Human-Scale Streets
January 31, 2013

From my previous blog posts I've gone into why purposely spacing things out is bad, how Complete Streets don't neccessarily increase walkability, and why cars don't belong in cities. To recap my previous posts, wide streets are bad because;

  1. Wide streets generally aren't usuable spaces. Widening a street does not add a destination to the city or increase the city's attractiveness. It's wasted space.
  2. Non-places unneccesarily space out the places around them, making the environment less walkable.
  3. By discouraging walkability, you're encouraging driving which leads to many bad side effects including social disconnection from your community, public health problems, crime, and declining small businesses.
  4. They're expensive to maintain. The most obvious expensive is that there is more surface area to pave.
  5. It's indirectly expensive to private businesses. By encourage driving, businesses need to provide (or provide more) parking.
  6. There are many hidden costs - garbage collection, electrical lines, mail routes - have a larger area to cover.
  7. Complete Streets (and New Urbanism) are generally bad because they encourage wide roads which inherit all of the above problems.
Is Walkability Desirable?

Are walkable communities desirable? Some people may not like the idea of living in a walkable community. They may rather drive to work, drive their children to school, and spend all of their money at big box chain stores. They may enjoy calling up a friend when their own car dies. They may enjoy the landscape of wide roads, seas of parking lots, waiting in the turning lane for the traffic to clear. Personally, I don't. And judging by the fact that I subscribe to many American urban design twitter feeds and every day I see tweets pointing to websites like this, this, this, this, this, and this, I doubt many Americans do either.

Envisioning Narrower Streets

Are you still not convinced? The following photos were taken from the Narrow Streets - Los Angeles blog - they also dream of narrow streets. I'll show you some wide before shots, and some digitally touched-up narrow after shoots, and you can decide for yourself which ones appear more walkable and asthetically pleasing.

This is a typical residential area;

You probably wouldn't want your kids crossing the street to visit your neighbours. It looks like a very dangerous street to cross as cars could come speeding through at any moment. If we built this street a lot narrower;

It already looks a lot safer and pleasant. It also feels much more community oriented because everyone feels closer together when you leave your front door. No one had to sacrifice their yard since you simply narrowed the street. It looks like a much nicer place to live. Look how much less road there is to maintain too. Your tax dollars could go a lot further here.

Here is a typical suburban retail strip;

It looks depressing. Like the residential example before, it looks unsafe to cross the road unless there was a designated crossing. It's very anti-walkable.

This looks much more walkable! It's not perfect, but significantly better.

Take this average looking wide road;

It looks like a lot of effort to walk to the other side of the street. It doesn't look very walkable. You'd probably get into your car just to go to the store across the street.

Suddenly, I'd volunteer to cross the street to pick up lunch. Definitely more walkable, but still not perfect.

Here's another wide road;

It looks like you're driving through GenericVille, USA. There's nothing interesting at all about it.

The alfresco dining area becomes much more noticable. Add a few more cafes to either side, and it has the potential to become the hip new place to hang out at in town.

Here is your typical small-town downtown;

Nothing really stands out to me as particular interesting. You can walk down that street, but alongside an open road, it just seems so dull and boring.

That's a dramatic improvement. Already the place feels a lot more livable, walkable, and community oriented and all you've done is narrow the street!

Those examples were good, but they are still quite wide by traditional standards. This is a rather plesant, walkable, traditional street like those that we have built for most of history;

Now let's take it to an extreme. This is an American street. I'd call it moderately walkable. It's somewhat narrow by conventional American standards, but still quite wide;

Let's see what happens if we narrow the road in the middle down into one lane;

You now have a asthetically pleasing and highly walkable street! It looks like something out of a historical European city that people would pay large sums of money to visit, yet it was built in America - just with the road narrowed in the middle. Notice that it doesn't feel cramped, at least not to pedestrians. It may feel cramped driving down there in a car, but that feeling is just going to encourage you drive slower and more carefully, and most of all it will encourage you to walk when you can! Afterall, that's our goal!

