Do walkways warrant diligent design?

 “… in Sherpa country every track is marked with cairns and prayer-flags, reminding you that Man’s real home is not a house, but the Road, and that life itself is a journey to be walked on foot.”

Bruce Chatwin, 1990. What Am I Doing Here? Penguin; Hammondsmith, UK. 273.

 

Do you see here a road? Or a road and shoulders? Long skinny spaces like shoulders or paths are often overlooked.

Do you see here a road? Or a road and shoulders? Long skinny spaces like shoulders or paths are often overlooked. (Photo by trb.org)

Are walkways worth serious study? Much suggests they are not. Paths are like road shoulders―long and skinny and ignored. Ignored because, for one thing, long skinny spaces often don’t look like spaces at all―they look like part of the wider spaces next to them. Don’t we routinely see a road’s shoulder as just part of the road?

That’s especially true when the long, skinny object is flat, and, of course, paths are mostly flat. As such, they lack the most basic attention-getting device: verticality. Things that rise up like trees smack us in the eyes. What lies down we walk over and ignore, like the proverbial doormat.

Meanwhile, as walkers we don’t take up much space, we can clamber up almost any slope, and we can turn on a dime. Besides, we know we want to walk, and we can walk in almost any space not devoted to buildings or thickets. So designers don’t have to give us walkers much thought.

Then, too, among flat, linear things, roads require much greater attention. Pavement for cars and trucks must be much stronger than for walkers, slopes have to be shallower, and room for turning may require the width of a football field.

As a result of these diverse kinds of considerations, path design has regularly been reduced to paralleling road’s edge, connecting front door to street, drawing two lines on a piece of paper, specifying a material, and calling it done. Until recently there were only traffic engineers, and no pedestrian planners.

Nonetheless, a great deal of evidence insists that to be designed well walkways demand the closest, most comprehensive study. Perhaps first and foremost comes the fact that our lives are path-centric. We know the world only from our experiences along our life’s metaphorical, yet literal path.

Meanwhile, the built environment and the attractiveness of its paths help determine whether and how much we walk, while how much we walk influences our susceptibility to obesity, diabetes, and heart disease, leading determinants of our quality of life. If we don’t walk or bike, we drive, burning fossil fuels and spewing out greenhouse gases, with planetary consequences. Driving perpetuates itself: the more we drive the less willing we are to walk and the more unpleasant it makes the surroundings for others to walk.

The number of injuries on walkways and at intersections with roads, the number of muddy paths between constructed walkways, and the absence of people lingering along innumerable sidewalks are all damning evidence that path design is not achieving its purpose of encouraging people to walk outdoors to their destinations, for their diversion, or for their health. But the tide is turning. There are a growing number of bike and pedestrian planners, and growing recognition in all sectors of society that the care and feeding of walking helps nurture us all.

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