Posts Tagged ‘walkability’

The human species took off only after we gained the ability to stand upright. In fact, the ability to walk is a defining characteristic of our species. But over the last seventy years we have forgotten to harness our ability to walk, contributing to both the obesity epidemic and to climate change. Our car-centric American suburbs contribute disproportionately to both of these crises. People who live in sprawling subdivisions have a higher obesity rate than people who live in compact neighborhoods, and emit more greenhouse gas emissions than their urban counterparts.

To overcome both the obesity crisis and climate change, we need to make it easier, from a design standpoint, to get off our butts and off our cars, and back on our feet. While there is no one size-fits-all answer to retrofit the suburbs into walkable places, here are four approaches worth considering.

1. Start at the center

People are more likely to walk to a destination that is within half a mile, about 10 minutes away. Dan Burden, one of the foremost walkability experts of our time, recommends transforming the centers of suburban areas into higher-density villages that are more conducive to walking and financially attractive to businesses. The suburban community of Kirkland, Washington, is currently going through such a transformation, creating a mixed-use village center at the site of an ageing shopping mall.

2. Implement Vision Zero policies

The Vision Zero safety initiative focuses on eliminating traffic-related fatalities by taking a holistic approach to improve the design of the transportation system.  Vision Zero originated in Sweden, where pedestrian fatalities were reduced by half after implementation. Over twenty-two communities in the US, among them New York City, Washington DC, and Los Angeles, have so far adopted Vision Zero policies. Among the US adoptees there is one suburban county, Montgomery County in Maryland, whose leaders have committed to Vision Zero, and the county government has released a draft Vision Zero plan for public comment.

A big focus of Vision Zero is reducing speed limits. The survival rate of a pedestrian involved in a car crash increases from 20 percent to 90 percent when the speed limit is reduced from 40 to 20 miles per hour. By bringing pedestrians and cyclists on equal footing with drivers, Vision Zero makes roads safer for all users.

3. Make walking fun

Walking can help family, friends, and neighbors feel more connected with themselves, with each other, and with their neighborhood. Community walks have the potential to bring together people from different walks of life, and can be organized by local governments, community organizations, or even by individual residents. There are a number of organizations whose primary mission is to bring people together by walking, including Girl Trek and Walk2Connect, and some have active chapters throughout the country.

 4.  Help those who are already walking

A greater share of low income people now live in the suburbs than in cities.  Many people who are out walking in the suburbs are likely doing it because they cannot afford car ownership. The places traversed by pedestrians in the suburbs are often putting their lives in danger— inexistent or narrow strips of sidewalk alongside high speedways; poorly marked crosswalks; long distances between crossings.

There are improvements that can and should be made to make it safer for people who are already walking. It’s the equitable thing to do, and safety improvements will incentivize others to start walking, including those who may have more mobility options. Small improvements, like adding pedestrian crossing islands to a long crosswalk, help to increase safety and make the walking experience more comfortable.


Much work needs to be done to redesign the suburbs to be more walking-friendly. But not all of it requires heavy lifting, and some of the work can start immediately. Together we can bring about a suburban walking revolution.


Mark Fenton of Tufts University has an incisive presentation on the importance of walking and walkability for people’s well-being, and the role of public policy in designing pedestrian-friendly cities. He points out that ancient cities were built for walking. In Pompeii, pictured below, sidewalks were part of the streetscape design.

Pompei 10

Pompei 13

I don’t know how to say this nicely, but I found downtown Atlanta to be a depressing mix of high rises and parking lots.  Skywalks (or whatever they’re called) link buildings above the street level, reducing what little incentive there was for pedestrians to use the sidewalks.

Skywalk above the streets of Atlanta

More skywalks.

Away from downtown Atlanta, a breath of fresh air near Little Five Points.

Philadelphia is one of my favorite cities, period.  The city is infused with history, is great for pedestrians, has a diverse population and distinctive neighborhoods. The sidewalks range from concrete to brick, wide and narrow, well-kept and not so much.

Center City, walking towards City Hall.

11th Street near Chinatown

South St near 11th St

Sidewalk cafe in Rittenhouse Square with a Parisian vibe

Narrow sidewalks on an narrow street (or is it an alley?) near Fitler Square.

Sidewalk in/near Northern Liberties overgrown with weeds.

Italian Market

The sidewalk on Brandywine Street could use a little sprucing up

Metal poles standing guard in Chinatown

A shady sidewalk near University City

Chicago’s sidewalks

Posted: August 27, 2010 in sidewalks
Tags: , , ,

Downtown Chicago has wide sidewalks that are great for strolling (and rolling).

Pigeons are a menace to sidewalks and pedestrians everywhere.

Not your run-of-the-mill planters.

In April 2010, Brasilia celebrated its 50th birthday as a city. When Brasilia was conceived, car was king. Even today, there are sections of the grand Monumental Axis (the equivalent of the National Mall in Washington DC) where there are no sidewalks for pedestrians. Along streets that lack  sidewalks, pedestrians have forged dirt paths.

Sidewalk leading to the Congresso Nacional (National Congress).

A dirt path near the Catedral Metropolitana (Cathedral of Brasilia).

Sidewalk-- and free curb-side parking-- along the Monumental Axis.

Sidewalk market near the Cathedral of Brasilia.

Public trash bin

Public space recycling

Sidewalk in a neo "Portuguese pavement" style. (The more traditional Portuguese pavement style is a tapestry of many small stones, whereas this sidewalk has long, thin pavers).

Portuguese pavement and sewer manhole cover.

manhole cover for a stormwater pipe (courtesy of Tia Mari)

stormwater manhole cover


(courtesy of M.)

another stormwater manhole cover

triangular mahhole cover (courtesy of M.)

A disintegrating sidewalk in Fez


In Meknes- looks like there was money to repave the road but not fix the sidewalk that was probably broken up in the course of repaving the road.

Layoune, Western Sahara. Like in Meknes, there was a willingness to fix the road but not the sidewalk.



Casablanca. Too often, sidewalks were treated as dumping grounds.

Dakhla, Western Sahara.