In my previous blog posts, I've stressed how cars and cities don't mix. So what would a typical American street look like if you got rid of the road and built it purely for pedestrians? Here is a typical American town that looks like it was built in the early 1900s;

Yes, even before the automobile arrived, Americans built wide streets. There are many theories why, and I'm not going to get into that right now, except ask you to imagine what it would like like if they never did;

That is an extremely walkable environment. You could feel like you're walking through the middle of a historical Scottish town, yet all of those buildings you see were built in America.

I hope now you can see my vision, and why I stress that is important for us to build our cities at human-scale - not at an automobile scale. Street width is not just about traffic engineering, it's about the overall feeling of the place. Narrow streets give a sense of community-oriented walkable environments. They're asthetically pleasing. Most of all, they're cheap - your highway department would be saving a lot of money!

In all of the examples the buildings never changed and no new sidewalks were added. Many people mistake walkability to mean slapping on a set of sidewalks to 4 lane roads. That will make the road safer for people that want to walk, but it doesn't encourage walking. You could even have a great public transportation system, but you're still going to drive if you have to cross over five 4-lane roads just to get to your destination in an environment that was clearly built for the automobile. If you want to encourage people to walk, then you need to build the environment for people, not automobiles.

But do narrow streets work in real life? Of course they do.

This is a simple suburban street made up of single family homes. The houses are built close to the sidewalk to encourage people to walk out their front door and down the street, while still providing two lanes for vehicles - one for traffic and one for parking. The single lane encourages people to drive cautiously, and it's much safer to cross since you only have to watch out for one lane of traffic.

If you feel cramped, you could even go slightly wider;

But you're beginning to push to upper limit on how wide a residential street should be. Residential streets are not high volume highways, so we need to stop designing them as such;

Yuck. The road is wide enough to fit 5 cars side by side, and another 3 side by side on that huge wide grassy greenspace on the right. For a simple residential area, why is there a need to fit a total of 8 cars side by side between the sidewalks? It's not like they need it for parking, because I can see each house has its own driveway. You could narrow the space between the sidewalks to just the width of a single lane on that road, and you'd still be able to fit 2 cars side by side, everyone could still have their yards, your infrastructure costs could potentially quarter (you only have a quarter of the distance from the house to the road to run the power lines and water pipes), and the entire street would be much more walkable. If you want to make it even more walkable, encourage people to build their houses closer to the sidewalk - as a bonus they have more room for their backyard!

This is not a modern concept. People have been building streets this narrow for years;

That's a perfectly walkable environment. It's old, but there's nothing wrong with imitating that today.

On asthetics alone, narrow streets help make the environment look as if it was built for people. Practical wise, narrow streets improve walkability by taking up less space, which has the potential of bringing many more destinations into walking distance.

Feeling Crowded

When talking about narrow streets, many people may jump to the extreme and imagine the worst case scenario. They may imagine somewhere very crowded in a dilapidated third world city where the streets are in constant shadow and crime runs free;

This is understandable. I don't want to be shoulder to shoulder with cars and other people every time I leave my house. Nor do I want to live on a dilapidated street, in a city full of crime, or never feel sunlight. But what I just showed you is the extreme.

I'm advocating that we need to build human-scale streets to make an environment walkable. Human-scale doesn't mean everything has to be extremely narrow and crowded. It means a mixture of street sizes in moderation, as long as they're design for people at human-scale. You need wide retail boulavards;

That is wide by traditional city standards, yet narrow by conventional standards. If there were cars in that image, that street would feel crowded. The section of that street designed for people would be the width of those sidewalks on the side. By eliminating cars, the section of the street designed for people is now from building front to building front. It's also much safer - children don't have to watch for cars and there's no chance of being injured by a speeding vehicle. It'd also be a relaxing environment, far aware from the sound of car engines.

But, it's also important to have narrow streets;

It would feel crowded if the entire city felt like that, that's why it's important to have a mixture. These lanes, alleys, or 'narrow streets' play an important role. They can act as shortcuts between the wider roads, or they can branch off into a deadend of offices, townhouses, or speciality stores. Your imagination is the only limit.

