Continued Pedestrian Systems

How do we get people off their duff, and get them to walk?

When we first worked on San Cristobal Village, I rented a Cessna 182 and flew on an 80 degree Sunday afternoon from Albuquerque to Santa Fe, taking over 300 pictures of newer suburban and new urban based developments, all with sidewalks each side of the street. I’m not sure how many miles of walks that equates to, but certainly hundreds of not approaching a thousand miles. Yet, only three people were walking in all the pictures – two with dogs and one with a stroller.

Most of the street patterns were typically suburban, streets with no particular destination or functional pattern. Since all sidewalks were regulated to be on both sides of the street, and the streets were difficult enough to drive about, walking would be even worse. Even the few New Urban developments with more attention to walking had nobody strolling about.

If it’s difficult to walk, and there are no places to actually walk as a destination, how can we expect to create walkable environments? The 4’ wide walk that seems to be prescribed in most cities is simply too narrow for a couple to walk side by side, so many use the streets instead if they actually walk the neighborhood.

I have lived in St. Louis Park for the past 16 years in two homes, both on streets without walks, yet I’ve observed that there seems to be as many people walking on the streets with walks as there are on streets without walks. On streets with walks, when two or more people are walking in a group, they are more likely to use the street. Given the density, there are actually very few walkers other than the religious residents walking to Synagogue on holy days, when hundreds of people trudge through snow, rain, ice, and heat use their feet as the only transportation mode. My wife and I walk whenever the time and weather allows, but our destination choices are few. No destination is less than a 10 minute walk. In 15 minutes we can be at Startbucks, Vitalli’s, Caribou, or Yum’s for a coffee and other than that Super America or the Holiday station. In 25 minutes in a maze-like pattern along unattractive ways we could walk to West End, the somewhat failed attempt at commercial development. Because of the theater and restaurants, it’s our destination of choice, yet we have never seen anyone from our neighborhood make that same walk in the 4 years we have been going there.
What does this all mean?

People who never walk places, are not likely to start if walking is inconvenient, boring, and feels dangerous. To create walkability we need to design the walk systems first and foremost – before the street patterns.

We need destinations that people desire. Certainly schools, churches, and coffee shops and restaurants (especially good and affordable ones) help, but does that park with a playground actually attract a significant number of walkers. Or maybe that gazebo along a pond… how many walkers does that attract?

Yet, when I lived in Maple Grove, that vast sprawling region of suburbanites, we had a steady flow of pedestrians passing by our mosquito embellished back yard along Fish Lake. The main trails and lakes near Uptown are full of nice weather walkers, and bikers, but these are major systems that serve exercise as well as people watching, and for the most part they are anything but boring. They also have unusually wide pathways and for the mostly (as with the Maple Grove trails) separated from vehicular traffic.
Can these values be incorporated in smaller localized development? Absolutely. But we must start thinking in terms that a pedestrian ‘system’ should be much different than a ‘vehicular ‘system’. We must also live with the reality that these systems pose unique dangers when water freezes, and that many people, not just the elderly, simply cannot walk far.

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.

7 thoughts on “Continued Pedestrian Systems

  1. Matt SteeleMatt

    The street patterns are important however because they usually dictate what people can actually walk to. Great sidewalks in an exurban setting, with one or two connections to a high-speed county road and miles from any sort of (auto-centric) destinations means we’d be better off just not wasting money on sidewalks to begin with.

    But, in St. Louis Park or South Minneapolis, people walk because we actually find purpose in walking somewhere.

    When I was growing up in the suburbs, there was this concept of driving to go “for a walk” or a bike ride. How many people walking around a pond in Lakeville or Maple Grove drove to get there? Here in Minneapolis, I now walk or bike from my house to the lakes. When I was growing up, my family would drive from the southern suburbs to the same lakes for walking or biking.

    You’re correct that many new urbanists build greenfield just like traditional developers and there’s not a huge difference. New urbanism vs coving vs suburbanism. Streetcars vs enhanced bus. Etc… none of it matters if it’s poorly located as low-density greenfield development.

  2. Matt SteeleMatt

    And there are people who are fair-weather walkers like me… When we get a foot of fresh snow and Minneapolis side streets have yet to be plowed, we walk to the grocery store three blocks away because it would be impossible to drive!

  3. Janne

    I invite you to sit on my Minneapolis porch and watch pedestrians pass by, on the sidewalk that parallels the street, side-by-side, on both sides of the street. This happens morning, day, eveing, and even night, year round.

  4. Rick HarrisonRick Harrison Post author

    Matt & Janne:

    Thanks for the response. Again, I happen to live in St. Louis Park in a new dual-certified (MN Greenstar and NAHB green) home just east of Beth El Synagogue, with a full front porch, overlooking the city park. There are quite a few walkers, however, as a percentage of the overall population density, the number is quite low. Again, the park with the playground does attract an unusually high number of pedestrians vs. if I lived on Huntington, where I was previously. In the 16 years I’ve lived in the Fernhill neighborhood when you take out the shabbos walkers (Orthodox Jews who must walk on weekends and holidays), the overall percentage of the population that are regular walkers is very low. You are both very young, and live in areas with other young people. I’d describe my area as middle age average, those that have moved up and are at very different points in their lives (as you will be).

    The demographics have a lot to do with walkers, the close proximity to bars, restaurants, and night life you no doubt enjoy. This is not the lifestyle of suburbanites. In other words, no matter what the design of the walks, your decision to walk has very little to do with how close the home is to the walk or how far the walk is from the curb. I’d argue, that if your walks were the wide elegant meandering walks between the Calhoun Beach Club and Lake of the Isles, it would attract even more use.

    I’d also argue that on a nice summer day, when I lived on Fish Lake in Maple Grove with the park trail we had in our back yard, sitting on our rear deck, we had significantly more daily walkers and drivers than you would see in an average day along a Minneapolis street.

    This series is not about addressing your demographic, but that of the typical new home buyer, which is 80% chance will be suburban. This series will expand into how the street systems interact with pedestrians, and how they can be designed significantly more efficient than the grid system, or the mindless patterns of the suburbs.

  5. Faith

    Good thing Minneapolis has wide enough sidewalks on its standard residential streets that a couple can walk together side by side! I watched a half dozen pass by last night.

    1. Rick HarrisonRick Harrison Post author

      For usability wide walks are critical, unfortunately many cities require only narrow walks, and most developers will not go the extra width unless it’s specified in their regulations. The developers I work for recognize that usable walks are far more important than meeting minimums.

  6. Janne

    “You are both very young, and live in areas with other young people. I’d describe my area as middle age average, those that have moved up and are at very different points in their lives (as you will be).”

    I’m not so sure you’ve got a good grasp on the Uptown demographic, Rick.

    I’ve lived at the same house number for 18 years, and have owned it for that long. I suppose that I should be flattered you describe me as “very young” rather than being offended at the assumptions you have made about me and my (not all that young, either) neighbors.

    I’m also not sure what you’re implying when you suggest that someday I can aspire to “move up” to a “very different point in my life.” I’m pretty sure I’ll retire in the same house.

    You are right, however, that I appreciate the amenities in my neighborhood, although I can’t say I’ve ever taken advantage of the nighlight “you no doubt enjoy.” Now, the grocery stores, hardware store, pharmacy, proximate multiple bus stops, and easy access to bicycle highways, those are amenities that I really value and use.

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