As more and more people say they want to live in walkable neighborhoods, it’s fun to watch the old-school, suburban developers squirm. Unwilling to change what they do, they instead attempt to market their car-centric products as “pedestrian friendly.” Generally, this occurs at planning commission meetings, where words like “walkability” and “pedestrian amenities” are tossed around like claims in a presidential debate. It sounds great when they say it, but there’s no substance behind the jargon.
Really, guys. Painting a crosswalk across a double-wide drive-thru does not make your restaurant “pedestrian friendly.”
Here are just a few of my favorite pedestrian unfriendly amenities.
The sidewalk to nowhere
People who walk don’t like to waste steps. We are experts at finding the shortest distance between two points. Of course, nothing says pedestrian efficiency like taking the scenic route behind the dumpsters! Just because that’s where you stuck the sidewalk doesn’t make it a pedestrian route.
Notice the enormous turn radius and overall width of the driveway. This exciting little bit of geometry means cars don’t even have to slow down to enter and exit the premises. And nothing says “pedestrian friendly” like a fast moving SUV roaring across a sidewalk.
Multiple curb cuts
Every curb cut is unsafe for pedestrians. More driveways mean more opportunities for people and cars to come in conflict. When people and cars collide, people lose.
Yeah. I want to walk across that. Right after I cross the Sahara Desert on foot.
Where in the world is Carmen Sandiego… and where the !@#%*#! Is the front door?
OK, great, you brought the building up by the street. That’s a good start. But it’s not pedestrian friendly if you hide the door in the back and there’s no access from the sidewalk.
Enormous parking lots
Really people, there are a lot of cars in America, but they’re not all coming to your store at the same time. Not even on Black Friday. Take my word on this--I’ve counted. Note to developers: if you can see the curvature of the earth, your parking lot’s too big.
If the buildings make you feel like an ant, you’re probably not going to enjoy window-shopping. This may be because you have to traverse the length of a football field to get from one store to the next. We’re human. We like instant gratification and lots of options. We want to look at interesting things while we walk, and those giant fake columns aren’t cutting it.
Nothing engages the pedestrian like a giant blank wall. “I really like taupe stucco best!” exclaims absolutely nobody, as they admire the vast expanse of mind-numbing monotony.
Significant changes in elevation between the sidewalk and the destination adds an extra layer of complexity for the pedestrian. You shouldn’t have to shout “On belay!” before rappelling down to the store each time you get off the bus.
For those of us who don’t walk around with grappling hooks and climbing gear, getting from one store to the other is tremendously more challenging when eight-foot walls separate areas of a shopping center.
But we can’t just blame the developers…
It’s not just old-school developers who design barriers into the pedestrian experience. Every day, people who don’t drive experience discrimination in the form of bad street design, sidewalk obstacles and blithe disregard for their needs.
A few common examples…
Whoops! We forgot!
The most common form of pedestrian unfriendliness is the ubiquitous street without a sidewalk. It’s not like anyone’s really going to walk there. Well, not now.
The sidewalk storage area
Many street crews obviously see the sidewalk as a convenient place to store construction materials, park cars, and locate temporary signage, even if it means that a person in a wheelchair has absolutely no way to cross the barrier. Hey, at least traffic flow won’t be impacted!
Imagine the outrage if utilities were placed in the middle of traffic lanes, forcing cars to bob and weave their way down the street. This casual disregard for the needs of people who use sidewalks is an impressive symbol of how we prioritize auto travel over all other modes.
The oblique ramp
Why pay for two ramps when just one completely unsafe ramp will do? These are especially exciting when pushing a baby stroller or riding in a wheelchair. Who needs caffeine, when you can get your heart pumping simply by maneuvering loved ones into and out of busy traffic lanes at every intersection?
No ramp at all
It’s like CrossFit for disabled people. America’s true ninja warriors are really just normal folks who need to run errands but don’t have cars or chauffeurs.
Lack of street trees
If you live in the south, trees make a dramatic difference to people who walk. Scrawny ornamental trees don't cut it. If I'm taller than the tree, I'm not getting much shade. Properly placed canopy trees define the street, buffer the sidewalk from traffic, and provide much-needed shade for pedestrians. (Bonus points if you noticed where the sidewalk ends.)
I could go on, but you get the idea. We’ve spent the better part of 70 years building our cities for cars, not people, and it shows. It’s time to make walkability a priority, not just a feel-good buzzword.
Awareness is the first step. The more we can help our neighbors and elected officials recognize obstacles to walkability, the sooner we can make our cities better and healthier places for everyone.
Let’s get this conversation started! Share your examples of affronts to walkability on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram using the hashtag #PedestrianUnfriendly.