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The time to invest in walkability is now, says expert Dan Burden

Dan Burden
Dan Burden

People want to live in walkable cities. In fact, a recent study says homebuyers will pay 35% more for walkable real estate. But how do we create walkable communities when cars dominate our lives? That’s what walkability expert Dan Burden will be discussing at Monday night’s CivicCon event.

Dan Burden grew up wanting to explore his neighborhoods by foot, and then eventually by bike. He even explored Pensacola by walking when he was stationed here while in the Navy.

“I owned my quadrant of the city, and I always loved that,” said Burden. “I was always kind of a person that just needed to be out exploring as much as I could.”

That need to explore would eventually lead Burden to become one of the country’s top walkability experts. For the past four decades, he’s founded six nonprofits focused on active transportation. He served as Florida’s first state bicycle and pedestrian coordinator for 16 years before founding his own organizations advocating the concept of “complete streets." He helped implement legislation in the 1980s for the Florida Department of Transportation that set a trend across the country.

“The concept actually came out of Florida,” explained Burden. “We were working through the legislature, created what really became one of the first states to require(complete streets policy), when we rebuilt the road to build in for pedestrians and bicyclists.”

Now, the phrase “complete streets” it’s commonly used in urban planning. The idea is designing streets that “enable safe use and support mobility” for all users, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Dan Burden extended interview

But decades after Burden helped to start the trend, it hasn’t caught on enough. Streets are still being designed for cars, not people, he says. A new worldwide movement called Vision Zero, puts the blame of pedestrian or bicycling fatalities on street designers.

“And what we are now saying is, stop doing that,” said Burden. “You're killing people and you're destroying cities. Put people in place first. Many engineers in virtually every state will say, well, safety is number one. And you always hear them say that, but they do just the opposite.”

Florida ranks second in the nation for pedestrian fatalities according to a 2022 study from Smart Growth America. Burden points out certain hot spots such as Miami Beach or Winter Park as walkable communities, but there is still more potential across the state. And the time to make changes, is now.

“It's time to say, wait a minute, we've been doing this wrong for 60 years. It's time to start doing it right,” he said. “Let's pull out some stops and start designing model projects so that we never touch another road —whether we're resurfacing it or rebuilding entirely — we don't touch that road unless we design it for safe systems.”

Burden points to Pensacola’s historic district as a good spot for walkability. While he’s in town, he’ll also be looking at West Cervantes, which recently underwent a $7 million construction project to improve pedestrian safety.

“West Cervantes is an example, where if I look at the traffic numbers, there's no justification for that being four lanes. None whatsoever. It's more dangerous,” said Burden. “It takes lives of motorists as well as pedestrians and bicyclists, and it's really hurt the businesses. The ability to get across the street as a pedestrian has been dampened with the treatment that they brought to that street.”

Uriel Mont

A big mistake in urban design, according to Burden, is placing high speed limits in areas where bikes and pedestrians are. The ideal speed is 20 miles per hour or “horse and buggy speed.”

“We should be designing neighborhoods where nobody drives more than 20 (miles per hour),” he added. “That's truly a safe speed. It's much quieter. There's no reason, once you're on a local street, to be going more than 15 or 20.”

The decision to lower speeds and increase walkability in communities has economic benefits.

“Speeds kill businesses,” said Burden “The social life of the street goes dead. People have to rush in and out of a building because they're worried about where they park or something. So, what we know from multiple studies throughout the nation is that when you return a city to the people, when you build for walkability and lower speeds, the value of not only homes go up, but so do the, the businesses. The businesses make more money.”

After 40 years in urban planning, Burden is optimistic about the work ahead. But wants it to happen sooner than later.

“That would be my hope that people leave the meeting believing that it's worth working toward,” said Burden.“And we've shot ourselves in the foot enough times, we don't have any feet left. Let's now go out and make this work. Right?”

You can hear more from him at the next CivicCon event, Monday, April 17, where Burden will share his insights from his walking audit and offer suggestions on the city’s transportation plan. Register here.

Jennie joined WUWF in 2018 as digital content producer and reporter.