A Walkable Community Is Safe, Fun, and Healthy

A walkable community suddenly has become attractive to people in their twenties and thirties, who are no longer enjoying the expense and hassles associated with owning a car quite as much as their parents did.

Walking as transportation can make a dent in our collective energy use. Walking is an enjoyable and sociable way to exercise, and an efficient way of completing a relatively short trip, especially where parking is challenging.

Walkability tends to be highest in the older parts of most cities, where the streets form a grid pattern, and cul-de-sacs and dead ends are less likely to occur. An exception would be new urbanist greenfields developments where walk time is a key factor in design decisions.



The social benefits of promoting a walkable community are great. We mean not only just having fun, but also building of social capital, or the relationships necessary to form trust in a community.

In lower-income communities, get people moving by forming walking clubs and perhaps setting up a discount program with a local store for some decent quality walking shoes.

Sidewalks and Walkways

A walking community has the advantage of being able to connect with other transportation systems and recreation possibilities. We recommend the book Cities for People for any city planners, designers, or citizen leaders who may be stuck in the past with transportation thinking that's only about cars.

Many older communities have an ample sidewalk network with adequate care taken for pedestrian safety. Keeping the sidewalks in good repair seems to be a battle in many communities, and in the urban core, sidewalk maintenance from the public sector may come rarely if at all.

But keep up the pressure to maintain sidewalks, as it's important that we have many ways to get around. Time, frequent heavy truck traffic over a sidewalk, or growing trees whose roots push up the sidewalk are common factors in decreasing the functionality of sidewalks.

If you hang around community work very long, you will hear something about "pedestrian scale" and how pleasant it is to be able to walk through a business district where the street lighting is down low enough that it lights the sidewalk rather than the wider area illuminated by the highway-oriented taller street lights.

The pedestrian scale in a business district encourages leisurely browsing, which contributes to unplanned purchases that are good for your local merchants.

But of course for the pedestrian scale to be an advantage to your business, you have to have pedestrians. And they really don't want to get their shoes muddy, have to walk in the street for half a block where there's no sidewalk, or trip over the sidewalk section displaced by tree root upheaval.

Where there's a sidewalk network, repair and maintain it. If there are a few missing links, correct that if you want a walkable community.

Where residential areas or strip malls were developed with no sidewalks, your journey to a walkable community will be tougher. Lobby your municipal government to figure out a plan to install the walks.

In retrofit situations, commonly you'll have to settle for walks on one side of the street only. Installing sidewalks will subtract from either the street or the yards, but most streets can withstand what is known as a road diet (a cute term for making the street more narrow).

To assess whether it is practical to convert driving area to sidewalk, you would need to consider the frequency of on-street parking, the amount of traffic, whether there are certain congested times of the day or week, and other visibility and safety conditions along the street.

If traffic is low, such as on many residential streets, the street itself may well have been overbuilt. If you are a walking advocate, try to convince your local government that walkable communities are the way of the future.


Improving Street and Sidewalk Connectivity

Probably an even greater problem than lack of sidewalks is the lack of connectivity of many post-World War II streets. The privacy of a cul-de-sac was presumed to be highly desirable. Unfortunately it also means that the walk from Point A to Point B may be three times as long as the straight line distance between those two points.

Your neighborhood should become serious about being a walkable community, for the sake of preventing childhood obesity if nothing else. If you do, then you need a planning process for how to deal with the cul-de-sac effect.

In brief, the solution lies in obtaining easements or outright purchases of property by the local government to allow walkways to be installed between two houses.

In many places one pair of houses on the cul-de-sac can spare the room, although often it's going to be a fight. You will need to make walkability a campaign with some popular support before you even approach property owners with any such idea.

If you are able to institute a program of improving your walking community appeal through new sidewalks and new walkways connecting the cul-de-sacs, you need to publicize the improvements so people have an idea of where they can now walk.

But it's not just minor streets where walking is a problem. The arterial streets (a name for the largest streets for cars) often make little to no provision for walking.

