Category Archives: Analysis

Small Streets are the Most Walkable Streets. Sidewalks Just Play Pretend.

Since 2007, Kaid Benfield has written a blog for the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) called Switchboard. The blog marked a significant development in the history of the environmental movement because it officially expanded the set of issues of concern for environmentalists into the built environment. Over the last four years, Kaid has made the case that smart growth and good urbanism are key elements of a society concerned with sustainability.

For his 1,000th post, he writes:

I’m not sure there is any one word that describes my concept of a sustainable community place more than walkability.  At least when it comes to describing the physical aspects of a place.  Is it safe, comfortable, and enjoyable to walk in?  Does it have an abundance of places to walk to and from?  Is it human-scaled?  If the answer is yes, chances are that it also has many of the characteristics that smart growth and urbanist planners strive to achieve:  density, mixed uses, connectivity, appropriate traffic management, street frontages, opportunity for physical activity, and so on.

Kaid believes that the most sustainable community places are walkable places.

Well then, what do these walkable places look like? He shares some pictures. One can’t help but notice that many of the pictures are of small streets.

Of the 21 photos, one-third (7) are of small streets. He includes a photo of a TGV station in France that functions as a small street, so one could count that too. Five photos are of wide streets. Notice that all of them are focused on the sidewalk. In some cases, the roadway is completely out of the frame. If the whole wide street was photographed, would it say “walkable”? Doubtful.

For wide streets, walkability can exist only on the fringes. Only if a wide street has the right sidewalk width, tree canopy, street furniture, and separation from traffic can it even have a chance at walkability.

Dupont Circle

This sidewalk wishes it were a small street. Because it is not, these pedestrians have to tolerate the noise of car and truck traffic and cross the traffic to experience its other (missing) half. 

Essentially, the sidewalk of a wide street needs to emulate the human scale qualities of a small street in order to succeed.

Thus, every wide street needs to be three streets in one: two sidewalk “faux small streets” and a roadway for moving vehicular traffic. How difficult is that to build successfully? How difficult is it to maintain balance between these three streets? In the United States, 99% of the time the roadway wins and the sidewalks lose.

The sidewalks of wide streets very rarely match the walkability of a small street.

Paris

What should that tell our planners and policy makers? If you honestly, truly want a walkable environment, build small streets.

Small Streets are More Than the Distance Between Curbs

Small Streets are also about the distance between buildings on either side of the street. Too often urban planners and engineers think that the width of a street is the distance between two curbs. If you’re only concerned about moving vehicles, then sure—the distance between buildings matters little. But if you care about the street as a public space for neighbors to talk and kids to play, then the distance between buildings matters. Most streets in the United States do not define space very well. When you stand in the middle of most streets, you feel like you’re in more of an abyss than an outdoor room. And people don’t like the feeling of being in an abyss.

Last week we looked at Ward’s Island of Toronto, Canada and found that it’s possible to have a small street with single-family detached houses. The paths for pedestrians and bicycles were around eight feet wide, which ensured that speeding traffic was a physical impossibility. The Google Street View images showed us that the island’s residents spend a lot of time outside. We saw tables, chairs and benches all over porches, stoops, and front yards.

While the narrow paths certainly help set the groundwork for a social community, we would like to argue that they are not enough. The short distance from your front door to your neighbor’s across the way—that is the key element of the community’s design.

Let’s take a trip to the American West Coast to look at a street whose roadway is narrow, but whose gulf between neighbors is great. This is 2nd Avenue NW between 117th and 118th Streets in Seattle.

Seattle

Some 11 years ago, the Seattle Public Utilities experimented with a program called the Street Edge Alternative (SEA) Streets Project. A news article from the time praises the project for its environmental benefits, especially its potential to reduce of stormwater runoff. The street was narrowed to 14 feet and curved to add interest. These are worthy improvements, but this place is still suburbia.

Seattle

The curvy street definitely adds some interest. I would certainly enjoy walking down it much more than I would the street a couple of blocks over (shown in the next photo), but look at the huge distance between the houses. It’s some 115 feet from your front door to your neighbor’s across the street! This is not an environment conducive to forming community ties.

Seattle

Back to the revamped street, you don’t see any tables, chairs or benches here. No children’s toys, either. These neighbors even put up a fence between their houses. They don’t want to talk.

Seattle

The SEA Streets Project does get at least one element of community design right. Neighbors walk to a cluster of mailboxes that serves a few houses on the street. The chances you’ll run into a neighbor aren’t great, but better than zero. In the article, the Seattle Design Commissioner praises the community building perspective of the project. The street they built is functional and the landscaping is beautiful, but the potential for a community to grow here is minimal.

What are the chances that anyone will stop to admire this lovely tree and stay a while? Not great, unfortunately.

Seattle

As Jan Gehl writes in his book Cities for People, genuine conversation is not possible until people are within 25 feet of each other. Cutting the distance between curbs is not enough to make a street a lively place.