What Makes a Community Walkable?

As you might already know, we at Opticos Design are firm believers in the principles of New Urbanism, a movement that aims to improve quality of life through sustainable urban development and the creation of complete neighborhoods. A key tenant of New Urbanism is walkability, which we’ve been talking about a lot on the blog lately.

“Walkability” isn’t a vague buzzword; there are proven methods for a place to be considered walkable. They include:

  1. Most things within a 5-10-minute walk from home and work
  2. Streets designed to enable and encourage walking
  3. Access to public transit

Thoughtful design and development choices can help communities achieve all three of these methods, and in turn improve their local economies and the lives of their residents. Today, we’re again going back to the basics and taking a deeper look at what each of these really mean for developers, municipalities and individuals who care about walkability.

Special note to our fellow cyclists: We love bikeability, too, so we’ll make sure to talk about the details of good bikeability sometime soon!

Criteria 1: Most Things Within a 5-10-minute Walk From Home and Work

First and foremost, a truly walkable community encourages destinational walking, not just recreational walking. This means that a wide range of services must be accessible on foot. That requires a certain density, possibly through missing middle housing and mixed-use development. This density is also required to make local business viable and for a community to support public transit options, allowing pedestrians to connect to places outside of their communities.

As we’ve said before, while it is important to have uses like a school, grocery store and public library nearby, these amenities alone do not make an area walkable.

Criteria 2: Streets Designed to Enable and Encourage Walking

Just as important as the proximity of uses and services is the design of the streets, sidewalks and other pathways that can be used to reach these locations. Even if there are desireable places to visit within a short walk of your home, you’d be unlikely to travel to these destinations by foot if the walking routes available were unsafe or unpleasant. “Pedestrian-friendly” design encompasses a wide range of considerations, most of which can be grouped into the following three categories:

Pedestrian-Friendly Design for Safety’s Sake

The first component of a pedestrian-friendly neighborhood is safe sidewalks. Without a designated space for walking, community members must risk sharing space with vehicles or navigate their way around other obstacles. Not surprisingly, the Institute of Transportation Engineers has found that sidewalks “reduce the incidence of pedestrian collisions, injuries, and deaths in residential areas and along two-lane roadways.”

As simple as it may seem, the design of good sidewalks requires a fair amount of technical consideration. (Give your local sidewalk designer a hug!) Safe sidewalks require even, well-maintained pavement, with no trip hazards. To create inclusive communities and comply with the law, sidewalks must also comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The ADA lays out specific guidelines for the slope of sidewalks and curb ramps, intended to make these surfaces safe and easy to use for those in wheelchairs and others with accessibility needs. Sidewalk width should also be determined with the ADA in mind, allowing wheelchair users to pass each other or turn around, if not throughout the sidewalk area, at least in larger passing spaces.  

These design modifications often benefit the population at large, as in the case of curb ramps, which improve sidewalk and street access for those who use wheelchairs and walkers, and for those traveling with strollers or carts.

Sidewalk planning should take the needs of each specific community into account, with size appropriate to the density of the community. As planners, we must ask ourselves how many people are likely to be traveling on the sidewalks at a given time. Well-planned sidewalks should help an area feels like a community: with a regular flow of foot traffic, they should feel neither overcrowded nor empty and abandoned. Also, in community centers, sidewalks should be generous to allow room for casual conversations, additional seating, such as benches or cafe tables, and other community interactions.

Once appropriate sidewalks are in place, people need ways to safely cross from one side of the street to the other, which brings us to crosswalk placement and marking. Crosswalks must be placed in areas where drivers have clear sight lines while also considering appropriate locations for ease of pedestrian travel. But planners must do more than simply place crosswalks at intersections: street layout and signaling choices will affect the speed at which traffic is likely to flow and need to be made carefully.

While marking crosswalks is important to increasing pedestrian comfort and activity, the Federal Highway Administration has found that in order to significantly reduce pedestrians traffic incidents, marked crosswalks must be supported by features such as raised medians, traffic lights with pedestrians signals, and speed-reducing measures. As such, pedestrian safety must be built into road design and considered holistically as part of an effort to make areas more walkable.

