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.
Compliance: Often Not Enough
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.
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.
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.
Safety: A Step Further, But What Is Still Lacking?
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.
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
- Enclosure and proportions
Shade and Light
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.
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
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.
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 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.