By Dom Nozzi
I was a city planner for over 20 years in Gainesville FL and Boulder CO. I’ve also read huge volumes of books and papers regarding pedestrian and bicycle transportation. In addition, I’ve visited countless cities throughout the US and Europe.
As I have noted in both my published book, it is pedestrians who are mostly neglected in cities, not bicyclists. Which makes sense, if one considers the political situation, as in all my years on this issue, I’ve never come across a pedestrian advocacy group or a pedestrian advisory board for a local government. On the other hand, it seems that thousands of towns/cities have bicycle advocacy and advisory groups.
Given the existence of thousands of bike advocacy groups and almost zero pedestrian groups, how can it possibly be that bicyclists are neglected and pedestrians get all they desire, as is sometimes claimed by bicycle advocates???
In Gainesville, for example, bike lanes and paths have been built throughout the city. Sidewalk gaps and excessively narrow sidewalks, meanwhile, are everywhere. I never saw a pedestrian advocacy group get up at a public meeting in Gainesville to call for more pedestrian facilities. But almost every month, there were bike groups getting local government to provide for them.
Sure, there are lots of bike/ped advisory and advocacy groups, but that is a misnomer for every one I’ve seen. “Pedestrian” is added to the group name almost as an afterthought, but there is no serious consideration given to pedestrians by such groups, nor does anyone in such groups seem to have any wisdom regarding pedestrian design. They tend to all be bicyclists (who are perhaps seeking to be more inclusive by attaching “pedestrian” to their group name).
I don’t know why there have been so few ped advocacy or advisory groups. I think there are some in bigger cities, due to the higher number of pedestrians. My guess is that it is more likely that bicyclists will ride recreationally in groups and peds are more likely to walk alone (and have less need for dedicated facilities).
I say all this despite the fact that I am a lifelong bicycle commuter and recreational bicyclist. I also wrote a master’s thesis on bicycle travel. Better bicycling facilities are essential in all American cities.
I have come to learn, however, that pedestrians are the design imperative in town centers, not bicyclists, if our aim is to improve safety, health, economics, quality of life, civic pride and conviviality.
By the way, in my humble opinion, the key for improving conditions for bicyclists and pedestrians: shorter travel distances via higher residential densities and commercial intensities, compact design, and mixed use – all of which come from priced/scarce car parking, and constrained/reduced road sizes. Providing bike lanes/paths or sidewalks does very little to induce walking or bicycling if the travel distances are too large, if roads are too big, and if there is too much free parking for cars.
In the great walking cities in Europe, for example, walking rates (and pedestrian enjoyment) are extremely high, yet sidewalks in such cities are often worse than in many US cities. Indeed, Savannah and Charleston are two of the best walking cities in the US, yet their sidewalks are nowhere near the best in the nation.
I will admit that US cities are woefully inadequate in the provision of off-street urban bike paths, as many bicyclist advocates often point out. But it is not clear to me that such facilities make sense at all in American town centers. I’m one of those Complete Streets people who believe it is best to design narrow, low-speed streets in town centers. So low-speed that bicyclists can comfortably share the lane with cars. Bike lanes in town centers, in other words, are almost never appropriate.
Overall, then, besides the key elements I mention above, the best design approach for bicyclists and pedestrians is via the use of context-sensitive design: Pedestrians are the design imperative in town centers. Bicyclists are the imperative in suburban areas adjacent to town centers.
And as I have indicated above, our cities have much more significantly neglected the needs of pedestrians than bicyclists. For our cities to be better places to live, our number one priority is to improve conditions for pedestrians.
My latest book, The Car is the Enemy of the City (WalkableStreets, 2010), can be purchased here.
Visit my urban design website read more about what I have to say on those topics. You can also schedule me to give a speech in your community about transportation and congestion, land use development and sprawl, and improving quality of life.