What you don't want to do is to follow the automobile model of making every street this wide;

It may work as a main thoroughfare through the city, but a street that wide pretty much kills walkability regardless of how wide your sidewalks are. This is a major flaw with New Urbanism - a New Urbanist would pretty much idolize that street, just because there are sidewalks and crosswalks, without considering that it's obviously an automobile-designed environment.

What About Transit?

Public transportation is often bought into the conversation when talking about walkable environments. Either, people assume that simply patching transit on top of a automobile-scale environment makes it walkable, or that because they don't have transit, there's no point in focusing on walkability. Both of these assumptions are wrong.

Public transportation does not make a automobile-scale environment any more walkable. Public transportation only helps people to get between fixed points that already exist in the environment. It doesn't make getting to those points any easier or more walkable. It's highly unlikely that a fixed-route bus or train will stop directly in front of your house, and drop you off directly infront of your work - if it does, then you're extremely lucky and in the minority. But, for most people, you still have to walk on either end. If you live in a suburb designed for cars;

It will be an extremely lonely and unpleasant walk to the bus stop.

Let's say you worked here alongside a major highway;

That would be another lonely walk across the parking lot and over the highway to get to the bus stop. Who would want to stand at that bus stop, waiting 30 minutes for the bus, while all of your coworkers watch you with pity as they jump in their cars and drive directly home?

As soon as you have to cross over a highway or a parking lot you've killed walkability, regardless of how great your transit system is.

The only people who would use public transportation in this scenario would be teenagers who are too young to drive, the disabled, the poor that can't afford to drive, and the elderly. If you had the choice, any sane person would drive. It's simply not a pleasant commute otherwise.

Walkable environments don't require transit either. The core centre of Adelaide, my hometown, was laid out in one square mile;

Approximately 26,800 people live within that core, with a daytime population of approximately 228,673 - this includes workers, shoppers, and students that commute in from the suburbs. Once you're in the city, everything is within walking distance - cinemas, restaurants, department stores, universities, parks, apartments, hotels, museums, and hospitals. It takes approximately 20 minutes to walk the entire length of the city. A tourist could stay in a hotel in the heart of the city without a car and be perfectly happy.

It's far from a perfect environment - there are still plenty of wide roads that hinder walkability, but that is not my point.

What I'm trying to say is that if you are able to limit your city's growth to an area where everything is within walking distance, you could easily design a walkable city without any public transportation.

Getting in and out of a city without any bus or train connections may be difficult without a car or taxi, but getting in and out of a city is a different problem to getting around the same city that you live in. You may still need to own a car or use a rental service like ZipCar for weekend runs out in to the country - but a walkable human-scale city is one where you do not need a car for your typical day to day needs.

People have been building cities for thousands of years, and public transportation, while older than the automobile, was virtually non-existant before 1800. I like to call cities built before this era pre-transit cities. Your typical Classical and Renaissance cities are pre-transit cities;

Everything was designed to be within walking distance. The pre-transit 'historical' core of Bologna, Italy is slightly larger than 1 square mile. Everything was designed to be within walking distance of home - getting to work, going shopping, and entertainment. There was simply no other choice. It was a typical pre-transit city, designed with a mixture of wide public plazas;

And narrow streets;

It was a fully functional metropolis for several millania without any form of transit until the first railway station was built in 1850. This is how cities were built for most of history. Transit was not needed for these cities to be considered walkable back in the day.

So no, transit is not needed for a city to be walkable. You will be hardpressed to design a walkable metropolis with over a million people without transit, but for smaller cities (with 50,000 people or less) it's entirely feasible to build a walkable urban city without any transit if you limit the area of growth.

Redeveloping Existing Environments

This is great news if we're founding a city from scratch, but what can we do about all of the desolate non-walkable automobile-dependent places that exist now? How can we transform them?

Thankfully, cities aren't static. They're constantly being redeveloped. There are always new houses being built and new businesses relocating in and out. Cities are always growing and redeveloping. Some are growing and redeveloping faster than others. We have the ability to control future development and put it on the right path. But sadly, throughout most of the late 20th century, the power to apply regulations and zoning restrictions have done more harm than good. In particular, requirements such as minimum parking, setback, and building spacing have forced us to build automobile-scale environments.