Pedestrian amenities of many sorts should be included on all streets, with the amenity factor becoming greater, not less, as the street size increases. See our complete streets page for more on this topic.

Many states provide for special assessments of taxes on a benefits district that creates an amenity such as sidewalks. Ask your city attorney about this, and organize your neighbors to request sidewalks, even if you have to pay for them over a several-year period.


Organized Walks As A Way to Increase Public Support for Good Sidewalks

The first season sponsor organized walking events that can turn into fun community events. Leave from a park or school where people can fill their water bottles, and perhaps provide a snack or ice cream at the end if you have an organizational sponsor.



The organized walks may be a way to build momentum for a capital investment program featuring new sidewalks and walkways also. If people in your area are afraid of crime as they walk, the group activity could help ease that fear and make it possible for the older and more vulnerable citizens to participate.

Barriers to a Walkable Community

You also will want to look at major barriers to walkable community goals, such as wide high-speed roads and possibly railroad or industrial passages where the footing does not seem sure. Your neighborhood creek, although a terrific potential asset, also can serve as a barrier for getting around.

So look at whether a pedestrian bridge over a major highway, creek, or grouping of railroad tracks would make people feel and be safer. Could you connect your immediate neighborhood of concern to a park or other amenity if you had a safe passage? An underpass also is possible in many situations, including under many bridges over streams.

The federal government sponsors a Safe Routes to School program (now embraced by several non-profits as well) that aims at removing barriers to safe walking to schools. Investigate such programs, with the help of your state highway department, local planner, or larger local transportation departments. Improvements for school kids will equal a more pedestrian friendly walkable community also.


Walking as Part of Quality of Life

Get going, because having a walkable community is a potent ingredient in the quality of life that will attract and retain the best and the brightest of young people. Not to mention it is a key element of reliable transportation to a job in community poverty situations.

Lastly, preventing childhood obesity and remedying adult obesity are incredibly important to the sustainability of the health care system.

A walkable community needs to think of pedestrian safety as an indispensable part of their transportation planning program.

In addition to building and maintaining sidewalks or other walkways, so that pedestrian traffic is located predictably for the motorist, it's useful to add some traffic calming measures. Traffic calming is just a piece of jargon for slowing down automobile traffic.

Traffic calming can be accomplished a number of ways. Erecting barriers is common, but medians, islands, chicanes (curving medians or driving lanes), and narrowing the street are common techniques. If you have to decrease lane width for automobiles, do it.

Studies have shown an 85% likelihood of dying if struck as a pedestrian at 45 miles per hour (mph), 55% at 30 mph, and 15% at 20 mph.

In sum, support for walking adds to quality of life by:

  • Providing a readily available way to exercise
  • Adding to the accessibility of your local businesses
  • Reducing the carbon footprint of our community as a whole (See our recommended book, Green Metropolis for more on this point.)
  • Allowing people to connect directly with one another, overcoming the social isolation that comes from overwork, too much time alone in automobiles, and the use of social media, the computer, and the television instead of each other as entertainment
  • Adding "eyes on the street" both to help with crime prevention and to notice potential blighting influences or maintenance issues in the public realm
  • Helping people slow down and enjoy their communities
Relevant:
commercial on first floor with housing above
Mixed-Use Development

vacant riverfront land
Land Use Planning Principles

blue pedestrian walk light
Urban Sprawl and Public Health

And building sidewalks is pretty inexpensive, as infrastructure improvements go, don't you think?


Resources for Walkability Advocates

Like most community work, walkable community modifications will require education and emphasis.

Two resources we recommend are the Alliance for Biking and Walking and Association of Pedestrian and Bicycle Professionals.

And you can be recognized as a Walk Friendly community by this public-private partnership organization. It's also good to be aware of the walk score generated by various sections of your town, and to encourage real estate agents to include walk scores in their listings.

The resources are many, so let's get to work on publicizing great walking routes, improving the safety and visual appeal of our best areas for pedestrians, and attacking the barriers to walking from one destination to another in our towns and cities.


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