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People-Oriented Cities: Designing Walkable, Bikeable Neighborhoods

The “People-Oriented Cities” series – exclusive to TheCityFix and Insights – is an exploration of how cities can grow to become more sustainable and livable through transit-oriented development (TOD). The nine-part series will address different urban design techniques and trends that reorient cities around people rather than cars.

Walking and biking create clear benefits for cities and the people who live in them. Providing good conditions for non-motorized transport – or active transport – relieves traffic congestion, reduces local air pollution, improves traffic safety, and increases physical activity, among other benefits.

Yet, while the vast majority of citizens in developing cities don’t own cars, infrastructure is still being designed and financed to support motor vehicle travel. In Mexico, for example, less than one-third of urban trips are made in cars, but three-quarters of the federal mobility budget is allocated to highways.

It’s time for the world’s cities to start thinking about moving people rather than moving cars.

Drawn from EMBARQ’s Transit-Oriented Development Guide for Urban Communities, here are three design principles to help city planners, developers, and citizens with an interest in increasing biking and walking in their communities. These design strategies are especially relevant for new developments and redevelopments, where there’s a golden opportunity to do things right the first time.

1) Connected Streets

Untangling the knot of car-based sprawl can come down to one simple principle: the longer a trip, the more likely a car will be used to make it. The type of street hierarchy that makes car travel attractive also makes trips longer and less walkable, ultimately defeating its own purpose by inundating a neighborhood in traffic.

Instead, streets should connect to other publicly accessible roads, including short blocks and four-way intersections. While developers might think their customers demand the perceived comfort and security of disconnected streets, dead ends are fundamentally unattractive to pedestrians and cyclists and force all traffic onto a few key roads, leading to unsafe conditions for motorized and non-motorized travelers alike.

<p>A street network ensures that neighborhoods are linked together, and that future developments connect to the existing urban fabric through the continuation of its grid.</p>

A street network ensures that neighborhoods are linked together, and that future developments connect to the existing urban fabric through the continuation of its grid.

2) Car-Free Streets

Not all streets need to be accessible to motor vehicles. Car-free or limited-traffic streets can become anchors for human-centered activity.

Paved trails for walking and biking are not merely outdoor gyms, but are superb commuter facilities. They can be built behind backyards, through parks, or as part of a larger boulevard-style street. In order to be used for purposes beyond recreation, it’s important that these paths link to destinations such as businesses, schools, and public transport stops.

3) Active Streets

Roadways are rarely designed to make driving uncomfortable, such as requiring one car to pull over when another approaches. Yet pedestrians and cyclists are often presented with such conditions. Increasing walking and biking requires that these travelers can move efficiently, comfortably, and most importantly, safely. For example:

  • The more vehicle traffic on a street, the more robust biking and walking infrastructure needed. Pedestrians need a flat band of sidewalk—called a “pedestrian zone”—free of obstructions. Wider sidewalks can also accommodate commercial activity and community interaction. Sidewalks are inherently social, and should be thought of as public spaces that happen to have a transportation function, rather than simply a way to get from one building to another.

  • Bikeways should be smooth and free of obstructions, and preferably separated from traffic by parked vehicles, guardrails, bollards, or other barriers that clearly differentiate bike lanes from the rest of the street. (The NACTO Urban Bikeway Design Guide provides detailed guidance.) Bike racks and secure bike parking in public spaces are a great boon to bicyclists, who report that the risk of theft is often what prevents them from commuting by bike.

  • Streets with high traffic or fast-moving vehicles need barriers that separate and protect pedestrians and cyclists from traffic. Especially where on-street parking is not permitted, sidewalks should be protected by strips of greenery, whose permeable surfaces also help with drainage during storms.

  • Both cyclists and pedestrians need safe ways to cross streets. Traffic signals are effective, but other less expensive measures can work, too, including combined stop signs and raised intersections, mini-roundabouts, speed humps, or speed cushions. Pedestrians should be able to cross streets safely and as frequently as possible, avoiding conflicts with vehicular traffic at any but the lowest speeds.

<p>A balanced street has ample sidewalks, comfortable bike facilities that connect to a network, and safe ways to cross streets, making active transportation possible even on larger roads.</p>

A balanced street has ample sidewalks, comfortable bike facilities that connect to a network, and safe ways to cross streets, making active transportation possible even on larger roads.

Walking and biking can improve the overall health of a city, in every sense of the word. But in order to make non-motorized transport a reality in the developing world, city leaders must first improve designs to support walkers and bikers.

Stay tuned for the next entry in the “People-oriented Cities” series, which will address the role of vehicle-demand management in effective transit-oriented development. For more on the transit-oriented development paradigm, download EMBARQ’s Transit-oriented Development Guide for Urban Communities.

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