Walkability as Technology

This essay was originally written for the expatriate community in Japan.  They are regularly confronted with a type of question that everybody should be asking themselves: Where is the best place for me to live?  Where should I raise my kids so that I don’t end up as their under-appreciated chauffeur?

How Japan Invented the Next Big Transport Technology: The Walkable City

The biggest real-estate trend of the last decade has been the exploding demand for walkable cities (sometimes described in terms of commute times).  Whatever the origins of this trend, there are now two powerful factors that will ensure its continuation.

The first factor is demographics: younger people are simply not that attached to driving.  The Atlantic Reports that, “in 2014, just 24.5 percent of 16-year-olds had a license, a 47-percent decrease from 1983, when 46.2 percent did.”   Today’s unlicensed 16-year-olds are tomorrow’s renters and buyers, and they may view the personal automobile as a luxury, or perhaps a tool, but not as an indispensable life-partner.  This is a slow-motion train-wreck for suburban real-estate values.  It is irreversible and totally predictable.

The other factor is Quality of Life.  Specifically, the appearance and rise to prominence of Quality of Life as a concept in our contemporary zeitgeist.  It’s very recent.  The Danish urbanist Jan Gehl finds that “livability” did not become a dominant social theme until 2009.

This new consciousness is visible in the new consumerism that pursues “experiences, not things”.  It can be seen in the shift from ranking countries by GDP to ranking cities by livability.  It is tightly intertwined with our increasingly urgent sense that everything starts with networking.

This new zeitgeist is especially relevant to walkability in its manifestations as Tony Hsieh’s philosophy of maximizing “collisions” and “connectedness” and Richard Florida’s mantra that where we live is “the most important decision we make.”

These two factors will ensure that the demand for walkable cities continues to surge for the foreseeable future.

Having discussed the importance of walkability for the coming decades, we come to the question of why something so simple as walking should be described as a technology.  Allow me to clarify: walking is simple; building an urban area where people enjoy walking is complicated; it requires a whole body of accumulated know-how.  Many cities have tried and failed.

And yet walkability is more science than art.  Although there have been numerous attempts in the US and Europe to build new and more walkable suburbs -and some of them actually quite successful financially- few of them have achieved a significant mode-share for walking.  On the other hand, those organizations that have succeeded in building walkable suburbs (corporations such as Hanshin, Hankyu, Tokyu, etc) have had no trouble replicating that success in later developments.  This reproducibility of results is a characteristic of science & technology.

To be fair, Japan did have a 400-year head start; the shogunate had placed restrictions on 馬車 (basha, horse-drawn vehicles) centuries before anybody dreamed of restricting 自動車 (jidousha, auto-vehicles).

“Japan in the Edo period (1603-1868) did not have horse-drawn carriages […] For strategic purposes, the Tokugawa shogunate strictly limited the use of wheeled vehicles along the highways that connected major cities; the use of ox-drawn carts in Edo was an exception to the norm.”

~Koji Chikamatsu, Curator, Edo-Tokyo Musuem

What will be the impact of driverless cars?

There are two ways to achieve driverless technology: build a vehicle that can drive itself, or eliminate both the driver and the vehicle.  In this sense, Japan had driverless technology for hundreds of years.  This is no mere wordplay; the strategic considerations of the Edo period have left a mark on the urban geography of Tokyo so deep that Tokyo still looks like a “driverless” city.

Consider the main benefits of driverless cars:

  • Free up billions of dollars in precious urban real estate by eliminating on-street parking.
  • Improve safety (安心感) by reducing dangerous speeding.

Viewed in the light of those two benefits, Tokyo today is indistinguishable from the driverless city of the future; virtually zero on-street parking and virtually zero dangerous speeding.

Walkability is a technology built mostly on implicit know-how.  Explicit codification of the key ingredients has begun only very recently (with the observational studies of Jane Jacobs and Jan Gehl), and it stands to reason that there are many elements of walkability that have not yet been explicated (for example, we still don’t have a solid theoretical understanding of what creates a good sense of enclosure).

Thus, we stand at the last point in time where the implicit know-how that comes from living in a walkable place outweighs all the explicit knowledge that humans have hitherto recorded. Tokyo is the world’s pre-eminent laboratory for walkability, and the experience of living in Tokyo is of inestimable value for understanding the “technology” of walkability.

The question now: will the rest of the world learn from Tokyo’s example?



Many cities clearly lack the (largely unwritten) body of knowledge that goes into making a place walkable.  Source



In Tokyo, walking accounts for a quarter of all journeys.  Source


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