A comparison of a dignified leafy sidewalk alongside a sidewalk on a suburban arterial

If We Want a Shift to Walking, We Need to Prioritize Dignity

Have you ever had a friend return from a vacation and gush about how great it was to walk in the place they’d visited? “You can walk everywhere! To a café, to the store. It was amazing!” Immediately after saying that, your friend hops in their car and drives across the parking lot to the Starbucks to which they could easily have walked.

Why does walking feel so intuitive when we’re in a city built before cars, yet as soon as we return home, walking feels like an unpleasant chore that immediately drives us into a car?

A lot contributes to this dilemma, like the density of the city, or relative cheapness and convenience of driving. But there’s a bigger factor here: We don’t design the pedestrian experience for dignity.

This is a national problem, but certainly one we can see throughout our own Twin Cities metro: Even where pedestrian facilities are built, brand-new, ADA-compliant and everything else — using them feels like a chore, or even stressful and unpleasant.

Dignity is a really important concept in active transportation, but one that we often miss in the conversation about making streets better for walking and biking. I’ve been delighted to see the term appear on a social media account advocating for pedestrians. But as we plan and design better streets for active transportation, we need to consider the dignity of the pedestrian experience.

A Hierarchy of Needs

Three related concepts exist in designing great pedestrian spaces, and they can be arranged similarly to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. The base of the pyramid is the most essential, but having a complete and delightful pedestrian experience requires all three layers. The layers are: compliance, safety and dignity.

A pyramid showing a base layer of the word "Compliance", a middle layer showing "Safety", and a top layer showing "Dignity"

Compliance: Often Not Enough

Shady Oak Road in Hopkins and Minnetonka (Google Street View)
Shady Oak Road in Hopkins is ADA-compliant, but crossing here could be unsafe for any user. Photo by Google Street View

At the bottom of the pyramid you have compliance — for pedestrian facilities, that mainly means complying with ADA rules. This requirement is non-negotiable for agencies because failure to obey exposes them to legal challenges. The ADA has done a great deal to make pedestrian facilities better for all — certainly wheelchair users, but also those who walk, use strollers, ride bicycles on sidewalks, etc.

Unfortunately, compliance with ADA rules alone often does not yield good pedestrian facilities.

Map showing the crossing movement at Parklawn Ave & France Ave in Edina
As part of an ADA upgrade project, Edina and Hennepin County removed the north leg crosswalk, requiring pedestrians to cross this busy intersection three times to proceed on the north-side sidewalk.

For example, many agencies will simply remove pedestrian facilities to reduce the cost of compliance. A good example is the intersection of France and Parklawn avenues in Edina. If you were on the west side of France and wanted to walk to the Allina clinic in 2013, you could simply have crossed on the north crosswalk. But to improve ADA compliance, Edina removed the north crosswalk in 2014. Now, you would have to cross the busy signalized intersection three times just to continue on the north sidewalk.

Showing location of removed pedestrian button in Edin
The crosswalk at France and Parklawn, showing the rusted outline of the former pedestrian push button. Image: Google Street View

In other cases, compliance is in good faith but not enough to make a pedestrian facility really usable — because complete compliance would entail a much larger project. This can be found when a broken-down sidewalk, or one with obstructions in the way, gets brand-new corner curb ramps but no other improvements. A wheelchair user can easily get up off the street at the corner, but can’t go farther than 10 feet without hitting another impediment.

31st St and 2nd Ave S in Minneapolis showing a new curb ramp but inaccessibly narrow sidewalk
This new curb ramp and pedestrian push buttons at 31st and 2nd are great, but if you’re a wheelchair user, they won’t help you for long: not 10 feet away you’ll encounter a section of sidewalk too narrow to pass due to a street light.

Safety: A Step Further, But What Is Still Lacking?

58th Street in Edina, showing back-of-curb sidewalks
58th Street in Edina is ADA-compliant, and probably safe enough to cross with low volumes. But the experience is undignified, with little separation from car traffic, and no shade.

In the middle of the pyramid you have safety — both perceived and actual. It is possible to create a facility that is compliant but does not seem very safe. Picture sparkling new curb ramps to cross a 45-mph surface street with no marked crosswalk. In other cases, facilities are well-designed and safe, but may still not be dignified.

An example of this is in my own backyard, on Hennepin County’s Nicollet Avenue. A very-welcome project last year installed new crosswalks to popular Augsburg Park. These have durable crosswalk markings, excellent signage and refuge medians. But crossing still feels like a negotiation with drivers. And the overall sidewalk experience on the 1950s street is still lacking, with sidewalks at the back-of-curb and little to no shade.

