5 Infrastructure Upgrades for Improving Walkability

By expanding pedestrian-friendly infrastructure, cities designed for vehicle traffic are helping residents and visitors get around on foot power.

It’s one thing for a developer to masterplan a new neighborhood with walkability in mind, as developers of some smart suburbs are beginning to do. But making existing cities and suburban areas more walkable is another. Still, with a bit of infrastructure investment, some localities are making it happen.

Here are a few of the approaches being used to making walking safer and easier.

1. Installing curb extensions and median islands

Pedestrians find it hard to cross wide streets because vehicles tend to zip through intersections. The installation of curb extensions (also called sidewalk bump-outs) helps reduce that crossing distance. The addition of median islands halfway through the crossing lets pedestrians concentrate on traffic coming from one direction before worrying about traffic coming from another.

The twin cities of Minneapolis and Saint Paul, Minnesota, invested in these upgrades as part of their plan to improve walkability. Local advocacy group Transit for Livable Communities funded some of the infrastructure changes and claims walking increased 17 percent between 2007 and 2010.

2. Road diets

So-called road diets — reducing four-lane roads to three lanes or fewer — make it easier for pedestrians to cross and also provides space for the construction of median islands, wider sidewalks and/or bicycle lanes. These road diets may not always work well for major corridors — a lane reduction in Los Angeles was recently reversed, for instance — but cities including New York are using them to positive effect.

3. Pedestrian-activated crosswalk beacons

At some crosswalks, pedestrians take their lives into their hands when crossing because drivers speeding through may not see them until it’s too late. But new pedestrian-activated beacons make them harder to miss. Rectangular Rapid Flash beacons feature an irregular “stutter” flashing pattern that attract drivers’ attention. The HAWK (High-Intensity Activated crossWalK) beacon features two circular red lights over a circular yellow light. The yellow light flashes, then becomes steady when a pedestrian is preparing to cross; the steady yellow turns to a steady red when the person is crossing. According to a Federal Highway Administration Study, the HAWK beacon reduced the number of pedestrian crashes at intersections in Tucson, Arizona, by 69 percent.

4. Traffic calming devices

 Speed bumps and traffic circles can help reduce the speed of vehicle traffic, but they should be installed throughout an entire neighborhood so that traffic doesn’t simply move to an adjacent street.

5. Pedestrian bridges

Several cities have connected different neighborhoods via pedestrian bridges. A non-profit group transformed a former railroad bridge across the Ohio River into a pedestrian-only bridge that joins Newport (in Kentucky) with Cincinnati.

When Portland, Oregon, built the new Tilikum Crossing transit bridge across the Willamette River, it included two 14-foot wide pedestrian/bicycle paths in addition to lanes for buses and trains. Dallas, Texas, converted a former highway bridge across the Trinity River into a pedestrian walkway and linear park. The bridge connects several low-income neighborhoods in the city to its downtown district.

Oklahoma City is one place that’s made a concerted effort to improve its walkability. It had the dubious distinction of being named the United States’ worst walking city in 2008 (by Prevention magazine and the American Podiatric Medical Association) and the second fattest city in America (by Men’s Fitness magazine) in 2009.

In late 2009, voters approved a one-cent sales tax increase to fund pedestrian-friendly infrastructure improvements. The city has used some of the funding to build hundreds of miles of new sidewalks to connect neighborhoods with schools and shopping areas. It has added 10 more miles to its recreational trail network, narrowed four city streets and rebuilt four intersections by adding median islands. The city will pay for half of the cost of building new sidewalks in any communities that want them.

With the temporary sales tax expiring this year, Oklahoma City residents will be voting in September on extending it for 27 more months. If the measure passes, the city should have another $240 million to continue its efforts.

Although cities and suburbs may have to make significant infrastructure upgrades to become more pedestrian friendly, such investments should help attract new residents. A 2014 survey conducted by the American Planning Association found that 56 percent of millennials and 46 percent of active boomers said they would prefer to someday live in a walkable community. No wonder walkability is associated with hire real estate values.