Walking represents the foundation of our transportation networks. Driving and riding begin and end with a walk, yet we usually don’t design around those walks. Why is that, and what does it …
Walking represents the foundation of our transportation networks. Driving and riding begin and end with a walk, yet we usually don’t design around those walks. Why is that, and what does it look like from the walked perspective? Let’s explore from the sidewalk viewshed.
This is part two of a series exploring the under-representation and under-resourcing of the ability to comfortably and conveniently walk around. For the sake of this discussion, and with universal design in mind, wheeling oneself or another around is included as walking.
Let’s think about the last time we significantly reacted while driving. Perhaps a car merged into our lane or a deer darted across the road. These are intense experiences. Their rush can be recalled, if not the details.
Representing rare moments, relative to decades of driving, the physical memory of fully slamming on the brakes to avoid a crash can still be felt. That whole body-temperature increase wrapped around maximally focused attention sticks with you. When you’re walking around, these moments happen all the time.
You know that feeling of movement beyond your control when a trailer truck sometimes sends you turbulence on the highway? This is felt every time you’re walking alongside a sidewalk-less road connecting everyday locations when SUVs drive by at the posted speed limit. You know that feeling of deployed-parachute, momentum-shifting when your own car mass comes to an abrupt halt? This is felt as a seawall breaker jutting up to stop a wave directed at you every time a car stops short while you’re in a crosswalk.
These moments of awareness that something bad might happen to us when driving could probably be counted with our hands. These same moments would need a thick, old-timey, general store ledger to catalog for those of us who regularly walk around. This is another illustration of how our transportation network is disproportionately designed in favor of driving.
Here’s what I’ve noticed when walking from downtown Honesdale to a favored park. Let’s walk it together. The route is mostly walkable with average comfort. Established sidewalks, a pedestrian river bridge, some cool steps, a sidewalk cars park on, and the parking lot of a community center get us most of the way. The last stretch of main road is the frontier.
There is minimal room to walk along this road. It plays host to hillocks and curves. We walk single file to stay safe. The speed limit jumps to 35 mph: a speed that feels, to us adjacent walkers, like a large truck passing us on the interstate.
A speed limit aside: Speed limits could be thought of as a number to stay below. Though often, speed limits pull us up to meet them and a certain number of drivers always travel above the speed limit. An oft-used way to set speed limits is by using the 85th percentile rule. This standard studies the speeds of drivers and sets limits at a speed value that 85 percent of those noted drivers would be driving below. It is in our nature to speed up to these limits, and because some of us drive over them, our speed limits, when assessed this way, increase over time.
One would think that drive speeds in important walking areas would be set based on the comfort of people walking nearby. Often, that’s not the case because the continuous flow of automobiles is served at the expense of holistic neighborhood safety.
Circling back to our stroll, we’re walking against the traffic flow to reach the park. If sightlines are good, it’s safer to see automobiles approaching you, as a walker, even when the space to walk on is marginal.
Cars pass us at or above the speed limit. Some maintain speed and shift to give us room. Most maintain speed and stay right in their lane. Few slow down and stay in their lane. The fewest slow down and scooch over if there’s room.
Most commonly, drivers drive slower along this road when there’s something notably dangerous ahead. Another car, temporary signage, debris, or road work slow drivers down all the time. People walking along the road only slow drivers down some of the time. This isn’t necessarily an active choice. It’s guided by design that privileges the automobile.
When our roads are designed around the automobile, it doesn’t just become more difficult to walk. The landscape features inform drivers that our roads are for them.
Take a look at road signage. Most of it is being presented toward people in vehicles. Take a look at our intersections. Where cars should stop is a lot more clearly marked than where people will cross the street. When a sign tells you 35 mph is okay, the expectation is that driving that speed within the road lines is the extent of a social contract.
The transportation system’s design is informing the user experience. Some users receive favored treatment. This clouds an important, grander conversation from even taking place. When all signs point to the operation of an automobile, it’s easy to be disconnected from the truth of our social contract.
Public roads are spaces we share in common with a diverse set of users. Following the speed limit and staying in your lane is important. It does not, however, add to the quality of life of anyone walking just outside of marked street lines, with their family, to a nearby park. Walkers are part of our transportation system. Policymakers, particularly our local ones, need to start planning around equity in that system.
Derek Frey Williams, citizen planner and walkability advocate, Canaltown. Visit interweb portals @canaltown552.com for more local landscape stories.
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