The Coalition for Smarter Growth came out today with its Cool Communities report, that is, places that are mixed use and walkable, generating fewer auto trips and lower greenhouse gas emissions. The report has found a way to quantify diversity and local design, characteristics that are essential to community function and character, but often overlooked in more technical discussions.
Based on recommendations in the executive summary, Montgomery County seems to be doing a few things right—focusing development at Metro stations and making infill development and infill transit top priorities.
Another recommendation is to “create urban street grids” that support “walk and bicycle access to transit.” In Montgomery, all projects in most urban and suburban area include sidewalks, and outside urban areas, projects on transit routes also include sidewalks, whether they are requirements of private development or part of public projects.
It’s more of a challenge to retrofit older neighborhoods with paths, sidewalks, and pedestrian cut-throughs—from finding those routes to getting them built. A sidewalk survey could help us identify the small connections that could have a big impact on people’s willingness to walk.
Kittleson often works with communites, asking residents to map the connections they’d like to see. Here’s a study they did for the County on pedestrian safety in Wheaton.
I’ve got my community sidewalk wish list, do you?
For the last couple of years my wife and I have had an ongoing project of walking virtually every residential block in the Silver Spring area and beyond. We’ve covered almost everything from most of Takoma Park and upper Northwest DC north to Randolph Road and from the Northwest Branch on the east to Wisconsin and/or Connecticut avenues on the west. We are working our way north and west and filling in gaps. We generally do this in the afternoon and into the evening rush hour, summer and winter unless the weather is really bad.
So I have some conclusions concerning sidewalks.
First, where they exist, the are often too narrow for two people to comfortably walk side by side. New ones should be wider. Second, in too many cases bushes have been allowed to grow over sidewalks effectively narrowing them, sometime to the vanishing point. There are also problem with low branches on trees. Vegetation needs to be cut back to open up sidewalks. Third, sidewalks built right along the curb are not desirable. They don’t provide much protection from traffic, and snow plows fill them with snow. Unfortunately sidewalks tend to be built right along curbs on our major streets.
Having said all that, I must also say that sidewalks don’t seem to be particularly necessary on most residential streets. The fact many sidewalks have areas that have been taken over by bushes and low branches tends to confirm that they aren’t heavily used — the adjacent grass isn’t trampled down either. The only times we have felt unsafe walking in the streets where there weren’t sidewalks was on streets with lots of traffic. Yesterday along some blocks of Parker Avenue east of Newport Mill Road in Wheaton, for example. But generally in that area there was no problem walking on residential streets with no sidewalks.
We should focus spending on sidewalks for streets with lots of traffic; it is a waste of limited funds to simply put sidewalks on every residential block where they don’t now exist.
Why would somebody walk? For recreation, for health, for convenience, for stimulation, for cost savings. Why will walk vs drive depends on what, when and why? I might walk one circuitous path in the evening with my charming wife and decline taking the same path on a saturday afternoon to the hardware store when I’ve have a long neglected home repair awaiting.
I think that for a sidewalk network to be most effective it should go where people need to go, and have sufficient (yet not total) penetration to where people live. No sidewalk network in the world will get me to walk into downtown from my home, but the networks in either place suffice to make walking locally desirable.
It’s about the allocation of scare resources.
As to width, frankly I find the 5 foot wide sidewalk in a suburban neighborhood a monstrosity. Montgomery County has seldom had generous enough setbacks to accommodate a suitably planted area at the curb, a wide sidewalk and a second row of trees. This kind of idyllic street cross section works better with the 3′ wide panels.
One of my responsibilities at Park and Planning is to monitor pedestrian safety issues. I was heavily involved in the creation of the County’s new roadway standard in 2008. One of the topics was sidewalk widths. The group of 20 or so folks that constituted the panel that made recommendations to the Executive on this did not necessarily agree on every topic and this was one of them. A representative for people for disabilities wanted six-foot-wide sidewalks on every street so that two wheelchairs could travel side-by-side.
Five feet is the minimum width per ADA that you need and not have to worry about having a passing space every 200 feet. In fairly densely developed residential areas, you effectively have that passing space at every driveway, although you might have to modify the slope a bit. Three feet is the absolute minimum width if you’re going to have a sidewalk. It may work for a single pedestrian, but if you have a small child beside you, it probably doesn’t work that well; one of you will be in the grass.
The State Highway Administration requires 5′ sidewalks on their roads and it’s very difficult to get a waiver for anything less.
Montgomery County generally requires sidewalks on streets in more densely developed residential neighborhoods.
Back to the new standards: We ended up with 5′ sidewalks as a general rule. It may be though that they’re not needed on every street. In the Woodside Park neighborhood adjacent to our office, a couple of streets do need sidewalks, but most operate well without them because of low traffic volumes. It may be that the new State stormwater regulations minimizing impervious surfaces and runoff will provide an opportunity to rethink where sidewalks are needed.
Where sidewalks are necessary and where traffic volumes are moderate to high, it’s critical that we get them to be offset from the road with landscape panels. In addition to the greater comfort level, it is a safer location to be and one that’s not subject to plowed snow, as noted, a concern that was amply illustrated this year.