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.


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