Where the sidewalks end

"Get your facts straight first, then you can manipulate them all you want."    - Mark Twain

by Gary Piro


ast March, a group of citizens in Encinitas went to the city council to encourage the city to adopt road standards that would narrow city roads and, in some cases, eliminate sidewalks to preserve their "rural community character." In April, former councilperson Anne Olmstead published an editorial expressing her belief that sidewalks are always necessary to provide a safe environment for pedestrians and foster community activities.

As a designer of communities for the last 29 years, I must admit that, up until five years ago, I gave absolutely no thought whatsoever to sidewalk design. I was taught that sidewalks are five feet wide, constructed contiguous to the concrete curb - and that was that. Lately, however, there has been mounting statistical evidence that indicates our approach to sidewalk design is wrong.

Nationally, there is a trend of modern planners to reject standardized curb, gutter and sidewalk improvements in favor of the older "neo-traditional" standards with narrow roads and either no sidewalks or walking areas with surfaces other than concrete. They focus on creating a safe environment for pedestrians by slowing down vehicles and using different approaches to walkways. For example Portland, Oregon (thought to be the nation's preeminent smart growth city) has implemented a skinny-streets program with no residential street wider than 28 feet (40 percent narrower than Encinitas' standard street).


Dangerous standards


San Diego is one of the leading areas of standardized "improvements" in the country. Unfortunately, we have been seeing a steady increase in pedestrian fatalities since the mid-90s, while the national trend has seen a decrease. In the City of Carlsbad, for example, the Streets and Sidewalks Committee examined traffic statistics for the past five years in the older part of town that showed that the only documented traffic-related injuries were on the few streets that did have curbs and sidewalks.

Although this appears to defy conventional logic, a closer examination of when we install sidewalks, where they are placed and what materials we use would give a compelling argument for a change in our current standards. First of all, we need to examine where we place sidewalks in a standard residential subdivision. Michael Stepner (city architect for San Diego's Gaslamp area) has correctly been lobbying for the return to standards used 30 years ago, whereby the sidewalks are constructed at a five foot offset from the curb rather than the current "contiguous to the curb" standard. No one would doubt that this is much safer, since pedestrians are farther away from the traffic and protected by trees and shrubs. Statistics also show that cars drive slower on these streets.

There are also other reasons to "offset" the sidewalk. It discourages children from "jumping" their bicycles into the traffic lanes and also frustrates skateboarders who like to "skid" the belly of their skateboards along the curbs. Even more important is the fact that our current standard sidewalk has a 10 percent cross-slope in the sidewalk at each private driveway. This is in violation of American Disabilities Act (A.D.A.) requirements that walkways have a cross-slope no greater than 5 percent. Offset sidewalks avoid this problem because they do not cross the driveway depressions.


Concrete decisions

The next item to consider is the materials that we use for sidewalk construction. If nothing else, coastal communities like Encinitas should reconsider whether to allow materials other than concrete for walkways, to minimize the urban runoff that is polluting our beaches and eroding our bluffs. The city of Carmel, for example, prohibits the construction of any sidewalk made of concrete or asphalt. This minimizes urban runoff, discourages skateboarders, avoids the concrete "cracking" caused by tree roots and is much more visually appealing.

Some alternative materials do not meet A.D.A. requirements for wheelchair accessibility. However, there are several new materials available such as "poly pavement," "grass-crete" and "grass-phalt" that are less expensive than concrete but superior in flexibility and durability.

Lastly, there is mounting evidence that, where roads serve very few lots, they may be safest if no sidewalks whatsoever are installed.

Residential Streets by the American Society of Civil Engineers and the National Association of Homebuilders concludes that, although sidewalks are necessary on thoroughfares and areas with public facilities, our residential streets are overdesigned and, as a result, induce drivers to speed. They indicate that residential streets that serve less than 25 homes may be safest when they have no sidewalks and the streets are shared among drivers, pedestrians, bicyclists and parked cars.

Other recent publications support this hypothesis. In Streets and the Shaping of Towns and Cities, the authors cite studies in Denmark, Germany, Israel and Japan showing that these shared streets have 50 percent fewer accidents than streets with curb, gutter and sidewalk. The author explains that a driver entering a shared street recognizes an area where pedestrians and bicyclists have the preeminence and consequently slows down.

The Surface Transportation Policy Project, a Washington, DC-based organization, has said that people are actually walking less in San Diego because they are scared. Instead of using a "one size fits all" approach to sidewalk installation, we need to modify our standards so that pedestrians can feel safe again when they walk in their neighborhood.

Mr. Piro is the owner of Piro Engineering and a former County Planning Commissioner. E-mail: piroengpacbell.net.