by Michael E. Bregman, AICP
Many communities have embraced pedestrian mobility as an alternative to past building practices that favor automobiles. Reasons for this shift include a recognition that dependency on automobiles leads to an unsustainable future or that automobile-oriented environments engender dangerous conditions to both motorists and pedestrians and are generally bereft of aesthetics.
In contrast, pedestrian-oriented communities feature development patterns that allow people to choose from a variety of transportation modes, including walking, bicycling, and driving. Although these patterns favor walking as a mode of transportation, they do not divorce automobile from streets. Rather, the automobile is tamed and made to be driven more slowly. For that reason, many people term these communities "livable." Typically, aesthetics also play a larger role in these communities.
Although they seem trivial to many people, aesthetics enhance pedestrian safety because they encourage people to walk more. An occupied street is safer than one which has few or no pedestrians. Enhancing the aesthetics provides a more pleasant walking environment.
Numerous elements comprise a pedestrian-oriented environment including mixed land uses, building scale and setback, landscaping, doors, windows, facades, and pedestrian facilities such as sidewalks and crosswalks. This article focuses on the latter element.
Although many neighborhoods feature sidewalks, simply providing a sidewalk is often insufficient. First, a sidewalk must be continuous. Very often sidewalks abruptly end and the pedestrian must continue on a less hospitable walking surface. Sidewalks also must feature sufficient width. A typical width of five feet provides enough walking space for one person, but not enough for two people to walk side-by-side and then allow for another to pass in the opposite direction. According to planning literature, about six square feet of sidewalk space provides comfortable walking for a single pedestrian. Sidewalk width becomes increasingly important if objects, such as streetlights, newspaper boxes, traffic signs, and benches are placed on the sidewalk. In addition, in a pedestrian-oriented environment both sides of a street require sidewalks, instead of only on one side as some jurisdictions implement. Sidewalks also require periodic repair. Over time they may wear and crack due to intrusive tree roots or harsh weather conditions.
Sidewalks may provide further amenity if they feature materials and colors other than just plain concrete. Some communities use special materials like stones and pavers that present different textures, colors, and patterns. Moving from a mundane off-white sidewalk to a more colorful and otherwise distinct pavement introduces a more diverse landscape, enlivening the street atmosphere and as a result, encourages people to walk more. In order to optimize architectural harmony paving materials should reflect the character of a city. For example, using bricks may be appropriate in a cold-weather city, yet not be appropriate in a tropical city. However, special care should be paid to the materials chosen and the considerations to different user groups. For example many cities opt to pave roads with cobblestones. However, stony surfaces may be slippery, are often uneven and have gaps in grade. Therefore ,they may present dangers to women with high heels and may present difficulties for blind people using navigation canes. Nonetheless, communities may choose from a wide variety of possibilities. Leaders should also recognize that different materials incur different costs.
Crosswalks represent another critical need for pedestrians. Simply put, people often need to cross streets and clearly marked crosswalks mark places where they may do so. They also signal to automobile drivers to slow down for pedestrians.
Conspicuous crosswalks are more readily apparent to pedestrians, especially those with poor eyesight, and automobile drivers may recognize them quickly. "Zebra-striped" crosswalks are perhaps the most effective kind because of their width. Drivers and pedestrians recognize them almost automatically.
Although designing a street grid with frequent intersections combined with crosswalks is best for inducing vehicular traffic to move at lower speeds, communities that were built for automobiles already suffer from a set of conditions that cannot change except at great expense. Retrofitting a community and buying property may simply be infeasible. However, long lengths of uninterrupted roadway encourage higher speeds. As a solution some communities utilize crosswalks painted between intersections. Many designers assert that a crosswalk should be provided at least every six-hundred feet. In such cases, many recommend additional traffic calming measures such as speed humps or mid-block pedestrian "bulbouts" since many irresponsible drivers do not respect crosswalks.
Pedestrian signals are often placed in conjunction with crosswalks. Like traffic signals for moving vehicles they indicate when pedestrians may safely cross streets. However, placing them at all intersections is usually infeasible. Therefore, a jurisdiction should choose the locations where they may have the greatest impact or have the greatest need.
Like streetlights they may also have aesthetic characteristics, however due to their smaller scale, their impact on aesthetics is not as great. Like other elements of the streetscape, if chosen to enhance aesthetics they should reflect the community's character.
