Walkability - A Short Guide
Walkability is a catch-all term used to describe how attractive a street, neighborhood or city is for pedestrians. This includes not just how accommodating the facility such as sidewalk or footpath is, but also how well it connects the user’s origin to destination as well as the aesthetics along the way. Walkability is a key measure for transportation and community planners interested in creating vibrant neighborhoods and transportation systems for all users.
The first consideration for assessing walkability is to look at system connectivity. Do pedestrian facilities exist? If so, are they connected in a way that makes walking a viable choice for a person wishing to get from where they are to where they want to be?
A sidewalk audit is a good way for communities to evaluate the extent of their pedestrian facilities. Mapping the current sidewalk network using Geographic Information Services (GIS) software can help decision makers identify underserved areas, system gaps and needs. Ultimately, this information can help guide policy and infrastructure investments.
Part of this assessment should include the condition of the facilities as well as their adequacy for disabled users. Broken pavement, the absence of needed curb cuts and unsafe intersection crossings are aspects of concern. Not only do they limit the mobility of disabled users who may not have access to other means of transportation, poor facility conditions can make able-bodied users less like to choose walking as a mode.
Another useful tool for municipal self-assessment is to measure the intersection density of the area. Neighborhoods with higher intersection densities tend to have more and better sidewalks and road systems with better connectivity. The Tri-County Regional Planning Commission recently completed a survey of all intersections in Cumberland, Dauphin and Perry Counties. Extracting the intersections within a community and dividing by the area will give the intersection density.
In order to address facility deficiencies or gaps, municipalities can invest in pedestrian infrastructure directly, or write requirements into the subdivision and land development ordinances (SALDOs). Capital Improvement Programs outline major short term infrastructure investments and identify funding sources. Prioritizing sidewalk and walking path construction in this document will create a better pedestrian transportation network.
It is also possible to improve walkability through SALDOs. It is common for sidewalk construction to be a requirement during the subdivision process. Additionally, SALDOs can effectively prohibit cul-de-sac and dead-end streets in the SALDO design standards to improve connectivity.
The second consideration for assessing walkability involves street design, block length and aesthetics. Many potential pedestrians consider more than just travel time when decided to get from point A to point B. Creating a walkable neighborhood or community also involves making their sidewalks and footpaths attractive and inviting.
It is generally accepted that 400- 600 foot block lengths break up linear distances and provide more route choices. Additionally, wide sidewalks free of obstructions like utility poles and fire hydrants allow for more freedom of movement and are more accommodating for disabled users. Amenities such as plantings and benches can attract recreational walkers and create public spaces that double as transportation corridors. Large picture windows and minimal setbacks for buildings as well as parking to the rear give pedestrians a sense of scale and interaction with the built environment.
A perception of safety is also an important aspect of walkability. Timely removal of snow and ice during winter months is important to minimize injuries and signal that the facility is open for travel. Adequate lighting and the presence of law enforcement will promote use during night hours. Finally, bollards, on street parking or other barriers between the facility and road traffic can make pedestrians feel more secure.
Block length, building setbacks and parking lot design requirements can be addressed through SALDO and Zoning Ordinances. Safety and security concerns require a more in-depth assessment of the system. Community groups can help identify areas perceived as unsafe or unattractive to walk. GIS can be used to map amenities. And municipal policies should be drafted regarding snow and ice removal from pedestrian facilities and placement of utility poles, hydrants and other potential obstacles within sidewalk and footpath rights-of-way.
There are a number of resources that treat walkability more comprehensively. The Federal Highway Administration, in partnership with a number of other organizations, has created a community walkability checklist. Volunteers can be organized to record their walking trips and make note of the system’s accommodations. Aggregated results can be mapped and used during the planning process.
Communities that apply for and receive a PennDOT Safe Routes to School Grant are eligible for a walkability audit. These audits center on schools and walkable routes for students, but can provide community-wide data needed to assess overall walkability.
The Pedestrian and Bicycle Information Center, based out of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, has a resource library that addresses all aspects of community walkability. This is a useful clearing house for communities or individuals interested in digging deeper into this subject.
Finally, walkscore.com is an online tool that provides a quantitative assessment of a neighborhood’s walkability. Based on access to necessary and desired services as well as the presence of pedestrian facilities, this website gives a score out of 100 to addresses or neighborhoods.