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Good street and sidewalk design can foster healthier communities by improving public safety, enhancing mobility by fairly supporting all transportation choices, reducing environmental impacts and building community character.
To achieve improved street and sidewalk design, a municipality may choose to make capital improvements to its existing stock of streets and sidewalks. It may also choose to enact subdivision and land development regulations that require new development to provide infrastructure and conform to design standards.
The following sections address the matter of establishing appropriate types of street and sidewalk design and current trends in transportation planning. The subsequent sections address the matter of implementing the desired design, whether through direct capital investments by the municipality or as an update of its ordinances.
An important part of deciding what types of street and sidewalk design are appropriate for your municipality involves a review and assessment of the current transportation modes (automobile, pedestrian, bicycle, and transit), taking stock of the existing and expected future land uses of the community, and community needs and desires which can be ascertained through community visioning sessions or simple discussion.
The community setting should influence the chosen design as seen in the photos at right. In rural communities, wide road shoulders may be the most appropriate way to accommodate pedestrians and bicyclists. In urban areas, sidewalks at least 5 feet in width are likely appropriate. In urban settings with a mix of uses, wider sidewalks are sometimes essential for high pedestrian traffic areas. Streetscape elements can vary from a simple landscape strip in a rural setting to many elements such as street trees, pedestrian lighting with banners, and hanging baskets in areas with larger pedestrian traffic (see further discussion below).
When determining the appropriate design for streets and sidewalks, municipalities should at a minimum consider the following:
Complete Streets refers to streets that are designed to accommodate a variety of users (pedestrians, bicyclists, motorists, and transit riders). Complete streets policies address the accommodation of people with disabilities to those of a range of age groups. Elements of complete streets typically include either bike lanes or wide shoulders to accommodate bicycles, bus lanes, transit stops, and pedestrian accommodations such as sidewalks, traffic calming measures, and streetscape elements. The specific design of complete streets varies according to the community setting (i.e. rural, urban, suburban) and the type of road.
Context sensitive design is an approach to the development of transportation infrastructure that reflects and preserves an area’s scenic, aesthetic, historic, or environmental resources and community needs and desires. The intent of such design is to have continued public involvement throughout the development of any new transportation infrastructure with the end product addressing the needs of stakeholders. Context sensitive design improvements can be as simple as the installation of pavers or textured surfaces to a project as significant as a complete bridge rehabilitation.
ContextSensitiveSolutions.org provides a number of case studies of the use of this approach including a few examples in Pennsylvania such as the Danville-Riverside bridge replacement over the Susquehanna River. This bridge replacement included the erection of a new weathered steel bridge with a traffic alignment going beneath two blocks of the West Market Street Historic District in Danville. The photo in the right shows an example of a context sensitive bridge, lighting, and pedestrian facilities.
Additional case studies and resources can be found at PennDOT’s website. The case studies provide before and after photos, an overview of the project, and lessons learned. The Main Street Annville project, for example, began simply as a resurfacing project but through local coordination with PennDOT also included streetscape improvements including curb bump-outs, street trees, landscaping, and patterned sidewalks and crosswalks, among other improvements.
Traffic calming describes a set of design and management strategies meant to slow down motor vehicle traffic to improve public safety and improve conditions for non-auto users.. See the guide Traffic Calming (pending) for coverage of this aspect of street and sidewalk design.
A road diet reduces a street’s number of travel lanes or the width of those lanes in order to achieve systemic transportation improvements. The wider the street, the faster drivers tend to drive. Sometimes this is too fast to be safe for the location. Narrowing the road or lanes changes the driver’s perception of the safe speed to travel, thereby encouraging slower driving. Narrowing roads or lanes can also free up space for bicycle lanes or other purposes. See the guide Traffic Calming (pending) for coverage of this aspect of street and sidewalk design.
Streetscape elements help to define and provide a sense of identity for a street. Streetscape elements can be integrated as a part of capital improvements when streets and sidewalks are upgraded. In addition, design guidelines (discussed further below) typically include streetscape elements as a topic. Streetscape elements are starting to be included in municipal land use ordinances as well. Common streetscape elements include:
Updating street and sidewalk design can enhance mobility, mitigate environmental impacts, and enhance community character. Enacting sustainable street and sidewalk design is consistent with current planning practices and local, state, and federal initiatives. According to the National Complete Streets Coalition:
A Federal Highways Administration safety review found that streets designed with sidewalks, raised medians, better bus stop placement, traffic-calming measures, and treatments for disabled travelers improve pedestrian safety. Some features, such as medians, improve safety for all users: they enable pedestrians to cross busy roads in two stages, reduce left-turning motorist crashes to zero, and improve bicycle safety.
Why should a municipality update its street and sidewalk design?
Municipalities may improve existing streets and sidewalks, funding these improvements via state and/or federal grants, using tax revenue on a pay-as-you-go basis, or through borrowing (bonding). These improvements will require varying degrees of maintenance. In some communities, sidewalks and streetscape improvements may be maintained through local businesses or main street organizations/business improvement districts.
Typically, street and sidewalk design regulations are addressed in municipal subdivision and land development ordinances. However, street and sidewalk design elements may sometimes also be found in specific zoning ordinance sections that deal with design such as a Town Center District or a Traditional Neighborhood Development District. Typical subdivision ordinance content for street and sidewalk design is discussed below.
The design standards section of the subdivision and land development ordinance (SLDO) addresses design elements for new development. Should a municipality find that their street and sidewalk design is not meeting their current needs, a municipality might consider revising their street and sidewalk standards within their SLDO. Common features found in the design standards section of the SLDO relating to street and sidewalk design include:
The technical and engineering standards of the subdivision and land development ordinance deal with construction standards. Common features found in the technical and engineering standards for street and sidewalk improvements include:
An example of a subdivision and land development ordinance from Pennsylvania that addresses many of the topics discussed under the design standards and technical and engineering standards sections above is: Lancaster County’s model Subdivision and Land Development Ordinance. This model has different requirements for different settings (i.e. urban, rural, infill development). The street standards include illustrations for right-of-way and cartway width standards and cul-de-sac (single-access street) design.
Implementation of street and sidewalk design improvements can be enhanced and made more understandable to developers and the public with the enactment of design guidelines. These guidelines may be enacted as an advisory document or as a part of a municipal ordinance (either within the subdivision and land development ordinance or sections of zoning ordinances based upon community preference and the topics involved). Common elements found in design guidelines include:
Many municipalities have adopted design guidelines for street and sidewalk construction and retrofit design.
A municipality may more effectively provide for future streets and sidewalks by identifying their locations and reserving the necessary land on an “official map.” By reserving the land, the municipality expresses its intent to acquire that specific land at some future date. This reservation or expression of intent does not affect existing property ownership; landowners still own and control their land. However, the owners are constrained in building on, subdividing, or otherwise developing the reserved land until they provide written notice of intent to develop and then allow the municipality up to a year to acquire the land from them. See the guide Official Map [LINK] for more information.
Katherine Ember, AICP of Planning4Places, LLC is the primary author. PALTA staff were contributing authors. Photos provided by Planning4Places.
Nothing contained in this or any other document available at ConservationTools.org is intended to be relied upon as legal advice. The authors disclaim any attorney-client relationship with anyone to whom this document is furnished.
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