Are all travel routes created equal?

The auto route is … a means of moving from one place to another. It is therefore no place for loitering… The hiking path is altogether different. It is not cut hard into the countryside like a rationally laid road but clings to the natural landscape. … The path does not shoot for a destination but rests in itself. It invites loitering. Here a [hu]man is in the landscape, taken up and dissolved into it, a part of it.

― Otto F. Bollnow. 1961.

By the looks of any city street, walking routes are the same as driving routes. That’s why sidewalks slavishly follow streets, right? And that’s why road engineers use their usual terminology—circulation, lanes, traffic—to describe their planning for people walking.

Meanwhile, walking paths and bikeways must be interchangeable; otherwise, why do we build single routes for both pedalers and pedestrians?

(The word “pedestrian” comes from traffic engineering, too. If we’re hiking through the woods and spot someone approaching, would we ever say, “Here comes a pedestrian?” The word denatures the person walking and adds the notion of a street. Do we have to wonder where “sidewalk” came from?)

Commuting routes by walking, biking and driving.

My commuting routes on foot differ from those on bicycle or in a car. My walking and biking routes even differ by direction.

To re-confirm this typical marriage of driving, walking, and cycling routes I looked  at my own 1.6-kilometer  (1-mile) commutes in Portland, Maine.  The facts, however, call for a divorce: My daily routes between home and work are very different depending on whether I walk, bike, or drive.

The reasons became clear almost as quickly as I saw their variety. Where I drive responds to one-way streets, parking locations, and traffic lights. I give little thought to distance.

On a bicycle, however, I care only somewhat about distance but little about one-way streets, and parking is never a consideration since I bring my bike up to the office, hook it to a parking meter or leave it in the backyard. Pedaling along, I seek smooth paving and level roads or long downhill glides, everywhere avoiding stairs and curbs.

While walking, I care a great deal about distance, nothing about one-way streets, and little about steps. Sidewalks can be irrelevant, too, as I angle across school yards and wide streets. (Yes, I jaywalk, don’t you?) I also care about things like access to sun or shade, protection from wind and traffic and safe neighborhoods. I take longer routes for exercise, and different routes coming and going.

Then, too, on almost any day walking, I find myself stopping to talk with neighbors, clerks and shop owners, or my city councilor—he’s usually found in the front window of a coffee shop

My commute by walking in Portland, Maine.

Walking home from work along a pleasant street in downtown Portland, Maine.

along the way.

Note that these community building activities are only possible on foot. Face to face means foot to foot. I also veer off direct course to pick up litter, smell a lilac, or window-shop. Care to try any of these actions from a car?

Overall, then, my motivations, although personal and anecdotal, seem generally applicable. As Paul Ritter, the late Australian architect, planner, and sociologist, summarized it in Planning for Man and Motor (1964, p. 21), “Routes designed for man are not right for motor and vice versa.”

To summarize, walking paths require special attention to the micro-environments they pass through. Carefree approaches to walkway design, including squeezing them into leftover spaces or aligning them with roads or bikeways, lead to over-paving or underused paths.

Given that walking is central to our lives and our communities, the unavoidable conclusion is that walkway design deserves our most careful attention and that walking routes cannot be linked automatically to other kinds of travel routes.

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