Infrastructure Solutions for Increased Walkability
Transit for Livable Communities, through the Bike Walk Twin Cities nonmotorized transportation pilot program, has funded numerous pedestrian improvements as part of projects across the metro. We've also seen walking increase 17 percent in the Twin Cities from 2007 to 2010. Still, many streets and neighborhoods remain unsuitable or unsafe for people traveling on foot or by wheelchair. Inspired by this ongoing need, TLC/BWTC is developing a new leadership training program for Twin Cities residents who want to improve walkability in their communities. To get involved, email whitneyl[a]tlcminnesota.org or join us at an information session in early 2013. Session details to come soon-stay tuned!
Many elected officials, urban/suburban/small town planners, advocacy groups, and thought leaders across the country are highlighting the value of walkable communities and walking as transportation. People-focused street design is an essential means of improving safety that can get even more of us out walking. As Benjamin Waldo, assistant designer at Minneapolis-based Community Design Group, emphasizes, "There are several tools and approaches in the designer's toolbox to improve safety, comfort, and convenience for pedestrians in our cities, suburbs, and rural communities. Working hand in hand with education, enforcement, and encouragement tactics, these infrastructure approaches can help increase the number of people walking, improve pedestrian safety and comfort, and create a safer environment for all users of our transportation system-including transit riders, people with mobility impairments, bicyclists, and motorists."
Benjamin, aided by BWTC's Steve Clark, recently summarized four improvements prioritized in projects funded by BWTC that could make walking safer or easier in your neighborhood:
Reducing the Crossing Distance:
Wide roads invite higher driving speeds and increase the distance that a pedestrian must cross at an intersection. Some roads are so wide and daunting that many pedestrians will simply not attempt to cross them out of a concern for their own safety. These roads become physical barriers which can divide communities and keep people separated from their daily destinations.
Crossing distance can be effectively reduced in two key ways:
1) Curb extensions or "bump outs" (Fig. 1-2) are installed at street intersections to increase the visibility of pedestrians, reduce the crossing distance, and reduce the speed of turning vehicles. Additionally, they create a more comfortable area in which pedestrians can gather while waiting for the crossing signal. They can also provide room for transit shelters, bike racks, benches, or additional green space on the street.
Fig. 1: Curb extension, Riverlake Greenway, Minneapolis
Fig. 2: Curb extensions
Source: C Street NE Project Blog
2) Median refuge islands (Fig. 3) cut in half the distance a person must cross at one time by giving him or her a place to safely rest before completing the crossing. Refuge islands simplify crossing movements by allowing pedestrians to cross while only worrying about oncoming traffic from one direction at a time. These facilities are especially helpful on high volume roads and give pedestrians an added element of comfort if they are not able to cross the entire street at once. This is especially useful for older pedestrians and for people with mobility impairments who may walk or move at a slower pace. According to the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), median refuge islands have been shown to reduce crashes involving pedestrians by as much as 40 percent.
Fig. 3: Median refuge island
Finding the space for medians of course can be a challenge, especially on those busy multi-laned roadways where you need them the most. In fact, four-lane roadways have a very poor safety record, largely due to what is called the "multiple threat." One vehicle stops for a person trying to cross the street, but a motorist in the adjacent lane (whose view of the pedestrian is now blocked by the stopped vehicle) continues on and strikes the person.
Road diets (converting four-lane roads to three lanes or less) (Fig. 4-5) not only remove this multiple threat, but leave ample space for medians, especially in midblock locations where the third lane (a shared center lane for left turns only) is not necessary. Road diets and medians are being promoted by the FHWA as one of Nine Proven Safety Countermeasures for all road users.
Fig. 4: Road Diet
Source: Dan Burden
Fig. 5: Road diet with median
Source: Dan Burden
Better Signals and Signal Timing:
Long stretches of road without crosswalks can force pedestrians to risk their safety by crossing at a location where a crosswalk is not provided, or to walk significantly out of their way to find a crosswalk.