Street lighting, another important element of pedestrian-friendly streets, improves safety for both pedestrians and drivers, and is especially crucial for seniors. The benefits of well-placed street lights go far beyond reduction of traffic incidents. A review of studies from the US and the UK found that, over four decades, “crime decreased by 21% in areas that experienced street lighting improvements compared to similar areas that did not.”

When considering street lighting for a new development or as an addition to an existing community, planners need to make choices about the spacing, brightness and style of street lamps and consider how their decisions will impact both the safety of a neighborhood and its appeal to those interested in walking.

Careful decisions must also be made about street size and layout. Despite what people may believe, studies have shown that narrower streets can be safer than wider streets. A Swift & Associates study, first conducted in the seventies and undated in 2002 and 2006, found that a 35 foot wide street has 128% more accidents per mile per year than a 29 foot wide street, and a 39 foot wide street had 286% more accidents per mile per year than a 29 foot wide street. Narrower streets also mean narrower intersections, making crossing safer and quicker for pedestrians. Communities interested in improving walkability may be wise to consider narrower streets with well-planned sidewalks rather than wider ones.

Pedestrian-Friendly Design to Make Walking Pleasant

Residents are far more likely to choose walking in an area where traveling by foot is enjoyable. It’s common sense that a pleasant environment and a sensible layout of sidewalks, streets and paths can make a marked difference in whether or not people choose to engage in destinational and recreational walking.

A sensible layout is one where pedestrians can walk past well-maintained businesses and homes, not blank walls, abandoned buildings and brownfields. And, of course, pedestrians do not typically enjoy walking along an area’s most crowded arteries or near fast-moving highways, so areas that want to be pedestrian-friendly should provide alternatives to these types of walking routes.

In his book, The Next American Metropolis, architect and urban planner Peter Calthorpe describes this element of good urban design this way: “Buildings should address the street and sidewalk with entries, balconies, porches, architectural features, and activities which help create safe, pleasant walking environments.”

In addition to beautiful, well-planned architecture and landscape design, the inclusion of public seating at regular intervals can go a long way toward creating more welcoming sidewalks and public areas. Sidewalk benches are especially important for older and adults, as well as others who may have limited mobility, and therefore desire the ability to rest in the middle of long walks. They also provide a place for people to congregate outside of local businesses, whether they are waiting for a family member or enjoying a snack. Many cities and towns are recognizing the need for more outdoor seating, with New York City adding 1,500 new public benches over the past several years. This should also be considered when designing the width of the sidewalk.

Pedestrian-Friendly Design to Make Walking Efficient

In order to truly encourage destinational walking, communities must not only make walking pleasant, they must also make it efficient. Pedestrians engaged in destinational walking have place to be: they want to get where they are going quickly, not meander along winding paths or walk an extra block out of the way to get to a crosswalk.  

A gridded street network is usually the best solution to this need, with small-to-medium block sizes allowing quicker routes and more options. These options also allow pedestrians to easily skirt around construction or other obstructions on the road or sidewalk.  Marked crosswalks should also be placed at regular intervals and along streamlined paths.

Criteria 3: Access to Public Transit

The final element of pedestrian-friendly design is straightforward: access to public transportation. Everyone needs to travel outside of the neighborhood at some point, whether for a daily commute to a more distant area of the city or an occasional trip to visit friends or attend a cultural event. Public transit access is key to keeping these trips from putting more cars on the road, and communities must feature public transit stops within an easy walking distance from most residences in order to be truly walkable. Within the immediate community, circulating buses can provide a convenient and affordable public transit option for those who, for whatever reason, choose not to walk.

Improving walkability can be addressed in large master planning efforts or in small steps. Recently, Opticos worked with several communities in Mono County, California, to find quick and incremental ways to improve the walkability in their towns, by re-striping their on-street parking, making simple improvements to building facades and adding street lighting.
Walkability is at the core of our work here at Opticos. Our team not only designs walkable (and bikeable) neighborhoods, we live in them. And we love to work with cities, towns and developers to create the walkable neighborhoods of tomorrow. If you would like to hear about how these walkable features could be improved in your area, contact us.