Making the suburbs, especially outer ring suburbs, walkable will require a significant shift in how we treat pedestrians in terms of infrastructure investment and in terms of interacting with them while driving. However, there is an easy way to make the suburbs more walkable without requiring significant investment: simply adding a sidewalk connecting streets and neighborhoods can incentivize walking for more purposes than just recreation.
Success Stories of Simple Paths
I have two personal examples where a simple path saved me a significant amount of time and energy walking to/from the bus stop. At my parent’s home in Bloomington, walking to the express bus is just over a quarter mile thanks to a seemingly random sidewalk connecting our neighborhood with another neighborhood. Without that sidewalk it would be a nearly half mile walk to/from the bus stop and I would likely either choose to bike or not take the bus at all.
The other example is in a suburban area of Oslo, Norway. While studying there in 2015 I frequently (pretty much everyday) took the local bus to get to/from the city center and my classes. The bus stop was 800 feet from my dorm building with a shortcut connecting the student dorm buildings with the road where the bus operated. Without that shortcut it would be an extra 700 feet of walking and walking back from the bus stop would require climbing up a steep hill. Everyday that short sidewalk helps hundreds of students going to/from the bus.
The little sidewalk that made a big difference in my commute to/from the student dorms in suburban Oslo.
This sidewalk in Bloomington provides a safe and easy way for children to get to/from school without having to walk along busy roads.
Suburbs may like to tout that they’re pedestrian friendly with their investment in trails, but some of these trails are only for recreation, not accessing places such as schools, bus stops, stores, etc. Building trails does not mean a suburb is walkable. A suburb can have numerous trails, but if they’re next to busy roads, crossings are dangerous, and motorists aren’t yielding to pedestrians, then those trails make little difference.
For suburbs to be truly walkable, they need good walkability in all areas, not just recreational areas. While a quarter mile sidewalk probably won’t receive a ribbon cutting ceremony and won’t have as many users as a trail, a system of numerous sidewalk shortcuts can improve walkability in suburban areas and provide incentive for people to walk and bike to the places they need to go in addition to recreation.
With the majority of our suburban area having windy street grids, the status quo will discourage people from walking to places due to the distance and time required despite the distance being short, as the crow flies.
Like all sidewalks, these shortcuts need to be ADA compliant and should be clear of snow and ice in the winter. A lot of cities seem to assume everyone stops walking and biking in the winter, but I’ll save that rant for another day.
Major Change Needed
While more sidewalk shortcuts would be good for suburban areas and they’re easy to implement, it would definitely be a small step towards a major shift in how suburbs treat pedestrians and bikers. Laying down concrete or asphalt isn’t enough; drivers need to accept and respect the existence of bikers and pedestrians, crossings need to be safe, and there needs to be multiple paths to get from point A to point B so people have safe alternatives.