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Smart Cities and the Technology of Walking

Fueled by a fundamental shift in the way people move about communities, cities, and regions, new innovations are being introduced that can make walking a high-tech exercise.

Harvard Square in Cambridge, Mass.
More people walk to work in Cambridge, Mass., than any other large city in the country.
Wikimedia Commons
For more than a century, automobiles have been the preferred method of transportation in the U.S., providing an efficient means for getting us from place to place. In response to the expansive, sprawl-based development that has characterized the growth of many metropolitan areas over the years, cars increasingly became a must for navigating the vast ecosystem of arterials that connect us with work, home, and other places we frequent.

In today’s auto-centric culture, the operative question for local and regional leaders as well as transportation planners is this: How do we address the growing list of public externalities ensuing from America’s perceived love affair with cars? Traffic congestion, parking demand, environmental issues, and more garner concern as today’s built environments increase in size and complexity. 

Shifting this current trajectory necessitates a new mindset—one requiring city leaders to think more like engineers and behavioral psychologists and less like regulators. Amid this is a new trend that promises to accelerate the movement toward more sustainable ways of getting people from point A to point B. 

Enter the Age of Mobile Pedestrianism 

Fueled by a fundamental shift in the way people move about communities, cities, and regions, new innovative technologies are being introduced to the masses. These tech tools facilitate the ability to walk to places and use forms of urban mobility other than cars. Technology-based solutions and information platforms include such apps as RideScout, Walkscore, Walkonomics, and Transit Screen. They’ve emerged in response to interest from both Millennials and Baby Boomers wanting information-rich mobility options to guide them to where they need to go. 

For forward-thinking city leaders, these advancements should be regarded as good news. Why? They provide a forum for championing the social, health, energy, economic, and environmental benefits of pedestrianism—the practice of walking. Further support comes in the form of demographic shifts that are driving public sentiment away from cars and toward alternative forms of transportation. In the end, good ole “foot power” becomes the common denominator that encourages people to rethink their patterns of mobility and investigate their options. 

Rapidly Growing Mindshift

The on-the-go young adult crowd is largely behind this rapidly developing mindshift. Automotive industry company reports that young adults aged 18–34 purchased 30 percent fewer cars in 2007 than in 2011. And since the late 1990s, the share of automobile miles driven by Americans in their 20s has dropped from 20.8 percent to 13.7 percent. Bottom line: Millennials are choosing to settle in central-city areas where the dense built environment favors walking, bicycling, and other non-traditional modes of transportation. Cars are “out”; two feet are “in.”

The Millennial-ish crowd isn’t alone in its affection for walkable environments. Empty Nesters are also jumping on the bandwagon in increasing numbers. Many are choosing to leave their once-idyllic suburban lifestyles and embrace downtown areas that offer easy walking access to dining, arts, and sports venues. This comes with a bonus: Physical movement is touted as an elixir for common maladies of the aging process. 

A Tsunami of Mobile Apps

The proliferation of mobile phones has led to a tsunami of apps offering walkability information, with Mapquest and Google Maps being the most highly recognized. Known for delivering just-in-time driving directions, these apps also have robust walkability functions that provide point-to-point guides for reaching a destination by foot.

Walkscore and Walkanomics represent a new generation of apps that assess the pedestrian friendliness of an area and then calculate this information into a score. Complementing them is Foursquare, a social media app that helps locals as well as visitors find perfect places to go when looking for food, services, entertainment, and other amenities. Foursquare has become particularly popular with Millennials who crave connection and like sharing their social experiences.

Walkability Options

Sensing the potential benefits of leveraging these apps to get people out of their cars and enthusiastic about about walkability options, increasing numbers of municipal leaders and transportation planners are exploring ways to capitalize on this opportunity by working in collaboration with tech solution-providers. 

Steve Carroll is chief operating officer of RideScout, an early-stage mobile app providing real-time information on getting around a city by foot or via other alternative options. He sees growing interest among cities, municipalities, and private companies in the benefits of this service. Says Carroll, “We’ve been receiving interest from both local governments and businesses that want to provide incentives for their people to become car free. They have an open ear because of traffic congestion and other concerns associated with car-dependent lifestyles." 