Another element that comprises pedestrian facilities is street furniture, the various physical features found on sidewalks, such as streetlights and benches. As with many aspects of design, street furniture can have positive or negative impacts. Elements that are strictly functional may detract from an area's aesthetics and those that are poorly placed may impede pedestrians or even cause dangerous conditions. A community's decision maker should also take care not too chose a design that is too ornate or it may look garish.
Streetlights are the features that provide light to streets during darkness. The impact they make to a surrounding environment depends mostly on aesthetics. Typical "cobra-head" streetlights detract from a surroundings' aesthetics. First, they exude an element of blandness, as they are strictly functional in nature. They tower over the sidewalk and street and are thus detached from the pedestrian environment. Finally, their design is engineered to illuminate moving lanes and they only minimally illuminate sidewalks.
However, the cobra head is not the only design available. Some communities feature the "candlestick" design, typical in many areas with Mediterranean or similar styles of architecture. Instead of hanging over streets, they are completely vertical. Their tops taper, creating the shape of a flame and often their poles are fluted. Other possibilities, such as art-nouveau, feature ornate poles and fanciful tops. In essence, almost any design is possible. The type chosen should reflect the character of the community, such as in the surrounding architecture.
On the other hand a main consideration for streetlights is cost. The more ornate the streetlight, the more expensive it may be, while mass produced cobra-head lights are typically cheaper. A community should balance costs and aesthetics when choosing an appropriate style.
Benches provide a necessary addition to a street environment, providing people a place to rest.
They may be especially important in places with a high level of elderly population who need to rest more frequently, however some people also use them for relaxation and enjoyment of the street scene. Like other features found on sidewalks they should placed to cause as little hindrance to pedestrians but located conveniently for them to stop and rest.
Benches have less impact on aesthetics than streetlights and a plain design is adequate for most communities. However, a more elaborate design may nevertheless contribute aesthetically. Like streetlights designs should reflect a community's character, drawing on the surrounding architecture.
One issue identified with benches is that they attract undesirables, such as homeless who use benches as sleeping places. One way some communities have addressed this issue is by designing benches that discourage sleeping. For instance benches may have wedges that protrude from their lower parts, thus separating the bench into seats.
These are another element in the streetscape that may enhance or detract from an environment aesthetically. Due to their lesser frequency among street furniture elements, the need for newspaper boxes to conform to surrounding character is perhaps the most minimal among these various elements. However, that premise depends highly on the particular character of a community. A community with a highly recognizable character may choose to regulate newspaper boxes to conform to that character. One that features an international style may find that various colors and letterings among newspaper boxes contribute to that character.
Where newspaper boxes may have a more serious negative impact is in their placement. Sometimes placed without consideration to pedestrian mobility they may block paths and create hazardous conditions for people who may be preoccupied with other matters while walking. The principle to remember is to provide a clear path for pedestrians while also making the newspaper boxes visible.
Municipalities often must place signs on sidewalks to indicate to motorists and pedestrians necessary information, like where to stop. Like other elements, they must be placed so that they do not impede pedestrian mobility while still displaying information. Therefore, they are best placed at the edge of a sidewalk where people are least likely to walk.
Commercial signs pose little danger to pedestrians, however they have perhaps the greatest impact on aesthetics of any pedestrian feature. The size of signs, size of lettering, lighting, coloration, shape, and different types of mounting all affect the pedestrian experience. Signs or lettering that are too large may be appear obtuse, lighting that is too bright may cause excessive glare, and different types of mounting may also create a cluttered appearance.
Various street elements may help or hinder pedestrian mobility. Some elements, such as sidewalks and crosswalks are essential. Placement of physically significant objects should also be considered carefully to prevent hazardous conditions.
Different elements also may contribute or detract from the surrounding aesthetic environment. As a street is safer with more people, a more aesthetically pleasing street that encourages people to walk is safer than one that does not. However, more aesthetically enhanced features typically cost more. Communities must find a balance between aesthetics and cost in that regard.
Michael E. Bregman is a city planner residing in Israel. He was formerly employed as Senior Planner by the Miami-Dade County Department of Planning and Zoning and is also the former chairperson of the American Planning Association Gold Coast Section.