A Systems Approach to Getting Around

Pedestrian Systems

It amazes me to see some of the solutions planners come up with for incorporating various modes of getting around – cars, trucks, rail, walkers, bikers, motorcycles, etc. There are many schools of thought on these systems. One school is to change habits through design, and the other is to work within existing human limitations and desires. For the most often prescribe to the latter. Much of what we design is supported by the book Traffic by Tom Vanderbuilt, based upon the psychological, physical and technological aspects of driving.

A decade ago, we were asked by DR Horton to redesign a portion of San Cristobal Village in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The 1800 acre property was previously designed with New Urbanism methods. DR Horton wanted to build homes in the development, but felt our methods would yield better results. The caveat was we had to demonstrate that every one of the New Urban requirements were to be satisfied. When we submitted the 600 lot portion DR Horton was interested in, the County who controlled the property wanted DR Horton to redesign the entire previously approved site plan!


The above is the after plan, the below is the before plan.

The site plan was originally done using the former school of thought – use design to change existing habits. The original documentation has certain ideals within the plan. One was that each entrance would have a large sign that said something to the effect of: ‘you must use the same diligence driving through this neighborhood as you would driving in a crowded shopping center parking lot’. This was because the million square feet of commercial and 2,700 housing units would all be served by narrow streets with on street parking – and walks in close proximity to the parked cars and very small residential and commercial setbacks.

Of the major streets entering the three mile long development, all came to an abrupt dead end at various places in the development! Why? Because of this statement also found in the report: ‘persons entering the site would eventually come to a dead end placed so those people could enjoy the view of the mountains’. Suppose you had no GPS and entered a development with over 350 intersections in short blocks, mostly 4 ways, with cars and pedestrians at each point of conflict, narrow streets, and parking both sides. After driving through this obstacle course a mile or so, that main street comes to a dead end. Would you sit there and just enjoy the view?
In the end our alternative had nine miles less length in public vehicular lanes, 250% more open space, 300 more lots, an average lot size 1,000 sq.ft. greater than the previous plan, and 200 less intersections eliminating most of the 4 ways – still holding to the original demands required in the New Urbanism. The most difficult part was to make each area have a unique feel, something easy on a 100 acre site, but extremely difficult on a site 18 times that size. We had revised the streets to ‘flow’ better with fewer 4 way intersections, but could not get around the narrow pavement on major throughways with parking both sides demanded by the original documentation. The walks we proposed were to meander elegantly throughout the development, placed in public easements should they meander outside the right-of-way. Pedestrian crossings at the new plan’s three way intersections would have been significantly safer than at 4 way intersections.

In the past decade we made many discoveries and evolved our methods which would have had an impact on the San Cristobal design. On a site of any significance, we look at pedestrians and vehicles as to completely separate ‘getting around’ systems. When we designed San Cristobal Village a decade ago, we did look at pedestrian connectivity, but in a very different way, as secondary to the street system. The original San Cristobal plan had a block perimeter limit of 2,000 feet as defined by streets, thus a myriad of streets were required to provide walking connectivity. Our planning theory has always been to build “walks to walk” and “streets to drive,” not streets for walking and driving. Thus we had the government authorities agree that the 2,000 foot block perimeter limit could be defined by either street or public ‘through walk’ in a 20’ wide right-of-way. These ‘through walks’ could also handle an emergency vehicle.

This allowed us to define a relatively convenient walking system, but could not guarantee a useful system, as written by code.

Recognizing that a pedestrian system not only has social and health value, it’s potential in the marketing of a development is tremendous, thus it has economic value for that first home sale, and each sale thereafter.

To be continued…

Rick Harrison

About Rick Harrison

Rick Harrison is known for pioneering innovations in both methods and technologies for the design & construction of sustainable cities. Harrison’s career spans more than 45 years in Land Planning, Civil Engineering, Land Surveying, Land Development, and over 36 years in Computer Software Development. Awards include the coveted Professional Builder’s Professional Achievement of the Year Award, and more recently Building Products Magazine’s 2010 MVP award and as a finalist for the TekNe Award, and semi-finalists for the 2012 Cleantech Open, for his innovations in sustainable land development technologies. His book Prefurbia: Reinventing Land Development: From Disdainable to Sustainable, has received many favorable reviews. Prefurbia has been supported by AIA, APA, USGBC and many Green Building groups, as well as being fundable through HUD Sustainability Grants. Based in Minneapolis, Rick Harrison Site Design Studio, has designed over 800 neighborhoods in 46 States and 18 Countries, all pushing the envelope of sustainable design. His patented LandMentor System, is the first integrated land development solution that blends precision spatial (surface) technology with effortless virtual reality. It is the first software that includes an education in the methods developed by the design firm.