Ask R. Moses: Can a hilly town become walkable?

Today's Question 

I live in Morgantown, West Virginia, a lovely college town of about 30,000 (not counting the surrounding areas — weird city limits is another issue). I love to walk around my town, but I’m a rarity. Sidewalks are inconsistent at best and nonexistent in many areas.

We are built almost entirely on a series of hills. The streets and roads are narrow and not in much of a grid. How should the city go about retrofitting the neighborhoods to be more walker and bike friendly?
— Sadly Sidewalk-deprived
Morganton, WV. (Image from  Wikimedia )

Morganton, WV. (Image from Wikimedia)

R Moses' Answer:

While I have traveled through Morgantown before and like the song by Joni Mitchell, I'm not quite familiar with the particulars. This an interesting question though; many articles are written about the simplicity of the standard grid plan but there's little discussion that it doesn’t work well with mountains, rivers, lakes, streams or any type of undulating. I think it has implications for towns beyond yours, Sadly Sidewalk-deprived. 

First off, it's surprising and disappointing that a college town is not walkable. One recommendation would be to look at similar cities and see what they have done.  Pittsburgh comes to mind as they have a very active biking community.  Boulder might also be a good example.

Here are some other initial ideas for tackling this problem:

  • At a minimum, the city should establish a priority system for deciding where to most effectively use whatever funds are available for sidewalk creation and maintenance.
  • Based on what I know of your town, there also seem to be places where stairways or steps might be a better strategy than sidewalks along streets aligned to accommodate cars. Pittsburgh provides good examples of this strategy.  Similarly, there may be alleys or other routes that can be better configured to provide more optimized pedestrian routes.
  • Consider other things that enhance walkability besides just sidewalks. Small public art installations and informal benches make for a more enjoyable walk. Reconfiguring stoplights to ensure safe crossing for pedestrians will also help. These small gestures can go a long way in making a community more walkable. 

Finally, bringing in an expert like Dan Burden to do a walk audit could be a great event to spur some action, accompanied by some pilot demonstration projects. You might also consider gathering together neighbors and leaders who care about walking to form a walkability committee.

This recently published guide from the FHWA offers some great ideas for simple tactics to improve walkability like creating advisory shoulders. Actions such as this are fairly cheap - paint can go a long way. Better Block and the Street Plans Collaborative have similarly cheap project ideas for creating safer streets.

I hope these are enough ideas to get you started, and I wish you good luck in your quest to improve walkability in Morgantown.

Note: R. Moses is not meant to be professional engineering advice nor should be relied upon as such. Consult your own technical professional before proceeding with your own project.

How would you respond to this question? Jump in with your answers in the comments.


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