April 27, 2022
Wide, unobstructed, well-maintained sidewalks with no gaps or dead ends are the best infrastructure communities of all sizes can invest in. From urban to suburban to rural areas, sidewalks provide democratic, inexpensive access to transit, parks, jobs, education, and all aspects of daily living.
Yet many communities — even in denser, urban areas — lack these much-needed networks. Dallas is "missing more than 2,000 miles of sidewalk," while Denver went viral last summer when TikTok account @PedestrianDignity began cataloguing its crumbling, inadequate, or nonexistent walkways. The city launched a mobility plan in 2018 to address the fact that 10 percent of its streets lack sidewalks, while 30 percent can't support wheelchairs, according to nonprofit WalkDenver.
The new bipartisan infrastructure law offers critical opportunities to solve these issues through initiatives like the reformed Transportation Alternatives Program and the recently launched Active Transportation Infrastructure Investment Program, which will dedicate $200 million a year in grants to connect walking and biking routes with destinations and other transportation options. As decision makers across the country create plans for federal funding, I spoke to planning and pedestrian experts to learn why the humble sidewalk is one of the best investments a community can make — and what we need to do to make them work for everyone.
1. HEALTH BENEFITS AGES 8 TO 80
When it comes to health's "magic pill," Gil Penalosa, founder and chair of the Toronto-based planning non-profit 8 80 Cities, points to active transportation.
"The answer is getting around by walking, crutches, wheelchair — I don't care how you move, but you need to move about in ways other than using a car. It's also very crucial to mental health,'' he says. "The only places where large amounts of people walk at least five days a week are those with the infrastructure to support walking, biking, transit, and mobility for people with disabilities."
Importantly, Penalosa advocates for well-built sidewalks in suburban towns and rural villages, too, not just urban areas. He notes that even areas without much density might still have bus routes that rely on sidewalk connectivity.
"There are studies that show that when [aging residents] lose their driving privileges, it is as traumatic as a cancer diagnosis. Because in so many cities, the car is the only way to be mobile and make a doctor's appointment or grocery run," he says. "In walkable cities with transit, losing a car doesn't mean losing your friends, your stores, your places you've gone all your life."
2. LEVEL THE PLAYING FIELD FOR ALL
"Sidewalk connectivity is essential for people with disabilities, but it's also just a great way of leveling the playing field for all marginalized people," says Heidi Johnson-Wright, a renowned inclusive design expert who has been an Americans with Disabilities Act resource for large urban governments. She's currently co-teaching a groundbreaking universal design course at the University of Miami School of Architecture with me.
She's spent an entire week of the course focusing on sidewalks, complete streets, properly aligned curb ramps, and safe harbor medians to underscore their value — and what's at stake when they aren't properly designed and maintained. A curb ramp fails to function if it constantly floods, for example, and a crosswalk becomes perilous if drainage basins are placed where wheelchair tires can get stuck in them.
"My students now grasp that if one link in the chain is broken, safe mobility fails for all," says Johnson-Wright, who uses a wheelchair for mobility. She laments that cars parked over sidewalks for days are rarely ticketed in her experience. "That unwillingness to ensure safety forces me into streets and into the path of dangerous drivers in a region that consistently leads the nation in pedestrian deaths and serious injuries."
3. GREAT BANG FOR OUR BUCK
As producer of Perils for Pedestrians Television, a safe walkability public affairs series that airs in 150 cities across the U.S., John Wetmore says sidewalks provide "clear economic benefits."
"When people walk more, they are healthier, and society will save on health care costs. When people drive less, they spend less on gas and maintenance. If living in a walkable neighborhood lets a family get by with one less car, the savings can be several thousand dollars a year," he says. "However, the biggest benefits from walkable neighborhoods have to do with the quality of life. Walking can play a big role in one's independence, which is fundamental to one's quality of life."
Wetmore cites initiatives like Safe Routes to School, which the new infrastructure law is expanding, as proof that a broad base of consumers supports safer, well-connected sidewalks. "The city needs to invest in the sidewalks, crosswalks, and other basic infrastructure that will make it not just possible to walk, but desirable to walk," he says.
4. ELIMINATE GENDER DISPARITIES
According to Leslie Kern, PhD, associate professor of geography and environment and director of women's and gender studies at Mount Allison University, research shows that women take more pedestrian trips daily as part of their commutes and household-serving errands. That means effective sidewalks are of heightened importance to their daily lives.
"Barrier-free, wide, and well-maintained sidewalks are particularly important for women, who still do a higher share of caregiving work," says Leslie Kern, author of Feminist City: Claiming Space in a Man-Made World. "Navigating sidewalks with strollers and small children is difficult if there is not enough space, if there are barriers at curbs or a lack of curb cuts, or if the sidewalk must be shared with cyclists."
