessibility, or universal design, will be perhaps the biggest changes we'll begin to see in our cities in the upcoming years: ramps instead of stairs, larger type on signage, benches on more corners. In Thailand, the Chaing Mai province is investing in retirement communities, including making improvements to its urban space that will help make its cities more welcoming to pedestrians.

There has been perhaps no better advertisement for walking than the open-street festivals modelled after the ciclovías, common in Colombian cities. On Sundays, Bogota and Medellin close up to 80 miles (130km) of streets to cars. Cities have seen the value of turning tarmac over to walkers and bikers, if only for a few hours. Removing people from their cars creates a sense of social connectedness and allows citizens to interact with people from different backgrounds. It's a win-win situation.

In Los Angeles, CicLAvia is held three times a year and has grown to become the largest open-street event in the US with over 100,000 people in the streets per event. It goes against every known stereotype about LA. But something interesting happened after the first few events: the city began to install permanent bike lanes and parklets along the routes where the festival happens. Walkers have now literally gained ground in the city – as they have around the world – with the addition of plazas and other car-free zones.

Now, one of the city's main thoroughfares, Broadway, is being converted into a pedestrian-friendly street. That vision of the Los Angeles of the future might be coming true faster than we think.

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