Ten steps to creating complete streets

On April 4, National Walking Day, and any day for that matter, street design is critically important to enable people to walk. The following are steps to complete streets from the Connecting El Paso report.

Street in Alexandria, Virginia

1. Design for pedestrians first.

Great streets are designed to provide a high-caliber experience for pedestrians; once this is accomplished, they go on from there to accommodate all other required modes of travel, including bicycling, transit, and automobiles.

2. Remember that proportions matter.

A street should function as an outdoor room, surrounding its occupants in a space that is welcoming and usable. A 1:3 ratio for building height to street width is often cited as a minimum section for a sense of enclosure. Creating this sense of enclosure involves more than just narrow street width, however. There are well-defined eight-lane roads just as there are two-lane roads that seem to be impassable.

Streets must be sized properly for their use and should be defined with appropriate building sizes. Street trees and furniture such as lighting also play a critical role in defining the space of the street.

3. Design the street as a unified whole.

An essential distinction of great streets is that the entire space is designed as an ensemble, from the travel lanes, trees and sidewalks, to the very buildings that line the roadway. Building form and character is particularly important in shaping a sense of place. The best streets invariably have buildings fronting them, with a particular height and massing that creates an appropriate sense of enclosure. The random setbacks generated by conventional zoning rarely produce this effect; form-based regulations must be put in place to control building form and placement. Furthermore, urban buildings must front the street with frequent thresholds such as doors, windows, balconies, and porches. These thresholds promote a lively streetscape, and ultimately provide passive security for pedestrians by focusing “eyes on the street.”

4. Include sidewalks.

Appropriately designed sidewalks are essential for active pedestrian life. Pedestrians will be more willing to utilize sidewalks if they are protected from automobile traffic. One of the simplest ways to buffer the pedestrian is to place street trees between the street and the sidewalk. Other street furniture such as streetlights, bus shelters, and benches occupy wider sidewalks and provide additional separation between pedestrians and automobile traffic. The width of the sidewalk will vary according to the location. On most single-family residential streets, five feet is an appropriate width, but streets with rowhouses and multi-family buildings requires a more generous sidewalk. On Main Streets, fourteen feet is an ideal sidewalk width, which must never fall below an absolute minimum of eight feet.

5. Provide bicycle facilities.

Bicycling is becoming a popular means of not only exercise and recreation, but increasingly it is viewed as an important alternative to vehicular transportation. On higher-speed roadways in rural or suburban locations, bike lanes are the preferred bicycle facility, providing cyclists with a separate lane for travel independent from fast-moving automobiles. On lower-speed roadways in more urban areas, sharrows, or designated lanes for use by both bicyclists and vehicles, are the preferred facility for bicyclists. Sharrows are typically found 20-25 mph streets with on-street parking and a mix of travel modes and land uses.

6. Provide shade.

Motorists, pedestrians, and cyclists typically prefer shady streets. Shade provides protection from heat and sun and contributes to the spatial definition of a street. Shade can be provided with canopy trees or architectural encroachments over the sidewalk. Canopy trees should be planted in a planting strip between the sidewalk and the street in order to provide continuous definition and shade for both the street and the sidewalk. Architectural encroachments over the sidewalk such as awnings, arcades, and cantilevered balconies are another way to protect pedestrians from the elements and meanwhile shield storefronts from glare.

Complete streets, like this shady Portland, Oregon, thoroughfare, tend to support transit. The streetcar runs along this route

7. Plant street trees in an orderly manner.

great streets are typically planted with rows of regularly-spaced trees, using consistent species. This formal tree alignment has a powerful effect; it at once shapes the space and reflects conscious design. More importantly, the shade produced by the trees will be continuous enough to make walking viable. Furthermore, the spatial impression of aligned trees also has a traffic calming effect.

8. Provide parking on-street and mid-block.

On-street parking buffers pedestrians from moving cars and calms traffic by forcing drivers to stay alert. Parallel parking is the ideal arrangement, because it requires the least amount of space and allows pedestrians to easily cross through the thin line of cars. Diagonal parking is acceptable on some shopping streets, as long as the extra curb-to-curb width is not achieved at the expense of sidewalk width. Parking located in front of a street-front business encourages people to get out of their cars and walk, and is essential to leasing street-oriented retail space.

The bulk of a building’s parking supply should occur behind the building. The conventional practice of placing surface parking lots in front of buildings results in a disconnected pedestrian environment. If current zoning regulations are reformed to provide “build-to” lines rather than mandatory front setbacks for commercial buildings, parking will be forced to the interior of the block. As a result, the pedestrian realm of the sidewalk will be defined by shop fronts and building entrances rather than parking lots.

9. Make medians sufficiently wide.

Where divided thoroughfares are unavoidable, the medians must be generous enough to serve as a pedestrian amenity. A minimum median width of 8’ will accommodate a row of street trees and will provide adequate refuge for pedestrians crossing a wide roadway.

10. Use smart lighting.

Streets should be appropriately lit for automobile and pedestrian safety. Pedestrians naturally avoid streets where they feel unsafe. Loosely-spaced, highway-scaled “cobra head” light fixtures do not provide appropriate light intensity and consistency for pedestrian well-being. More frequently spaced, shorter fixtures are more appropriate, and provide light beneath the tree canopy as street trees mature.

Used with permission of the City of El Paso.


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