Built environment makes second-class citizens out of walkers and bikers

One of the biggest elements in walkability (and bikeability) is the built environment. Too many times, especially in the United States, our car-oriented culture means our built environment hampers walkability.

Some of the more common built environment issues include

  • wide multi-lane roads with highway speeds and no close, safe crossing places;
  • traffic signals that don’t give walkers time to safely cross the street;
  • no snow clearance of sidewalks and bike lanes during the winter;
  • major streets with no sidewalks or bike lanes;
  • and more.

During a recent trip to Anchorage for a medical procedure, I saw another one — intersections that force walkers to cross multiple streets instead of one. My example is the intersection of Benson Boulevard and Seward Highway (Northern Lights Boulevard and Seward Highway has the same problem), where people trying to walk from The Mall at Sears to Fred Meyer have to make three crossings (see red line in photo, click photo to enlarge it) instead of a direct crossing of only one street.

If you are a parent with young children, an elder, someone carrying lots of shopping bags, or someone who is injured, you are put in more danger with the three crossings than you are with one. But we have to move the cars and walkers crossing the street delays the traffic. In the meantime, the walker is having to cross six lanes of traffic on The Mall at Sears side of Benson (including turn lanes), six lanes of traffic on Seward Highway (with a safety median in the middle), and another four lanes of traffic on the Fred Meyer side of Benson, or 16 lanes total. If walkers could take the direct route, they only have to deal with seven lanes (including a left-turn lane) on Seward Highway.

If the concern is that walkers slow down traffic, one solution is to have traffic signals that have a pedestrian-only light in the sequence that allows walkers to cross before the cars can enter the intersection. When I went to school in Scotland as part of a college overseas study trip (many, many pounds ago), Edinburgh had several major intersections that had diagonal crosswalks with pedestrian-only lights, giving walkers a chance to take the most direct path across an intersection.

Making it easier for people to walk or bike makes sense for communities, not just for health reasons but for the economy. A recent study from London showed walkers, bikers and people using public transportation spend 40 percent more at local shops than motorists. In addition, when we promote safer walking and biking we take cars off the road and protect our environment.