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Street and Sidewalk Design

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.


Choosing the Street and Sidewalk Design that Meets Your Needs

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:

  • The type of road (arterial, collector, or local road) and volume of traffic
  •  The land use context (predominantly commercial, residential, mixed use, etc.)
  • The setting (rural, suburban, or urban environment)
  • The number and spacing of commercial driveways and entrances/exits – are they excessive, adequate, or insufficient?
  • The possibilities to create more useful road, pedestrian, and/or non-auto connections
  •  The need for traffic calming or road diets
  • The minimum streetscape elements necessary to accomplish community goals
  • The appropriate sidewalk width and placement given the land uses and density of uses

Current Approaches to Planning and Design

Complete Streets

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.

According to the National Complete Streets Coalition, complete streets:

  • Boost economic growth by providing accessible and efficient transportation connections
  • Improve safety and reduce crashes
  • Encourage more bicycling and walking
  • Reduce traffic congestion and increase overall transportation capacity
  • Allow children to have more physical activity and independence
  • Improve air quality by reducing vehicular trips

Context Sensitive Design

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. 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

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.

Road Diets

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.

Typical Streetscape Elements

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: 

  • Street furniture such as benches, trash cans, kiosks, bike racks, and newspaper containers
  • Pedestrian-scale lighting, automobile-scale lighting, and architectural lighting
  • Landscaping such as street trees, landscape strips, and other greening elements (planters, hanging baskets, etc.)
  • Traffic calming elements such as raised medians, pedestrian refuge islands within medians, roundabouts, bump outs, etc.
  • Bicycle lanes
  • Bus pullouts and transit shelters
  • Signage including banners hanging from light poles
  • Sidewalks, decorative crosswalks and crosswalk signals/count down timers


Benefits of Updating Street and Sidewalk Design

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?

  • Improved Public Safety – Good streetscape design enables communities to implement options that improve safety of all residents, including pedestrians, cyclists, and motorists.
  • Improved Mobility – Designing infrastructure that provides people with transportation choices, rather than confining them to one mode of travel, better accommodates the needs of people of all ages and people with disabilities. 
  • Environmental Impact and Health - Creating more connections between streets, parking lots, buildings, and destinations can reduce the number of vehicle miles traveled, vehicle trips taken, and encourage walking and bicycling. This is good for physical health and encourages healthier, less sedentary lifestyles.
  • Improved Livability and Quality of Life –Including streetscape elements and updating street and sidewalk design make an area more inviting, fosters more interactions by people and improves the pedestrian experience.
  • Economic Benefits – Good design encourages business investment and may increase property values. In commercial districts, more transportation choices allow for increased access for both shoppers and the workforce. Design improvements can help attract new business.  In residential areas, safe, attractive, and walkable streetscapes are an added value to potential buyers.
  • Environmental Benefits– Landscaping can enhance stormwater runoff management, provide cooling shade, and improve air and water quality. It also helps to reduce the heat island effect for pedestrians, reduces noise, and soaks up carbon emissions.

Implementing Design through Capital Improvements

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.

Implementing Design through Subdivision and Land Development Ordinance Regulations

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.

Design Standards for Streets and Sidewalks

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:

  • Minimum and maximum length and width of blocks
  • Functional class of streets for a municipality based upon the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) standards and used by PennDOT- arterials, collectors, local roads, and private streets. These streets are often designated on a municipality’s official map.
  • Residential private street standards including ownership, paving standards, right-of-way requirements, and maintenance procedures.
  • Single-access street regulations, for example, the number of dwelling units on cul-de-sacs (if cul-de-sacs are permitted)
  • Number of intersections and minimum spacing between streets
  • Street alignment and design related to sight distance, street intersections, and grade
  • Driveway spacing related to sight distance and required permits
  • When sidewalks are required, options available for the governing body to waive the construction of sidewalks
  • Sidewalk width and location in relation to the curb

Technical and Engineering Standards for Street Improvements

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:

  • Paving cross-sections and materials
  • Right-of-way requirements
  • Sidewalk construction and driveway crossings materials and details
  • Pathway construction details
  • Driveway standards
  • Sidewalk, curb and curb cut standards, and ADA requirements

Subdivision and Land Development Ordinance Example

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.

Design Guidelines for Street and Sidewalk 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:

  • Illustrations and details for streets, sidewalks, parking, and bicycle lanes
  • Streetscape elements
  • Landscaping and greening elements
  • Traffic calming measures

Many municipalities have adopted design guidelines for street and sidewalk construction and retrofit design.

Using an Official Map

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.

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Planning4Places, LLC
Katherine has over ten years experience in community planning with expertise in developing and managing comprehensive plans and land use studies, land use regulations, design guidelines, open space plans, and strategic plans. Katherine also has experience in site plan review and GIS map development as well as grant application assistance.
Montgomery County Planning Commission
Scott helps to administer the Montgomery County Community Revitalization Program, which provides funding for downtown improvement projects, including streetscape activity. He works with municipalities on submitting quality projects for the Revitalization Program and can provide some maintenance and installation advice on streetscape elements, including decorative sidewalk and crosswalks.

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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 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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