Replay 11/23/07: DC/Oakland Reflections: Urban Walking

3 Sep

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.

2 Responses to “Replay 11/23/07: DC/Oakland Reflections: Urban Walking”

  1. Eric Fischer September 3, 2009 at 11:28 am #

    Some other reasons I can think of why DC succeeds as a walking city when Oakland does not:

    * Population and building density. DC is a rowhouse city; Oakland is a city of detached houses
    * Terrain: Central DC is fairly flat; Oakland is divided by hills and a lake
    * Street system: DC has probably an overdesigned street system; Oakland’s street system was made up by lots of individual subdividers who gave very little thought to connecting with each other
    * Local competition: DC is the center of its universe; anyone in Oakland who wants better walkability can just go to San Francisco instead.

    The lack of density can be (slowly) fixed; the other problems we’re probably stuck with.

  2. Cat September 8, 2009 at 1:24 pm #

    I’m a D.C. native and Oakland resident. While I don’t know what part of D.C. you were in, I suspect (given you were there for work) that you were in certain parts of NW, much of which isn’t really analogous to North Oakland in terms of crime, businesses open in the evening, income stratification and other issues that contribute to the perception of crime/safety and people’s desires to be out on the streets at night. Believe me when I say there are plenty of areas in D.C. (even in NW) that don’t feel particularly safe, or populated, at night.

    I’d be interested to hear what parts of D.C. you were walking in during the evening to get a better sense of if you’re really comparing similar urban areas.

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