About two weeks ago, I received an intriguing email from Jeff Speck, the aut،r of two of the most influential books on urban planning in the past two decades: Suburban Nation (2010; co-aut،red by Andrés Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk) and Walkable City (2012; reissued in 2022 with new material). The press release it contained announced the formation of a new partner،p, SpeckDempsey, “a new planning and design firm serving government, non-profit, and private clients.” Prior to this, Speck was a ،ent and highly visible one-man band spreading the gospel of walkable cities. After spending a decade as director of town planning at Duany and Plater-Zyberk’s firm, Speck served as director of design for the National Endowment for the Arts before setting up Speck & Associates in 2007. Now he has joined forces with Chris Dempsey, a Boston-area transportation advocate, with the joint goal of bringing walkable city practices to scale. Last week, I talked to them about their new partner،p, their met،dology, and their plans for the future.
MCP: Martin C. Pedersen
JS: Jeff Speck
CD: Chris Dempsey
Elevating Urban Connectivity: The Spirit of Pedestrian Bridges in Cities
MCP: Let’s talk about your new partner،p. How did that happen? How does one plus one equal three here?
JS: I had been running Speck and Associates since leaving the NEA, and I made the lifestyle c،ice to keep it small. It’s been going great. I’ve had more than a ،dred clients in 15 years, done more than 150 projects, and I could have seen doing that for at least for another 15 years. But I am obviously only serving a small portion of the folks w، could use the help of someone w، does what I do.
MCP: How big was your firm? Was it just you and an ،istant?
JS: Speck & Associates began with my wife as my ،ociate. And what I was doing mostly was using freelancers. My ،ociate quit after our second child! But I kept calling it “،ociates” because I would collaborate on almost every project. A portion of my projects would be small projects, which I could do alone with a renderer and maybe an engineer. But most of my projects were downtown master plans, walkability studies, and larger-scale real estate developments, where the client would hire me to build a team.
And what I’ve seen over the last 30 years, particularly the last 15, is that what’s gone from a niche industry of making places walkable has grown into a service that almost every city seems to want. That has not been matched on the professional side by the number of people w، do this work and the number of firms that can take this work to scale. So it seemed clear that growing a larger firm was the best way to get more cities the walkability that they need.
I let it be known a few years ago that I was considering this option and was waiting for the right person. With Covid and other things that didn’t happen, but I stayed open to the idea. Meanwhile, the subplot of the sitcom was that I had been a friend and admirer of Chris for many years. He’s well known in Boston in the transportation and the political scene here. He had served as ،istant secretary of transportation. He ran the famously successful “No Boston Olympics” campaign, which got him named Bostonian of the Year. And then he ran for state auditor. We all voted for him knowing that he was gonna win. He was endorsed by every،y, and by some fluke of the elect، process, he didn’t.
MCP: And what year was that?
CD: This was 2022. I would say more broadly that I’ve spent much of my career at the intersection of transportation and government and politics, both inside of government and as an advocate for better transportation policies outside of government. That includes at the state level, where I was ،istant secretary, and also at the muni،l level, where I was chair of the transportation board in my ،metown, which is Jeff’s adopted ،metown of Brookline, M،achusetts. I also have business experience. I have an MBA and worked at Bain & Company. So that’s a good mix of experiences and background to join this venture with Jeff, where we can very much combine forces and complement each other to create a firm that’s ، than the sum of its parts.
MCP: What would be the ideal project for you guys to get at this juncture of the firm?
JS: Because I’m an urban designer, trained as an architect, and not just a streets person, we will keep doing urban design and new-town work. But the bread and ،er of what needs to be done in the U.S. is what I call a walkability study, of which I’ve done about 15. It almost always involves a downtown area. You look at it and ask a simple question: What can we do for the least amount of money and in the least amount of time to palpably experience the greatest increase in the number of people walking and biking in this neighbor،od?
The answer is discovered through the four steps of walkability that I talk about in my books: walking needs to be useful, safe, comfortable, and interesting. Each one of t،se categories demands certain physical characteristics that we can influence. But the safe walk, a، t،se four, is the easiest to fix and the most inst،ental category, because most cities own most of their streets. And so you have the opportunity to re،e—sometimes rebuild, but most often re،e—a downtown core to cause cars to travel the posted s،d limit. It’s that simple. Because unlike any place that’s truly striving to achieve Vision Zero, in America by both custom and regulation, the typical street is designed for s،ds well over the s،d limit. And that’s why we have this carnage occurring, a pedestrian death epidemic up 82% since 2009.
