The 15-Minute City: How Walkability is Gaining a Foothold in the U.S.
The 15-Minute City, an urban concept in which all basic needs can be satisfied with a 15-minute walk or bike ride, is catching on in the U.S. as an indirect reaction to the pandemic.
Jake Poznak, co-owner of Moonrise Izakaya, a Japanese restaurant on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, could have easily been a statistic of the COVID-19 pandemic.
According to the National Restaurant Association, more than 100,000 restaurateurs across the country had to close their businesses because of the pandemic. After the first wave, when restaurants began to reopen, the city helped restaurants build outdoor dining enclosures that take up spots on the street otherwise reserved for parked cars. Expanded outdoor dining in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic was a lifeline for Poznak, the business, and the vibrancy of the neighborhood.
“Without outdoor dining, we would be out of business,” Poznak says. “I was shocked that all winter, people were willing to get on the sidewalk. I have one of these street enclosures.”
Outdoor dining provided a lifeline for restaurants like Poznak’s. But consumers have come to want the sidewalk build-outs to become a permanent part of New York City’s urban landscape, rather than turning them back into street-side parking.
That appreciation is something Poznak has seen firsthand, and he says that keeping outdoor seating has a long-term value. “I intend to completely apply or to keep a tree enclosure permanently,” he says.
Poznak’s experience is indicative of how prioritizing improved walkability and pedestrian access to businesses over traffic and parking has helped many struggling businesses stay afloat. In part, that’s why cities around the country are starting to embrace an urban planning concept called the “15-Minute City.”
The 15-Minute City concept emboldens dense walkability, stating that all people should have access to all the goods and services they would need within 15 minutes of their home. The specifics of the meaning are subject to debate, such as whether that be 15 minutes by bike or on foot. Regardless, the emphasis is on multi-modal transportation options that are more built for the person than the car.
The Roots of New Urbanism
The concept of pedestrian-centered planning has been centric to the New Urbanism movement for decades. New Urbanism advocates for more walkable cities with responsible mixed-use development—a design concept in which developers build housing, shopping, essential services, and work opportunities within close proximity, sometimes on the same properties. These developments also typically are built around walkable streets that prioritize pedestrians over cars, but also provide easy access to public transportation.
New York is well on its way to meeting 15-Minute City standards, particularly as it comes to outdoor dining. The City Council passed a measure in the fall to make outdoor dining permanent.
The city also adopted an Open Streets concept during the pandemic, allowing streets to be closed to car traffic, giving bikers and pedestrians enough space to travel while maintaining social distance. On April 29, the City Council voted to make the Open Streets program permanent, too.
The move exemplifies the shifting sentiment away from cars that has had a hold on every American city since the mid-20th century.
New York is the standout example for a more pandemic-induced move in this direction in the United States—following in the footsteps of Paris, where the idea of the 15-Minute City first caught on.
In the fall of 2020, Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo centered her successful re-election campaign around becoming a 15-Minute City. She has since appointed a commissioner to lead the initiative in the sprawling but transit-friendly, walkable city. Developing the 15-Minute City concept across the region essentially means that Paris will have several hubs rather than a single more condensed cityscape, what Parisian city officials are calling a “city of proximities.”
Much like Paris, New York is geographically spread out, but generally walkable. The Big Apple has vast transit options as a whole, but there are several pockets of the city where that is just not the case. According to Politico, Shaun Donovan, the former Housing and Urban Development Secretary under President Obama, has taken a page out of Hidalgo’s playbook, and plans to make the 15-Minute City concept a major part of his platform in his campaign to be the city’s next mayor.
But for New York, which is one of the most walkable cities in the United States, that does not seem far-fetched. Many of the nation’s other large cities aren’t exactly known to embrace pedestrian infrastructure over appealing to the car. The idea that residents of America’s most sprawling metropolises would give up their cars has been seen as a pipe dream by urbanists from coast to coast. It seems otherwise absurd to think that most residents of notoriously sprawling Houston, for example, would opt for a bus pass rather than those car keys.
It’s no surprise that for decades the car has been a symbol of personal, unencumbered freedom.
