DC/Oakland Reflections: Urban Walking

23 Nov

So I know I promised to write a series about my Oakland and Los Angeles inspired reflections on urban space, but the truth is that I compare just about every city to Oakland and I almost constantly think about the intricacies of urban space. So I’m going to broaden this series to include urban reflections about other cities.

Last week, I went to DC to spend some time at the DC office of the organization I work for. I’ve always loved visiting our nation’s capitol, but I’m not sure I ever realized until this trip how walkable the city is. During my three days in the city, I easily walked 10 miles, at one time trekking 2 miles uphill to reach a bar.

I used to think Oakland was pretty walkable too, and I often walk a mile or two to reach a store or restaurant. DC has an advantage though that I fear Oakland will never have – it feels safe to walk around at night. And I don’t just mean on the main streets, but even on many of the neighborhood streets. In my neighborhood in North Oakland, I start walking much quicker as the sun sets and never walk more than a few blocks alone at night.

What’s interesting is that DC is certainly not a crime-free city. What makes walking around at night feel safe is that there are lots of other people walking around. I think some of this has to do with the fact that DC residents rarely drive around the city. So they walk too and from the Metro station or bus stop. And they often walk a few blocks to a main street to catch a cab.

Even at 10pm, I was never alone on a street in DC. Conversely, at that time in my neighborhood, I would always be walking alone if I chose to do so. And I’ve unfortunately heard too many stories of armed robberies happening after dark just a few blocks away from my apartment building, on the darkest, emptiest streets.

Some of my fears in Oakland in contrast to my general feeling of safety in DC might also have to do with the differing police presence. In DC, there are 65.3 police officers per 10,000 residents, vs. only 18.1 in Oakland! (Thanks to V Smoothe for sharing this figures.)

My only hope for a neighborhood in Oakland becoming this walkable after dark is Uptown (and maybe later other parts of Downtown). I think as it transforms and recenters life around public transit and walking, I might feel safe walking there at night. Otherwise, I think I’ll save my evening walks for my trips to DC.

7 Responses to “DC/Oakland Reflections: Urban Walking”

  1. Franky Oak November 23, 2007 at 10:20 am #

    I lived in DC, and people absolutely do drive around a lot.

    What you witnessed is entirely due to DC’s greater density, I think. Go to the far Northeastern corner of DC and you won’t see much walking.

  2. Becks November 23, 2007 at 10:56 pm #

    Density is certainly an issue, but I don’t think it’s the only one.

    Maybe I just have a skewed perspective of DC, but out of the dozens of people I’ve known who have lived there, only one owned a car. It’s true that many people in the suburbs have cars and drive to and within DC, but it seems to me that most residents of the city prefer public transit or cabs. Even the one friend of mine who used to have a car in DC did not drive it daily.

    In Oakland, it seems like most residents default to cars if they own them, even if that just means driving a car to a BART station (thereby avoiding walking through residential neighborhoods).

  3. Eric November 24, 2007 at 12:26 am #

    I’ve never been to DC, but I’ve spent a fair amount of time examining (from afar) their transit system and urban planning, and it seems likely that a density of Metro stations is one factor that explains the difference in pedestrian activity.

    In contrast to the DC Metro, BART stations are so far apart that most neighborhoods are completely skipped altogether, and many people end up parking at or getting rides to their nearest BART station — which, even in the urban core, could be at least one mile away.

    As a fantasy– what if BART built an infill station at Temescal, or perhaps between 19 Street and MacArthur? You’d have more people that live a short walk from their local subway station, and they’d be more likely to walk to it. Increase the density of apartments within a half-mile of any station, and you’d also make significant progress towards increasing neighborhood safety.

  4. m November 25, 2007 at 1:52 pm #

    I think it depends what part of DC you are in. Some areas that have a lot of clubs, bars, restaurants, etc. might feel the way you describe, but I’ve certainly walked in many areas at nighttime that were quiet and deserted of crowds and even individuals other than myself and who I was with–even near Metro stops.

    People probably do drive less out there though, I agree with that. I think public transit is more effective. I found the Metro to be more useful than BART as the Metro has many more stops, both within the city and outside of it.

    It is often possible to get where you’re going with Metro plus a few blocks of walking, whereas out here, often muni or cab must be combined with a Bart ride, and sometimes several bus rides plus Bart are required to get somewhere out here.

    There are simply not enough BART stations, esp. in the city. Though DC’s system is not as effective as, say, NY’s Subway system, I have always found it quite useful due to the higher number of stations (as compared with Bart).

    Also, you have to remember that DC is a much older, East Coast city. Walkable cities are much more common on the East Coast, as the cities are older and predate common, everyday use of cars. Cities like Boston, NY, DC were specifically designed to meet the needs of pedestrians.

    The East Coast has history on its side, and I don’t know if the West can ever quite catch up or at least not without a lot of work, since older cities have the advantage of simply having started off as pedestrian friendly (usually with very easy to navigate grid structures).

    (You may find this story about DC’s plan to become more pedestrian friendly interesting, by the way. Hope the link works; if not, it’s a Wash. Post story from 2/5/07 called “Why Don’t You Walk More?”)

    Of course downtown Oakland is very well suited for walking and public transit as well, despite being a newer, West Coast city. But only as far as its design goes; safety is another issue, as are the many unused and underused buildings and overall “ghostown” feel in many parts of downtown outside of weekday 9-5 hours.

    As another commenter noted, the pop. density makes a difference too, I think. While Oak.’s is reported to be 7126.6/ per sq. mile (by Wikipedia), DC’s is about 9316.4 per square mile.

    I’m not sure what it would take to make Oakland more like DC, and other more pedestrian friendly cities, but I think safety and attracting more business to the area have quite a bit to do with it.

    I do have to agree that walking around Oakland at night, esp. late-ish does not feel safe to me (at least in the areas I’ve lived in, which felt fine overall during the day), and stories of gunpoint muggings and other similar incidents are very common. This was the case at least when I lived there (just a year ago) and the sit. doesn’t seem to have changed significantly since then.

  5. Georgia November 25, 2007 at 2:53 pm #

    I grew up on the East Coast with subways and commuter lines, but not only moving to the East Bay did I realize the difference between the two transit systems.

    I am intrigued by the BART infill idea. The distance between MacArthur and 19th is very significant. Also, a station between Ashby and MacArthur would be useful. The distance between these two is much less than MacArthur and 19th, but the highway infrastructure and elevated BART track contribute to a sensation of greater distance.

  6. Becks November 25, 2007 at 3:45 pm #

    While a part of me loves the idea of a Temescal BART station (and maybe something in between 19th & MacArthur as well), another part of me thinks BART is not the way to go and that we should invest in Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) on Telegraph instead.

    A great example of public transit inefficiencies is my trip from the Oakland airport last night. First, I had to take a bus to the Coliseum BART station, which was pretty quick. Then, I waited for 20 minutes to catch the Richmond train, and rode the train for about 15 minutes to MacArthur. Glancing across the street at the empty 1 bus stop, I opted for a cab. All together, my transit time from the airport to my apartment took over an hour – exactly as long as my flight from Burbank to Oakland!

    Though parts of downtown are a bit ghost-town like right now, that’s been changing over the past couple of years. There are many more restaurants serving dinner, and there seems to be a bit more street traffic. I hope this will change even more once all of the new housing in the area opens, and with the density of the area, maybe at least downtown will become as walkable and as livable as denser East Coast cities.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. dogtown commons » Resisting a Siege Mentality - December 1, 2007

    […] Becks at Living in the O was reminded recently on a trip to DC, and as has been discussed here before, neighborhoods feel much safer and […]

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