I have heard people say that our auto-oriented development pattern would be different if only we had an extensive transit system in place, or that transit will fix all of the things that are wrong with our cities. Transit can amplify a walkable neighbourhood, but transit is not a prerequisite to making a decent walkable neighbourhood.
Take a small, older European town where you can walk from one side to the other in 10 minutes. You might need a car to visit the town from outside (or you can take a day trip in on a bus), but if you live in town, everything is a 10 minute walk. There’s no massive transit investment needed to build this kind of place. Many small, historic towns in the United States are the same. The beautiful mountainside town of Eureka Springs, Arkansas is very walkable, and it doesn’t have a fancy transit system.
Beacon Hill in Boston is one of the most beautiful neighbourhoods in the United States. The basic development pattern of crooked narrow streets, traditional architecture, and granular buildings makes it very lovable and very desirable.
I would love it if we could build more Beacon Hills. Most of the buildings are pretty simple and inexpensive to replicate — brick boxes with some molding around the windows. You could start with a quarter mile square (perhaps an old mall), sketch out a network of 30-foot wide one-way streets and plat it with 2,000 square foot lots. Then plop in a park and a school somewhere.
If a suburb near me adopted this pattern I’d sign up for a 30-year mortgage. What do we do about the cars? While I would advise against surrounding this neighbourhood with a sea of parking, I would concentrate all of the parking in one area so that it doesn't detract from the walkability of the neighbourhood, but still allows everyone to access their vehicle easily as they enter and leave the area. I'd ban non-commercial vehicles from entering and focus on creating a great place to live.
Queue the naysayers who will find every excuse under the sun why this isn't possible. Not in their city, not in their region. The climate, the weather, the culture, the lack of infrastructure will make this impossible. I have friends who are very career focused, and though they make decent money, they have still asked each other what kind of salary they would need to be happy in life, or to get married, or to have kids. At some point you have to work with what you have instead of coming up with excuses to put your goals on hold...
I would advise against the false hope that if we just spent more on transit, we'd radically change our development pattern, we'd become financially productive, we'd induce suburban retrofit, and everyone would be happier. It's possible, but it's not going to happen if you keep your land usage locked down. It makes more sense to change our land usage first, so that if we ever do insert a transit line, it’ll be popular on day one.
I wish I had an example of Boston’s Beacon Hill built in the middle of Kansas (akin to the medieval but isolated towns scattered across Europe) in the last 50 years that I could point to and say “look at this walkable place that emerged in modern day America without needing extensive transit." Unfortunately, the only examples I can find are private developments.
Branson, Missouri is a tourist town that has a small walkable downtown, no serious transit (I think they may have a small trolley loop in the city center), and the vast majority is auto-oriented; virtually everyone who visits Branson comes and gets around via car. A pedestrian mall known as the Branson Landing opened in 2006. It is surrounded on the edges by parking lots, but once you reach the pedestrian mall, everything is walkable — hotel rooms, condominiums, retail, and entertainment — and even downtown Branson is all accessible on foot.
Although this is just a vacation-focused pedestrian mall, a town could take inspiration from this and add in a school, a grocery store, and a walk-in clinic and they would be well on their way toward building a walkable Complete Neighbourhood for people.
Vail, Colorado was incorporated in 1966 and offers us an interesting case study of what you can build in modern day United States. The town consists of several hotel-operated ‘villages’ linked together by bicycling and hiking trails, ski slopes, and a free shuttle bus that is heavily used and the best way to get from one side of town to the other. There is no point in driving anywhere once you get to Vail.
I know these examples are tourist oriented and operated by hotels, but I wanted to point out the basic development pattern; these incredibly popular foot-oriented walkable places emerged in transit-scarce areas. Having a parking lot on the edge of town isn’t ideal, but it accomplishes what many old European towns do so well: it absorbs all of the parking demand (including from out of town visitors) to discourage cars in the town proper.
One of my criticisms of the New Urbanist movement is the desire to integrate parking everywhere — on the streets, behind the blocks, and in garages. The traditional urbanist in me, looking at what we can do today for little cost, would just build a parking lot on the edge of the neighbourhood, ban non-commercial vehicles from entering the neighbourhood, and focus on building places for people. This is the basic proven pattern of amusement parks, outdoor malls, Old World towns, college campuses, zoos, botanical gardens, and other people-oriented spaces.
What can we learn from this? We don't need to wait for a large, expensive transit investment. We can start building places for people right now.