Thoughts of a Pedestrian
December 19, 2013

I purchased a new house. As an urbanist, the primary selling point of the house was its location. I wanted somewhere walkable (I didn't mean sidewalks, I meant with places to actually walk to.) The house I purchased was reasonably priced, and within walking distance of downtown - perfect.

Today, being an unusually warm December day, I decided to go for a walk and explore my local neighborhood. I came across a few things that caught my curiosity - things that you wouldn't have realized unless you were up close and experienced it on foot.

The Train Crossing

The first thing I did was attempt to take the most direct route downtown. I was walking along happily until I came across this;

The street suddenly ends to make way for the railroad. You can see the street and sidewalks line up perfectly on either end, as if at some point it was once connected, or one day will be.

Here it is as street level;

An intimidating 'No Trespassing' sign. If you look where the sidewalk ends, you can clearly see the grass has worn down to dirt, showing there is enough demand here that plenty of people are ignoring the sign and crossing it anyway.

Being a law abiding citizen that doesn't want to trespass, I will have to take a detour so that I can cross over the railroad legally;

The detour adds an extra 934 feet on to my trip downtown. That is adding on nearly 1/5 of a mile to a trip that should only be 1 mile anyway.

I'd like to know who thought it was a good idea to break the street grid like that. The argument can not be for safety - otherwise how am I allowed to cross safely along the other streets?

The fact that I have to take a detour feels like it is literally dividing the neighborhoods on either side. To solve this, all the city needs to do is to connect the sidewalk on either end (like they do on most of the other streets that cross over the railroad) with a sign saying "Look both ways before crossing";

The Super Block

Just up the street I encounter this;

A super block that suddenly interrupts the otherwise regular grid. There are actually quite a few of these. They really hurt walkability - often, there are destinations on the other side that actually interest me. However, it's the same story as with the railroad crossing;

It doubles the distance you need to walk around it. These super blocks could actually be put to good use, if they were to turn it into something similar like Gregory Park in Brainerd, MN;

Not only would we have parks within walking distance - where the neighborhood kids could freely play together - it would also aid walkability, as you could cut diagonally through the park on the way to your destination;

Being able to cut through diagonally would save you from walking about 500 feet.

Or, they could do something similar to Irish Harp Park in Prospect, South Australia. Build houses around the outside with regular lot sizes, and use the middle as a park;

I use to walk my dog to that park every day. We were surrounded by back fences and only a couple of exit points, so I could let him off his leash while he runs around with the other kids and dogs without worrying about him running out into the street. That sort of enclosed park (with a trail entrance on all 8 corners, similar to Gregory Park) would work great for these super blocks, adding a lot of value to the neighborhood and aiding walkability.

Patchy Sidewalks

I'm relatively new to American customs and laws, but there are a few general rules I've been following as a pedestrian;

  1. When there's a sidewalk - use it, as walking alongside traffic is dangerous.
  2. When there's no sidewalk - walk along the street in the opposite direction of traffic, as walking through private property is trespassing.

But, the sidewalk coverage is very patchy in this neighborhood. This is fairly typical;

What is the correct, legal etiquette for a pedestrian to follow?

a. Keep walking through where the sidewalk would be, if it were there?

b. To zig-zag across the street every time the sidewalk starts and ends?

c. Or walk against the traffic for the entire street?

If the answer is b. or c. then having a patchy sidewalk is worse than having no sidewalk at all. For b - it makes the street harder to walk across than if there were no sidewalks. For c - no one will use it so the sidewalks are simply a waste of money.


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@katalinscherer • 09.02.2014 • 10:25 AM (MDT)
Anon - that is simply not true. As a matter of fact, in my subdivision, the property line is at the edge of the road. Therefore the sidewalks are on the private properly. This adds to homeowners feeling that the sidewalks are a part of their driveway, therefore it is OK to block them with parked cars, outwards opening gates, etc.
@katalinscherer • 09.02.2014 • 09:38 AM (MDT)
Anon - that is simply not true. As a matter of fact, in my subdivision, the property line is at the edge of the road. Therefore the sidewalks are on the private properly. This adds to homeowners feeling that the sidewalks are a part of their driveway, therefore it is OK to block them with parked cars, outwards opening gates, etc.
Andrew Price • 09.02.2014 • 09:25 AM (MDT)
Katalin - Thanks for commenting Katalin! I agree - simply adding sidewalks to a car centric place won't automatically make it walkable. Next week, I have a talk planned for the Strong Towns National Gathering where I'm going to discuss walkability. Specifically I'll be talking about scale and places:non-places. I'm going to show some examples of sidewalks in unwalkable places.
@katalinscherer • 09.02.2014 • 09:17 AM (MDT)
The problem with sidewalks in suburban zoning is that they are a PART OF THE DRIVEWAY. Pedestrians are constantly dodging cars as they exit/enter driveways, parked cars in driveways are blocking the sidewalk. In a true urban, traditional city street (though sidewalks are not necessary), sidewalks are NEXT TO BUILDINGS and not next to the road, so even if there is a driveway, the car is between the sidewalk and the road. Much safer. Truth is, the suburban design is so automobile centric, that "improvements" such as sidewalks, do little to enhance the pedestrian experience, or safety.
Anon • 08.02.2014 • 12:09 PM (MDT)
Re. your question on the patchy sidewalk. In many (most?) US towns, the sidewalks belong to the town/county/city (i.e., are public property). Check the local property line maps at your govt. seat for where the property lines officially end on those streets with patchy sidewalks. You will likely find that the official property lines all end in a straight line, such that the land where a missing sidewalk should have been is still public properly. That means that walking in a straight line, as if the sidewalk were there (your option a) would be legal (i.e., you would not be trespassing). However, legal does not mean you won't encounter fools who think that because their grassy lawn area extends to the street, their property does so at the same time. So whether you encounter homeowners yelling to get of their yard will depend upon the knowledge level of the homeowner, not the legal property line.
Andrew Price • 04.21.2014 • 12:11 PM (MDT)
Thank you for commenting Jeffrey. That may be the case - I have heard multiple stories from different people - - Conway is only allocated so many crossings. - It is too expensive because it requires installing electronic signals and/or boom gates. (Either to be paid by the city or Union Pacific.) - The liability is too high, because of the potential to get hit.
Jeffrey Bridgman • 04.21.2014 • 12:07 PM (MDT)
Is UP required to have certain crossing-protections (like lights/guards) at each crossing - and therefore they want to limit their capital costs to upgrade each crossing to a certain safety standard and the on-going maintenance cost?
doug.b.kendall@gmail.com • 02.20.2014 • 23:23 PM (MST)
What city is this? Does the railroad become a bridge in the top left corner or is it a crossing?
Greg Reddin • 01.14.2014 • 20:00 PM (MST)
Here's the story about the railroad crossing. Union Pacific owns the railroad through town and \"allows\" the City to build a limited number of crossings. (The railroad lobby in the US is a pretty strong entity, apparently.) The city was told we had too many crossings and, because College was being re-routed, adding a crossing, we needed to get rid of some. UP considers pedestrian-only crossings the same as car crossings - so we didn't give one up by moving College. We did give one up at Salem to build the bridge and they wanted one more. So the city closed the one pictured above. Yes, it used to be a through street. The bike/ped community suggested a ped-only crossing there, but we were told UP wouldn't have it. If the type of crossing pictured above is doable here, I think we can get behind it. We'd like to see access improved in that area.