Nicollet Avenue and 71st Street in Richfield, showing a refuge median but back-of-curb sidewalks
Nicollet Avenue and 71st Street in Richfield

Dignity: Making Walking Feel Right

Finally, we have dignity. To determine whether a facility is dignified, I propose a simple test:

If you were driving past and saw a friend walking or rolling there, what would your first thought be:

1. “Oh, no, Henry’s car must have broken down! I better offer him a ride.”

2. “Oh, looks like Henry’s out for a walk! I should text him later.”

This is a surprisingly good test. Picture seeing your friend on a leafy sidewalk versus walking along a 45 mph suburban arterial. What would you think intuitively?

But to get more specific, these are the key factors in making a pedestrian experience dignified:

  • Shade and light
  • Convenience
  • Enclosure and proportions
  • Engagement

Shade and Light

A sidewalk in Northfield showing a pleasant level of enclosure
St. Olaf Avenue in Northfield has a dignified amount of shade — not tunnel-like, but keeping the sidewalk cool and protected from the sun.

A dignified facility needs consistent shade during hot summer months. At night, shadows should be minimal and the route should be clear. Especially when a tree canopy is present, this is best achieved with more individual fixtures installed lower to the ground and at a lower light output. However, a fairly consistent light level can be achieved even with basic cobraheads, as long as there are enough to light the corridor fully.

A sidewalk with relatively little street lightingA well-lit crosswalk in Richfield
The flowers are beautiful, but a dark street at night is less dignified than a well-lit one. Left is 70th Street near Garfield Avenue; right is Lyndale and 75th.


Routes should be intuitive, easy, and not feel tedious to navigate. Having to make sharp, 90° turns or go out of your way feel awkward and make you feel like your time and effort is wasted — even if the detour is relatively minor.

Enclosure and Proportions

Shady Oak Road in Hopkins, showing a sidewalk exposed on both sides.8th Avenue in Hopkins, showing a clear street wall on left
Compare these two streets in Hopkins: Shady Oak Road, which is wide open with sense of enclosure, and Eighth Avenue, which is better-proportioned with a clear street wall.

It’s a very uncomfortable experience to walk along a wide-open corridor with no walls or edge definition — and it’s a common experience along suburban arterials, where you may have a wide road on one side and a wide-open parking lot on the other. You feel exposed and vulnerable. At the same time, overgrown sidewalks or ones that encroach on pedestrian space can feel claustrophobic and inconvenient. The right balance is needed.


Blank frontage showing privacy fences in bad repair
This sidewalk in Brooklyn Park has only the frontage of dilapidated privacy fences.

Finally, engaging frontage is always more appealing than blank frontage. The extreme of this principle is obvious: Walking down a traditional main street is more pleasurable than walking through an industrial park. But even where land uses are similar, engagement of frontage can vary a lot: picture the difference between walking past front doors of houses in a traditional neighborhood, and walking past privacy fences and back yards in cul-de-sac suburban neighborhoods. The traditional neighborhood is more interesting and engaging to walk through.

When I was visiting downtown Northfield, I noted a new building along Water Street (MN-3), which had similar materials to the older downtown buildings on Division: windows, brick, [cultured] stone base. Yet the back was turned to the street, and the experience walking past was undignified.

A building with attractive materials but blank frontage, with a man taking a selfie in foreground.Downtown Northfield, Minn, showing active street frontage
Consider the visual interest of these buildings in downtown Northfield. On the left, walking past tinted windows and blank walls on a new building along a concurrent section of Water St and Highway 3 on the west side of downtown. On the right, Division Street’s engaging storefronts.

A Pedestrian Cannot Live on Compliance Alone

Creating compliant sidewalks and trails is a high priority for agencies seeking to avoid litigation and serve pedestrians on the most basic level. Although that has some benefits, it isn’t enough. Whether actively undermining walkability (like removing crosswalks to achieve ADA compliance) to simply not doing enough (adding a new curb ramp to an otherwise wheelchair-hostile sidewalk), we need to go much further.

To make walking and rolling a desirable, everyday activity, we need facilities that are compliant, safe and dignified. We have many examples in our communities of great pedestrian ways — but we have a long way to go to make it universal, and truly move the needle toward walking.

Sean Hayford Oleary

About Sean Hayford Oleary

Sean Hayford Oleary is a web developer and planner. He serves on the Richfield City Council, and previously on the city's Planning and Transportation commissions. Articles are written from a personal perspective and not on behalf of Richfield or others. Sean has a masters in urban planning from the Humphrey School. Follow his love of streets, home improvement, and all things Richfield on Twitter @sdho.