Plus, there's the obvious safety component, she adds. In neighborhoods without sidewalks, people are forced to walk in the street, providing no protection from speeding vehicles — or the people operating them.
"Women and people of marginalized genders regularly experience harassment from car drivers," she says. "If sidewalks can create more distance between pedestrians and drivers, this might either cut down on this form of 'drive-by harassment' or reduce the fear it causes in walkers."
5. MORE SPACE FOR PEOPLE PLACES
"Often, the pedestrian realm is undersized and relegated to the leftover space within the right-of-way after the traffic engineers have taken all the space they need for vehicular lanes," says Michael Huston, AIA, LEED-AP, owner of Urban Arts, Inc. and partner of Civic Plan Studio.
To support a healthy, active "pedestrian realm" that people of all ages and physical abilities can enjoy, he says our sidewalks need to be much wider.
"To accommodate the necessary sidewalk clear zone and streetscape furnishings needed to create a comfortable pedestrian environment, a minimum of 15 feet is recommended between the street curb and the building," Huston adds. "It is not unusual to have a pedestrian realm that is 20 to 30 feet wide on streets that have intensive pedestrian and outdoor dining use."
6. A TOOL OF ENVIRONMENTAL JUSTICE
The founder and president of nonprofit Strong Towns, which focuses on pedestrian-friendly development, believes sidewalks and streets play an important role in environmental justice.
"Sidewalks are often treated as afterthoughts in urban transportation projects," says Charles Marohn, P.E. "This is backwards. The function of an urban street is to serve as a platform for building wealth. On a street, we're attempting to grow the complex ecosystem that produces community wealth."
One big way that can be accomplished is through proper maintenance. Marohn advocates for city plowing of sidewalks, instead of making snow and ice clearance the responsibility of thousands of individual property owners. He says it's equally or even more important than street plowing — which often creates impediments to pedestrians.
"In most of our poorest neighborhoods, the public sector is neglecting their maintenance responsibilities, and this contributes to a vicious cycle of decline," says Marohn, author of Confessions of a Recovering Engineer. "When the streets have more potholes, the parks have more weeds, and the sidewalks have more cracks and gaps than the ones in our affluent neighborhoods, the signal being sent is that decline is going to continue, regardless of what the property owners do."
7. A CONNECTOR FOR PEOPLE (AND ROBOTS?)
Amin Gharebaghi, co-founder and CEO of GeoMate, is preparing sidewalks for an increase in traffic. His firm works with multiple cities across North America to analyze key features impacting urban accessibility like curb ramps, slope, width, and surface quality.
"Sidewalks act as a main connector in municipalities, bringing residents closer to their communities and local economies," he says. And it's a critical time to ensure that those connections work at the human level first.
"As cities become increasingly dense and new mobility technologies [like delivery robots] begin to operate on sidewalks, enhancing sidewalk safety and accessibility is becoming more important now than ever," he explains.
8. FIRST AND LAST MILE MVP
"You can build a premium bus stop with shelters and amenities, but if you can't get to it, the transit fails," says David Haight, FAICP, a planner and senior project manager with planning, design, and engineering firm Atkins. "Without accessible sidewalks, transit doesn't work."
Apart from being wide enough to accommodate pedestrians with mobility aids like wheelchairs, accessible sidewalks should include pathways that don't flood, have crosswalks, and help people navigate from bus stops through parking lots to retail. Designers should work to understand and match users' expectations, too.
"People walk in a straight line. They will try to cross — without the protection of a painted crosswalk or `walk' sign — rather than cross two additional lanes of busy traffic to get to the official crosswalk," he explains. And at four-lane roads, a median should be large enough to serve as a haven for those who can make it only halfway to the other side of the street. Otherwise, people — some with kids, some using assistive mobility devices — are stuck on a tiny piece of ground with huge trucks and speeding cars rushing by them.
9. "THE SINGLE MOST CRITICAL PIECE OF INFRASTRUCTURE"
Fabian De La Espriella, AICP, principal of Miami-based Urbë Studio, has nearly two decades of experience in transportation planning — and is a big fan of what sidewalks provide, particularly when it comes to equity.
"Sidewalks are the single most critical piece of infrastructure when it comes to reducing disparities between communities, especially those that are currently underserved, which coincidently are also suffering from disproportionate pedestrian death rates," says De La Espriella, vice chair of APA Florida's Gold Coast chapter. "This equity approach applies to sidewalks being of vital importance for people with disabilities, no-car households, children, and the elderly. Sidewalks in some communities are key to getting access to transit, food, parks, or schools."
Every planning agency, local jurisdiction, and government official should prioritize safe sidewalks, he says.
"Having safe, healthy streets is part of increasing a city's competitiveness. A key component to achieving this outcome is having safe sidewalks, which increase access and create a higher value place," he says. "It is time that we acknowledge the responsibility of transportation investments in increasing equity in our communities, especially when it comes to sidewalks."