June 7, 2005

Why ‘Sidewalks’ Don’t Mean ‘Walkable Community’

I recently walked from north of Saxonville Center to some offices on Speen Street, passing through the Saxonville commercial district. And the area with no sidewalks was the most enjoyable part of the walk, in what felt like the most pedestrian-friendly area of the trip. The sidewalked areas at rush hour were almost always unpleasant.

This confirms what I've written about numerous times before: The existence of sidewalks -- even well-maintained, wide sidewalks that meet or exceed code -- does not make a walkable neighborhood.

Not that I advocate getting rid of sidewalks! Of course they're important. But it's a huge mistake thinking that simply building sidewalks without considering how they're designed will create walkable communities.

First off, the area with no sidewalks also had the least traffic. Importantly, the traffic that *did* drive through tended not to be too fast.

Traffic and pedestrian-friendly aren't necessarily incompatible. But the heavier and faster the traffic, the greater the need for some sort of separation between walker and vehices. In the non-sidewalked area, I felt like I was sharing the road with the cars that drove along, not teetering on the edge of a dangerous roadway with heavy traffic whizzing by. Along Rte. 126 and Old Connecticut Path, an endless stream of cars raced by, so close I could reach out my arm and touch them. For the most part, there was nothing between me and the cars but the edge of the curb - no parked vehicles, no trees, not even a decently wide strip of grass.

As Walkable Communities Inc. notes, one important factor for creating a pedestrian-friendly streetscape is that "traffic moves on main street and in neighborhoods at safe, pleasant, courteous speeds. Most streets are designed to keep speeds low. Many of these streets are tree lined, have on-street parking and use other methods that are affordable means to keep traffic speeds under control."

It also matters what's on the other, non-traffic side of the sidewalk. Do walkers feel a comforting "sense of enclosure" with buildings or trees reasonably near? Or are they walking by acres of asphalt? Do the buildings have friendly windows facing the street, or more pedestrian-hostile blank walls?

Through Saxonville, there's a mix of good -- the restored old Victorians north of the mill, the new street-facing Victoria Gardens townhouse complex -- and less good, such as metal guard rails, loading docks, and strip-mall parking lots (with squat, one-story buildings set back way too much to offer any sense of enclosure).

It can be hard to explain how design, not just building sidewalks, is so critical to walkability. These images from Walkable Communities do a nice job of illustrating the point.

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