In many Brazilian cities, pedestrians seem to take part in an involuntary board game, in which one moves slowly, sometimes dodging obstacles, sometimes moving back a few squares. Among the challenges are narrow sidewalks, poorly lit walkways, cars passing too closely, lack of connections to other modes of transportation, and long waits to cross avenues.

But what if policy-makers valued our two feet more than the car’s four wheels, improving the walkability of urban areas? This would benefit people and cities, say doctors, environmentalists, architects, activists, and even economists.

According to the book Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming, by the American environmentalist and researcher Paul Hawken, if cities were to make a greater investment in walkability in cities, so that by 2050 about 5% of trips currently made by car would be done by foot, that change would prevent 2.9 gigatons of carbon gas from being released into the air.

Moving a few squares ahead in this board game means doing more physical activity – which helps combat obesity and the diseases that can arise from it, like diabetes, hypertension, and cardiovascular and joint problems.

Leaving the car at home to go to work or school also helps reduce carbon gas emissions. And reducing pollution helps decrease the incidence of respiratory diseases. Citizens with better physical disposition and lower levels of obesity are less likely to develop diseases and, therefore, use the public health system less. This saves money for governments.

Two children and a young adult play on a hopscotch board painted onto the ground in a park. The young adult and the boy are on the left side of the photo, and the girl is on the right. The boy is stepping on the numbers 1 and 2 of the hopscotch board, while the girl is watching him. All three are wearing colorful clothes. In the back is a wall with graffiti of faces and the phrase “Those who believe will go far” written in Portuguese.

Walking children to school can be fun, leading to the discovery of new places (Photo: SampaPé)

But what does it really take to make a city more walkable? Studies like the one conducted by the American researcher Jeff Speck, and the Walkability Index, developed by the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP), offer the same conclusion: it’s not enough to create paths that take people from point A to point B. Walkability means making that path as good or better than going by car. To do this, a city must consider six essential points.

The first is related to mobility, focusing less on cars and more on pedestrians. In his book Walkable City, Jeff Speck argues that building more avenues or opening up new lanes on streets do not improve traffic, but rather increase the flow of vehicles, because they induce demand. Both the author and ITDP suggest investing in a public transport system that is easily accessible, allowing people to walk to it. “Integration is essential because walking is only an option for short and medium distances. For long distances, we need buses, subways, trains,” says Angélica Benatti Alvim, director of the School of Urbanism and Architecture at Mackenzie University, in São Paulo.

A person with a shaved head is sitting on a bench, their legs crossed, and looking down at the ground. They are wearing jeans and a gray t-shirt, the sun is shining on them between the shade of the surrounding trees. Cutting through the center of the photo is a gray concrete walking path, passing in front of the bench and towards the back of the image, with a blue tactile floor and short grass on either side. There are trees at the edges of the photo, and in the back are buildings and a clear, blue sky.

Trees along the way encourage walking and offer more comfort and pleasure to pedestrians, in addition to environmental benefits (Photo: SampaPé)

The example highlighted by specialists is New York, voted the most walkable city in the country by WalkScore, an index that measures walkability in cities. In New York, you are always within a 15 minute walk from public transit. In another American city, Portland, the number of residents to ride bikes to work rose from 1 to 8 percent in less than 15 years, with an investment in public policies that represent only 1 percent of the transportation budget.

Encouraging the use of bicycles improves mobility and can bring more safety to pedestrians, and even to those who drive. According to the book Drawdown, after an adaptation phase, drivers tend to drive more carefully in streets with cyclists present.

Other points in favor of walkability relate to road and public safety, with measures to make streets better lit, encourage more traffic in isolated places, and reduce the wait time for pedestrians at crosswalks.

This package also includes the quality of sidewalks. A city that wants more pedestrians needs public walkways with protection against cars in busy streets. Ideally, sidewalks should be wide, free of obstacles, and accessible to the disabled, elderly and children, with benches for resting. “Lisbon is an example of a simple urban reform project that took these items into account, thinking about the pedestrian,” says Angélica Alvim, from Mackenzie.

On the upper left corner of the image is the title “Become an urban walker, in 7 steps” in uppercase, and the subtitle “Walking can be easier and more interesting than you think, as shown by the NGO SampaPé,” written in black over a gray background. Below, a drawing of a woman walking along as S-shaped path, with signs dotting the path number from 1 to 7 and connected to the following text, respectively: “1. Small steps: analyze your daily route and start slowly.”; “2. Car: Analyze the driving you do within a 3-kilometer radius of your place. What can be done on foot?”; “3. Subway: can you walk part of the way, perhaps avoiding a transfer?”; “4. Bus + subway: walking to the station can be faster than waiting for the bus.”; “5. School: it is worth getting up early and going on foot. Children will also enjoy this.”; “6. Apps: Use applications that count your steps as they provide an incentive.”; “7. Health: Walking leads you to discover new places and it is good for your body and mind.” On the lower right corner are the following credits: Artwork: Bia Gomes/Believe Earth.

The NGO SampaPé, founded in 2012 in the city of São Paulo, works to improve the experience of walking the city, by promoting walks, workshops, training, studies, and discussion with public officials

Making journeys by foot as good or better than going by car also involves offering pedestrians more comfort. Since walking in the shade is a lot more pleasant for much of the year, planting trees is an important initiative.

The last point relates to mixed use neighborhoods and regions, which combine houses, parks, schools, offices and commerce. The idea is this: being able to do everyday things, like taking their children to school or stopping by the market, by foot, a resident will feel less pressured to use her car. In New York City, walking to an average of ten restaurants, bars and cafés takes only 5 minutes, according to the WalkScore index.

With pro-pedestrian reforms, car use can be reduced between 20 and 40 percent, according the American organization Urban Land Institute. The city of São Paulo has the potential to grow in this sense, since 25 percent of its car trips are done over short distances, within a range of 3 kilometers. In Brazil, 36 percent of the population walks to work, according to the National Public Transport Association (ANTP). Another 31 percent use their car, and 29 percent use public transit. There is still room to encourage more people to go by foot and advance on the urban gameboard.