Providing midblock crossings is one safe and effective way of addressing this problem. But how do we communicate to drivers that this is a location where pedestrians are likely to cross? One new solution, which has proven to be as effective as standard traffic lights in getting drivers to stop and yield to pedestrians at a crosswalk is the HAWK signal, or pedestrian hybrid beacon (Fig. 6-7). The HAWK signal is a pedestrian-activated red-indication signal designed for use at midblock crossings and intersection locations. While relatively new to the US, the HAWK signal has been used in Europe for decades. It has also been successfully deployed in North American cities including Tucson, AZ; Lawrence, KS; and Vancouver, BC., and just this year became a new addition to FHWA's 9 Proven Safety Countermeasures!
Fig. 6: HAWK signal
Source: ITRE NCSU, http://www.itre.ncsu.edu
Fig. 7: HAWK signal phases
Source: FHWA MUTCD
The HAWK signal is dark until a pedestrian activates it by pressing the crossing button. It responds immediately, with a flashing yellow pattern that changes to a solid red light providing unequivocal guidance to motorists.
HAWK signals are approved for use by MnDOT at midblock crossings and also at intersection locations where current engineering practices make providing a standard traffic signal difficult.
Another type of crossing signal is a Rectangular Rapid Flash Beacon, or RRFB. RRFBs are pedestrian-activated signals that use an irregular flash pattern with very bright amber lights (like those you might see on an ambulance) to alert drivers to yield to the pedestrians who wish to cross the road.
Of course, much can be done at existing signalized intersections to reduce delays and frustration for pedestrians, and also increase their safety. Automatic walk phases, especially in concert with the countdown signals, are a prime example of such an improvement. Another is called a Leading Pedestrian Interval (LPI) which provides pedestrians a head start. The walk signal goes on a few seconds before the green light for vehicles in the roadway, dramatically reducing the number of conflicts between pedestrians and turning motorists.
Traffic calming is the application of physical measures on a road to encourage motorists to drive slower. Although a wide variety of traffic calming tools and approaches exist, the end result is that slowing motor-vehicle traffic down makes our streets safer for pedestrians, cyclists, and even motorists (because, by decreasing traffic speeds, it decreases the likelihood of crashes with other motor vehicles, and also decreases the severity of crashes when they do occur). In addition, studies have shown that traffic calming measures increase property values in neighborhoods by making them more attractive places to live and safer places for children to walk and play.
Common and effective examples of traffic calming infrastructure include traffic circles, speed humps, and strong vertical sight lines (Figs. 8-12). If possible, these traffic calming measures should be implemented across an entire neighborhood rather than on single streets so that motorists do not simply choose to drive fast on the next street over.
Fig. 8: Traffic Circle
Source: Community Design Group, LLC
Fig. 9: Traffic Circle, 5th Street NE, Minneapolis
10: Speed hump at crossing, aka, raised crosswalk
Fig. 11: Raised crosswalk at 5th Street NE, Minneapolis
Fig. 12: Sight lines and traffic calming
Source: Community Design Group, LLC
Many cities today are rediscovering the importance of addressing pedestrian safety, comfort, and mobility as a foundation for livelier, more prosperous, healthier, and more connected communities. Infrastructure improvements are an essential tool for improving the experience of people on foot. Combined with better enforcement and education initiatives, they can help us make great strides in improving a city's livability. And joined with strong pedestrian activism within a city, walking conditions can be greatly-and quickly-improve.
Fig. 13: Quality pedestrian environments are good for cities and communities large and small.
Image: Durham, New Hampshire (pop. 10,300), via Federal Highway Administration and Pedestrian and Bicycle Information Center (PBIC), courtesy of Dan Burden.
If you are interested in learning more about tools and approaches to improve walking or cycling in your community, please take a look at the additional resources listed below and consider joining the great work that Transit for Livable Communities/Bike Walk Twin Cities and other local organizations are doing to improve walking in our communities.
Thanks to Benjamin Waldo of Community Design Group for contributing to this blog.