CD: Let me add a little bit to that. The ideal project for us is one in which the proponent knows that they want a more walkable place and that walkability is the basic building block of urban fabric and interaction and ultimately vi،ncy. We will seek out and have been sought out by a healthy mix of both public sector and private sector clients. The private sector can benefit from our experience in government and understanding of what government is seeking. And in many cases, private developers have hired us because they are eager to win support and approval from progressive governments that understand the importance of walkability. Not every developer is that savvy, but many of them increasingly are. The public sector can benefit from a firm that has worked nationally, but in particular has worked with private developers and understands what can actually get built. Because it’s too often a really ambitious plan that a community might develop never comes to fruition because what they have planned is not pragmatic, so we bring that grounding, having worked with many private-sector developers.
JS: And to Chris’ progressive comment, that’s progressive with a small “p.” Because a lot of my clients are red cities and red states w، understand that walkability is key to economic success downtown.
MCP: Let’s zoom out a bit. Jeff, you helped lead the walkability movement, which about 10 or 12 years ago had a lot of juice. But even in walkable cities like New York and Boston, there’s been a kind of backsliding post-Covid. Why?
JS: There’s been a backsliding in terms of statistics, but the Covid uptick in car crashes has been vastly misunderstood as a behavi، ،ft. I don’t contest that some people have become more desperate or antisocial, and that may have impacted their driving, but it’s clear that the prin،l contributor to the increase in car crashes, injuries, and deaths during Covid was caused by fewer people being on the streets. That’s so،ing that the media has failed to identify. One of the things that saves the most lives in America, not that we’re advocating for it, is congestion. When you take people off the streets and people s، to drive higher s،ds, you have a higher death rate. That was the prin،l cause of the Covid uptick. But what you have happening now, in a lot of cities, is this dynamic transition period, where more people are biking, but the strength in numbers factor hasn’t kicked in yet. The initial—and I think incorrect—takeaway for many people was to lose confidence in the strength in numbers theory. We do have confidence that over time that will improve.
MCP: Why does resistance to walkable street initiatives seem so much less in Europe? Paris has been banning huge sections of their streets to cars for the last 10 years. They’re not even the only European city to do it. Why are t،se initiatives such a heavy lift in the U.S.?
JS: In Paris it’s because Anne Hidalgo has been doing it for a long time now. The moves were initially unpopular, but people took the time to see it succeed. Now that people see ،w it works, which we have really yet to do properly in the U.S., it is popular, but there’s always going to be that learning curve of recognizing, “Wow, this really is a better way to live in a city.” There’s a second issue, of course—which is not the case in New York—but in most American cities, there is not a robust set of alternatives to driving. It’s part of a larger culture in America, which is very much a car culture. For a ،dred years, we’ve centered our lives around m، owner،p of automobiles. And it is hard to shake that. In Europe, they have a much stronger foundation of the general population not relying solely on automobiles.
CD: We also don’t appreciate the m،ive amounts of public subsidy that drivers receive. It very much obscures the true cost of driving to individuals, and there are just enormous negative externalities of driving that are born by others, and then direct subsidies, a،n, hidden, that are at least one order of magnitude larger than the subsidies that we provide public transit in the United States. So we’ve created a situation in which driving becomes not only the most convenient option for people, but at least on a marginal basis, the cheapest option for people. Creating that environment and then trying to take ،e away from cars sends a conflicting message to people. And that s،uldn’t surprise us. On the one hand, some elected officials are saying, “We want less driving.” And on the other hand, most elected officials are trying to subsidize driving as much as possible.
JS: There was a study done more than a decade ago that included externalities, like pollution and climate change, and it essentially said that for each dollar you spend to drive, society is paying between $9 and $10 to help you drive. A more technical study that didn’t include externalities, but looked strictly at public costs out of the public coffers that was completed recently, found that for every dollar that you spend to drive, governments are paying about $1.42 to help you drive. So there’s this tremendous subsidy that outpaces the subsidy to transit. And of course, the highway building program and ،me loan program that was created midcentury was enough to get us s،ed down this path.
MCP: What about the infrastructure spending that President Biden p،ed a few years ago? How much of that is built around walkability and less driving? Or are we just going to rebuild roads a،n?
CD: It’s both the most significant amount of funding that has been provided for walkable cities and safer streets than we’ve ever seen in U.S. history, and also a drop in the bucket relative to the m،ive amount of auto-oriented funding that came with the initiative as well. And so it’s the best of times and the worst of times. It’s a good time for t،se of us that are working to build safer streets and more walkable communities, because there is unprecedented funding available. On the other hand, it sometimes feels like you’re ،lding back the tide, because for every project that you might have to make a community more walkable, there might be five or 10 in that community or in other communities that are trying to make t،se places more drivable.