One of the great features of the RideScout app is that it offers walking directions. “We discovered that people often don’t realize they can get somewhere faster by walking or biking as opposed to taking transit, taxi, or other form of transportation,” says Carroll. "RideScout shows them how."

Basics of Human Behavior

Cities that elect to collaborate with mobile solution-providers to capitalize off of this walkability trend should keep in mind certain basics of human behavior. For starters, it’s a well-known fact that technology intimidates some people, serving as a barrier for those who lack “smart phone savvy.” Then there’s “distracted walking,” a growing concern due to rising numbers of auto/pedestrian accidents in cities. 

Adam Greenfield, author of the book Against the Smart City, argues that the smooth flow of sidewalk traffic is something people achieve together. But if they’re getting lost in their devices, who is paying attention in the street? Says Greenfield, “This is the unlooked-for downside of app-supported pedestrian activity.

Encouraging a New Mindset

James Shaffer, president of Streetscapes, Inc., a Denver-based firm providing pedestrian amenities for public spaces, points out that government leaders must increase their awareness of mobile solutions that exist (or are in development). Moreover they must be thoughtful in determining how to best use them to promote pedestrianism among both locals and visitors. Therefore, says Shaffer, it’s imperative that major stakeholders—from traffic and public works officials to transportation planners—coalesce in their efforts to orchestrate a mobile pedestrian mindset. 

Shaffer has witnessed many of these issues as board president of WalkDenver, a nonprofit advocacy group dedicated to improving the pedestrian experience in Denver. He’s a strong advocate for mobile apps that facilitate walkability in communities. Specifically, he cites the work of WalkDenver in partnership with PlaceMatters to beta test WALKscope, a crowdsourcing tool to gather data about walkability. The goal? To engage Denver residents in a dialogue about walkability as well as create a repository of key street information—sidewalk conditions, intersections, pedestrian counts— that make the case for walkability related infrastructure improvements.

Non-Technology Solutions

Amid the technology, Shaffer and other walkability advocates stress the importance of finding ways to communicate with people who aren’t technically adept. “While all of the buzz is about smartphones, we must also consider the subset of people who couldn’t care less about technology yet want key information to enhance their walk experience,” says Shaffer. He notes that landmarks such as buildings, gateways, and directional signs are among the traditional grounding points that pedestrians already know to use to get around a city. 

TransitScreen is one company that provides just-in-time information to pedestrians who prefer not to be enmeshed with a mobile phone. With its strong presence in the D.C. Metro area, TransitScreen supports the interconnection between walkers and alternative forms of transportation by sharing transportation information from screens displayed in transit stations and in other locations such as in residential and governmental buildings. The point here is that efficiency in navigating a city is largely predicated on the efficient merging of walking with other ways to get around.

“Walkability plays a key role in our mission of providing people with the most relevant and sustainable transportation options,” says Ryan Croft, co-founder of TransitScreen, a recent award recipient at the Transportation Research Board's 93rd Annual Meeting in Washington D.C. earlier this year. He notes, “Some level of walking is required to get to transit, to car sharing, and to bike sharing. Walking thus plays a vital role in engaging all of these services.”

The Coming Mobile Pedestrianism Revolution

The convergence of pedestrianism with technology offers promising possibilities in the days ahead for cities that collaborate with mobile solutions providers. Embracing these new technologies is particularly vital as metro area seek ways to curb the negative effects of automobiles on the built environment.

Taming traffic congestion, auto emissions, and more in our urban centers leads to greater quality of life and health. Indeed, this is all essential in achieving the long-term sustainability of our cities and communities. In the end, the convergence of pedestrianism, technology and the built environment is poised to spark a walkability revolution that promises to yield a meaningful return to people as well as the cities in which they live. 

Michael Scott is the Editor of UrbanWebcity, an online community examining the intersection between people and the urban environments in which they live. Michael can be reached at