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Good street and sidewalk design improves public health and safety, accommodates a variety of users, reduces environmental impacts, and makes communities more inviting.
For decades, municipalities—urban, suburban, and rural alike—adopted street-design standards that showed strong preference to cars. However, in recent years, transportation planners have been rebalancing transportation priorities, giving attention to streets and sidewalks that can safely accommodate a wide variety of people, uses, and needs—including those of pedestrians and bicyclists—in a manner that considers community priorities and land-use implications.
Municipalities can greatly improve the safety and utility of their transportation infrastructure by using effective planning concepts such as complete streets, context sensitive design, and traffic calming. To translate this planning into practice, municipalities may update their subdivision and land development ordinances to require new developments to conform to the standards; municipalities may also improve existing streets and sidewalks, using funding from grants, tax revenue, or bonding.
This guide explains the key elements of good street and sidewalk design, their benefits, and how to implement them via municipal ordinances or direct capital investments.
Good street and sidewalk design provides a wealth of benefits for people, communities, and the environment, including:
Deciding which types of street and sidewalk design are appropriate for your municipality involves reviewing current transportation modes (car, pedestrian, bicycle, and public transit); studying existing and potential future land uses; and assessing community needs and desires through a formal community visioning process or informal discussions.
Design strategies also depend on setting and affordability. For example, in rural areas, wide road shoulders may be the most feasible way to accommodate pedestrians, whereas sidewalks at least five feet wide are likely necessary in urban areas. Streetscape elements can vary from a simple landscape strip in rural settings to a variety of elements such as street trees, pedestrian lighting with banners, and hanging baskets in urban areas (see further discussion below).
When determining the appropriate design for streets and sidewalks, considering the following factors provides a good starting point:
Among the most common approaches municipalities use to inform and guide street and sidewalk design are (1) complete streets and (2) context sensitive design. These approaches are not mutually exclusive; in many instances they overlap or complement each other. The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation’s (PennDOT) Smart Transportation Guidebook: Planning and Designing Highways and Streets that Support Sustainable and Livable Communities explores many elements of these approaches in more detail.
Complete streets refers to streets designed to accommodate a variety of users (pedestrians, bicyclists, motorists, and transit riders), including people of all ages and those with disabilities. The specific design of complete streets varies according to the community setting (i.e. rural, urban, suburban) and the type of road.
Typical elements of complete streets include:
A series of fact sheets published by the National Complete Streets Coalition highlights the wide-ranging economic, environmental, and social benefits of complete streets. For more complete streets resources, see the Coalition’s website.
Context sensitive design (also referred to as context sensitive solutions) is an approach to transportation infrastructure that preserves or enhances an area’s scenic, aesthetic, historic, and environmental resources and reflects community needs and priorities. A key factor in this approach is public involvement in the design and development of transportation infrastructure, which helps ensure that the end product addresses the needs of community stakeholders.
Typical elements of context sensitive design include:
The Georgia Department of Transportation’s Context Sensitive Design Manual provides an in-depth look at best practices, policy guidelines, communication strategies, and successful examples. See the Federal Highway Administration’s Context Sensitive Solutions and Design webpage for additional information and resources, including a number of CSD case studies.
One way to implement good street and sidewalk design is to upgrade existing infrastructure. Municipalities may fund the redesign and improvement of existing streets and sidewalks with state or federal grants, tax revenue, borrowing (bonding), or some combination of the three.
These improvements require varying degrees of maintenance. For example, a rain garden requires consistent upkeep, whereas a bike lane will likely last for years before it needs repainting. Often, municipalities are in charge of this maintenance, but in some cases, local businesses, nonprofits, or homeowners take on that responsibility. See the Montgomery County Planning Commission’s Making Your Downtown Improvements Last: Design, Installation, and Maintenance Guide for more information about maintenance.
In Pennsylvania, grant funding is available through the Department of Community and Economic Development’s Multimodal Transportation Fund and through various PennDOT grant programs. For federal grant information, see the U.S. Department of Transportation’s grants webpage.
The most effective way to control and influence street and sidewalk design is via a municipal ordinance. Generally, municipalities include street and sidewalk design regulations in their subdivision and land development ordinances (SALDOs). Less often, municipalities include these regulations in specific zoning ordinance sections that deal with design such as a Traditional Neighborhood Development district. Adopting or amending ordinance provisions requires resources (municipal staff time or the money to hire a planning/engineering consultant) and political will.
This section outlines how to incorporate street and sidewalk design regulations into a SALDO. For an example of an ordinance that includes many of the elements discussed below, see the Lancaster County Planning Commission’s Model Subdivision and Land Development Ordinance.
The design standards section of a SALDO addresses design elements for new development, and can include provisions regulating street and sidewalk design such as:
The technical and engineering standards of the SALDO deal with construction standards. They often include standards for streets and sidewalks such as:
Municipalities can further bolster street and sidewalk design improvements—and make them better understood by the public and developers—by enacting design guidelines within the SALDO or other relevant ordinances. Alternatively, the guidelines can be enacted as a separate advisory document. The guidelines encourage good design by using illustrations or photographs and accompanying text to demonstrate the concepts. Common elements found in design guidelines include:
Many municipalities have adopted design guidelines for street and sidewalk construction and retrofit design. Examples include:
The aforementioned Smart Transportation Guidebook and Making Your Downtown Improvements Last: Design, Installation, and Maintenance Guide can also help inform design guidelines.
Communities should integrate street and sidewalk design (and other transportation-related issues) into larger discussions about land-use planning; the two are inextricably linked. Transportation design and planning can and should be a key component of comprehensive plans, official maps, community visioning, and the like.
See Integrating Transportation and Land Use in Comprehensive Plans for more information.
WeConservePA produced this guide with support from the William Penn Foundation, the Colcom Foundation, and the Community Conservation Partnerships Program, Environmental Stewardship Fund, under the administration of the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, Bureau of Recreation and Conservation.
Katherine Ember, AICP, of Planning4Places and WeConservePA staff prepared the first edition (2010). Nate Lotze and Andy Loza updated the text for the second edition (2019).
Nothing contained in this or any other document available at ConservationTools.org is intended to be relied upon as legal advice or to create an attorney-client relationship. The material presented is generally provided in the context of Pennsylvania law and, depending on the subject, may have more or less applicability elsewhere. There is no guarantee that it is up to date or error free.
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Text may be excerpted and reproduced with acknowledgement of WeConservePA.