That has since changed. Teens are driving less and, in some cases, opting not to get their driver’s license at all. According to the Wall Street Journal, in 2019 only about 25% of teens obtained their driver’s license at age 16. That’s down from about 50% in 1983.
The COVID-19 pandemic has expanded the desire to move past reliance on cars for mobility far beyond those who would have otherwise been new drivers. In part, these developments have helped the concept of a 15-Minute City to pick up steam.
The pandemic has essentially given cities an opportunity to try out elements of this concept that make sense in their unique contexts.
“Cities have had to respond to the pandemic very quickly, and they have a set of tools that allow people to go outside and make better use of outdoor space,” says Rob Steuteville, senior communication adviser for The Congress For New Urbanism (CNU), a group advocating for sustainable and walkable cities. Steuteville is also the founder and executive director for the advocacy group Better Cities and Towns, a nonprofit organization that educates people about how to make cities more sustainable and livable.
Known for its almost nonexistent zoning, Houston is a city where the idea of a 15-Minute City is more of an uphill battle, but it’s far from off the table. The layout of Houston is actually fairly conducive to this. While the city is sprawling, it has multiple urban centers, unlike most other cities. Downtown Houston, the Texas Medical Center, Uptown Houston, Greenway Plaza, and Westchase all act as concentrated urban cores with sprawling neighborhoods intertwined between them.
It’s kind of like the U.S.’s northeast corridor, with major walkable hubs like New York and Philadelphia separated by densely populated, but not exactly walkable suburbs. Except that in Houston, this phenomenon is all within the city limits.
Houston does have a history of urban planning successes, but they didn’t come easily. Urban rail, for example, has been on and off the table for decades in Houston. In 2004, the city introduced the Metrorail, which at its inception connected two large dense urban cores, the Texas Medical Center and Downtown Houston. The red line quickly became the single most highly used light rail line in the United States. The system has since grown with an expansion of the red line, as well as two newer lines that connect with it.
Then when the pandemic set in, Houston, like many other cities, embraced the open streets concept, at least for a short period of time. Even in the hot and humid summers, the Gulf Coast is infamous for, people were out walking and biking, transporting themselves without a car.
While the city did not renew this pilot program, the result has had a lasting effect. More Houstonians are now embracing life without a car. According to Bloomberg News, biking has taken off in the Bayou City, as well as in other cities known for sprawl, like Los Angeles, and in the Texas cities of Austin, San Antonio, and Dallas.
“Visually you can tell that there are more people walking and biking than ever,” says Adam Greenfield, a grassroots organizer in Austin. “You go to any bike shop, and they don’t have bikes for you and they won’t have any for a while. They are low on parts, and you are going to have to wait. That’s a pretty big sign,” Greenfield says.
Throughout the pandemic, he has been deeply involved in “actual urbanism” efforts—that’s when a city’s residents embrace urbanism practices at a grassroots level, often without government help or approval.
Greenfield and other residents in Austin’s East Cesar Chavez neighborhood found old 51-gallon juice barrels and made them into makeshift bollards in the street. They painted the road to make curb extensions and even added some benches to the space. While the city quickly asked them to remove the installation, the move invoked interest in the community to prioritize pedestrians over cars.
The city came in and removed those installations after a day, however, so the focus has shifted to having the city create a program to allow activists to create these kinds of projects, Greenfield said.
The market research firm NPD group shows that the growth in cycling is a trend, with bike purchases surged 75% in the early days of the pandemic, bringing in a staggering $1 billion in sales in the April 2020. Sales for bikes under $200 jumped by 203%.
According to a study from McKinsey, this is not a temporary move by consumers pegged to the pandemic, with two-thirds of respondents saying they will continue to walk or bike as part of their daily commute when life returns to “normal.”...this is not a temporary move by consumers pegged to the pandemic, with two-thirds of respondents saying they will continue to walk or bike as part of their daily commute when life returns to normal. —@andyreports Click To Tweet
Pop-up parks and outdoor cafes taking over the streets, as they are in New York City, are often referred to as “parklets.” Parklets have been considered a stable tool in the tactical urbanism playbook, and now have become a mainstay in city streets across the country.
“A lot of what you’ve seen around the country with outdoor cafes that have been put in, the pop-up parks, the streets that have been partially closed off creates more pedestrian space—that’s a big trend cities are making use of and they really needed during the pandemic,” Rob Steuteville says.