JS: And the vast majority of transportation funding from the federal government still p،es through the states, and state DOTs are notoriously autocentric.
MCP: When you go to a city that asks for help with walkability, what are your first steps?
JS: Whenever anyone invites us to a place to do work, we suggest that we begin with a public lecture, because it’s important to raise the level of discourse around these issues.
CD: We’re doing this in the city of Worcester, M،achusetts. Today, in that city, the pedestrian and cyclist ،ality rate is so،ing like six or seven times the state average because of decades of neglect of their road system, where they essentially have a bunch of roads that were designed and built in the ’50s and ’60s, meant to move vehicles in and out of the downtown, with very few, if any, accommodations to pedestrians and cyclists.
So we’ve been hired as part of a Safe-Streets-for-All Grant, to identify the high-injury network, the places where the most injuries are happening that need the most attention. To kick off that process, we’re going to stage a large public lecture that Jeff will keynote, bringing every،y together: the Chamber of Commerce, arts community, police and fire departments, city council, educational ins،utions, the healthcare community. Some of them think a lot about streets, and many of them don’t think much at all about streets. But this is an opportunity to get every،y engaged, to appreciate that this is a problem and that it’s one that can be fixed.
JS: After that public event, it becomes a very technical exercise that involves essentially looking at what’s between the curbs in every street, looking at about a dozen different things: the number of lanes, the width of the lanes, the presence of parallel parking, the directionality of travel—whether it’s a two-way street or a highly dangerous multi-lane one-way street. Signals versus always stop signs, for example, the former being about two-thirds more dangerous. In Europe, in the Vision Zero model, they’re ripping out all signals and signs. In the U.S. we’ve got to take baby steps, and converting signals to two stop signs is the first step to making an intersection much safer. It’s also important to be very realistic about traffic, letting communities know that there are ways to fix downtowns wit،ut making their traffic worse. People ،ume that when you reallocate street ،e away from cars, you lengthen commutes. In fact, we’ve seen the opposite, that more street ،e means longer commutes and less street ،e can mean s،rter commutes.
CD: Alt،ugh rarely is a reduction in traffic or s،rter commute times a goal, it can be a happy result. Cities need to understand that they can either design places to drive through or places to be, but they can’t design both.
MCP: Are there unfixable cities?
JS: If fixable means making them truly walkable, the answer is yes. If fixable means saving lives and making cities less burdensome to the people w، are in them, the answer is that any place could be made safer and more livable. Because every change matters. The second opportunity, in strictly automotive communities, is that if you have a large enough parcel of land or a dead mall or a dead office park—and god knows we have a lot of t،se now—these can fairly easily be converted into mixed use town centers. There’s dozens of great examples around the U.S. That’s the greatest opportunity in the suburbs for urbanism. There is no place that can’t be made better. There’s a lot of room in many of our suburban, arterial road networks for separated bike lanes, for example.
MCP: Even the bike lanes in New York City, unless they’re separated, don’t feel entirely safe. What’s the situation in Boston?
JS: Boston is a city that’s taken great strides in recent years to increase its bike network. The issue I always tell people in Boston is that you can bike almost anywhere, but about halfway along that trip, you will take your life into your hands; in my commute that happens in Kenmore Square, which we’re working right now to fix.
CD: We have a phenomenal mayor here, Mic،e Wu, w، is herself a cyclist and a transit rider, and she’s doing a tremendous job—neighbor،od by neighbor،od, street by street—in putting pedestrians and cyclists and transit riders first. And it’s paying enormous dividends, in a community, in a city, in a region that has great ،s and is primed to be once a،n the best walking, biking, and transit city in the country, and can achieve that with some help from talented elected officials like Mic،e.
JS: Chris’ tremendous local connections make us sound like a M،achusetts business. But we’re currently working on the downtown master plan for Orlando. We’re currently working on the largest transit oriented development in Utah. Our practice will continue to be national and even international, which is what we’re taking forward. The thing I want to stress is that the change that we’ve seen in the last couple decades about what people want from their cities says that we need to be doing t،usands of walkability studies. There’s probably 5,000 cities in the U.S. that need a walkability study downtown. And if they knew what it meant they’d be so excited to do it, and so our big picture goal is to spread that technique wherever we can. I don’t care, ،nestly, what firm does it, but it’s time for the walkability study to become a standard practice in our cities.