“What has been interesting is to see how much cities develop policies that were supposed to be temporary. Now mayors have shown that this was a way to test and experiment,” says Helene Chartier, Head of Zero Carbon Development for C40 Cities, a coalition of cities around the globe focused on tackling issues like climate change.
Several cities are taking action. Following New York’s move, in March 2021, San Francisco Mayor London Breed introduced legislation that would make parklets permanent fixtures in the city—a move that expands outdoor dining options and in turn facilitates more walkable neighborhoods.
Open streets concepts have also proved to be successful over the long term. In the early days of the pandemic, the city of Seattle launched its Stay Healthy Streets program, closing more than 25 miles of city streets to through traffic to give that space back to pedestrians and bikers. In May 2020, Mayor Jenny Durkan announced that many of those closures would become permanent.
Not only do these moves improve the health and economy of American cities, but they have also allowed for social connection in a time when people have been largely isolated from each other.
“Fifteen-minute cities are not just about walking and cycling. It’s about the connection you want and a place to socialize,” Chartier adds.
Returning to a Post-Pandemic World
The next step will be to translate the growing momentum into holistic 15-Minute City policies for after the pandemic. The mayors of cities such as New Orleans and Austin, among others, have expressed interest in adopting policies as part of the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group.
Portland, Oregon, was the early adopter of these concepts. In 2010, the city introduced its 20-Minute Neighborhoods program—essentially the same concept as the 15-Minute City. The program is intended to support 90% of all Portland residents with more walkable and bikeable infrastructure by 2030, and has been included in the city’s Climate Plan.
Detroit also has a plan in place. First introduced by Mayor Mike Duggan in 2016, Detroit’s 20-Minute Neighborhood concept is an effort to revitalize the city’s lower east side. The plan calls for all residents to be within 20 minutes of transit, parks, retail, and essential services, and at least 20 minutes from “blight,” which is defined as “blighted buildings, derelict streetscapes, nor crumbling infrastructure.”
Creating a holistic policy is not as simple as expanding sidewalks, or replacing a parking lot with a park or a grocery store. Cities must reform their existing land use codes. The Congress for New Urbanism is closely working with cities around the country to reform those codes.
“The big problem with cities are the 20th-century zoning codes, parking requirements, and things that prevent people from building the housing that they need in 15-minute cities,” Steuteville says.
Intercity transportation is also gaining more attention and promises to supplement more walkable 15-minute cities (or 20-minute neighborhoods). As part of the Biden administration’s jobs and infrastructure proposals, Amtrak is looking to expand its rail capacity. The proposal also touts the possibility of government-funded high-speed rail in the United States. However, in the narrowly divided Senate, the president’s plan faces an uphill battle getting passed.
In some regions, the private sector has stepped in, and plans are already 20th century. In Texas, there is a project underway to connect Houston and Dallas in roughly 90 minutes: The privately-owned Texas Central Railroad is planning a 240-mile high-speed line between the two cities. It was approved by the U.S. Department of Transportation in 2020 and, according to the Texas Tribune, is expected to break ground this year.
Meanwhile Virgin Trains USA is actively involved in several rail projects around the country including possible projects in California, and Brightline plans to expand its Florida network from the Miami area to Orlando.
Transportation to and from airports also may soon be less reliant on cars. Other companies, including United Airlines, are investing in air taxi technology that would improve access to airports directly from city centers.
With local infrastructure and intercity transportation, the future urban landscape is promising to look a lot different from today. Only time will tell, but a city built around 15-minute travel via nonmotorized transportation is one that can upend the way planners think about neighborhoods and mobility, and may ultimately render cars unnecessary in all aspects of personal transportation....a city built around 15-minute travel is one that can upend the way planners think about neighborhoods...and may...render cars unnecessary in all aspects of personal transportation. —@andyreports Click To Tweet
is a reporter focusing on cost of living issues. He writes for publications including Al Jazeera English, Observer, OZY, Salon, CNBC, and many others. He’s also the anchor for the nationally syndicated business news program Business Brief. He is a member of ONA.
This article was first published on Yes! Magazine.