Truely walkable human-scale cities are rare in the United States, and that is the perfect reason why we need to build them here. What are the benefits in doing so?

  1. Lots of tourists. People pay big money to visit traditional cities in Europe and Asia. Imagine if they were able to spend those tourist dollars locally. You have the potential to attract tourists from all over the country. Tourists bring in more revenue, both for local businesses (hotels, entertainment, restaurants, souvenirs) and for the city in terms of sales taxes.
  2. Safety. The less cars there are around, the less car accidents there will be - both for the people in the cars and the pedestrians in the area. The narrower roads in traditional cities encourage traffic to drive slower. Children will be safer walking home from school. Bicyclists don't have to worry about crossing over highways.
  3. More small businesses. Traditional urban environments are catalysts for small businesses. It's expensive for a startup business to build and maintain their own building, drive through, and parking lot in comparison to a simple shop front. Motorists also prefer to make the least number of stops, therefore prefering all-in-one big box stores over multiple smaller speciality stores. Small businesses thrive in areas with foot traffic.
  4. Cheaper infrastructure. If the same number of businesses and residents take up a quarter of the space, that means you only need a quarter of the infrastructure - roads, electrical lines, sewage, water plumbing. The mail and garbage routes are also significantly shorter. Police, fire, and ambulance services have a much smaller area to monitor. The lower cost of maintaining this infrustructure can result in lower taxes for the people living in the area.
  5. Higher quality of life. Mobility is no longer limited to car ownership. Children are able to walk to school and senior citizens can do their own grocery shopping or meet their friends out for lunch without having to rely on family to drive them. As car ownership is optional, there is the potential for people to have more disposable income to save or spend on themselves. Streets are safe and quiet - the sounds and smells of the automobile and has been replaced with the sounds of people walking and talking and the smells of alfresco cafes.
Qualitative Performance

One of the most common mistakes is that cities are rated based on their quantitative instead of qualitative performance. For example, population, population density, income level, or business revenue. Though these can be correlated with a higher standard of living, they aren't always. For example, a town of 2,000 people with a single Wal-Mart;

May have more business revenue than an equivalent sized town with a dozen local shops;

I would personally consider the later a much more pleasant place to live.

Average personal-income isn't a good indication either. All it takes are for a few ultra-rich business owners to distort the figure for a small town. Likewise, a few skyscrapers can distort population density.

However, towns and cities are places where people live. Our quality of life comes from our own subjective experiences, which can be unrelated to any quantitative measurement. They don't answer questions such as;

  1. How enjoyable is the daily commute to work? This may be unrelated to time or distance as it also depends on the mode of transportation, the scenery, and how crowded or lonely the commute is.
  2. How happy are the elderly? How convenient is it for them to buy their own groceries or to go to the local bingo hall if they can't drive? Do they need to rely on paratransit services or family?
  3. How hard is it to get a job or to start a small business? Do they have to provide parking for each customer, or can they simply rent a shop front?
  4. How hard is it for teenagers to go out shopping, see a movie, or make it to the sports field after school? Do they need to have their own car and license or rely on friends or family?

Qualitative questions like this directly address the quality of living of a city more than any quantitative measurement like commute time or population density ever could. A 14 year old teenager will appreciate living in a walkable environment where they can easily meet their friends for a movie whenever they want, than relying on nagging dad to drop them off. Simply saying "I want to raise my children in a city of 50,000 people" does not address this. It's only once you address qualitative quality of life questions like this that you begin to see how you can improve the environment around you.

So what exactly can we do to transform our cities into walkable environments with a high quality of life?

Don't Rely on Traffic Engineers

It's a common fallacy for city councils to plan their streets according to the wants of traffic engineers. Of course traffic engineers are going to want you to have wide roads. They're going to want you to set back your houses so that quiet residential road could one day turn into a highway. Their profession is based around accommodating automobile traffic - nothing else. It's the equivalent of asking a bicycling engineer or a railroad engineer to design a town. It's going to come out completely different. It's going to be all bikes or all trains.

Traffic engineers do have a role to play in laying out a city, but don't give into their desire to turn every road into a four lane avenue with a turning lane and a roundabout. You're going to have an unwalkable car-dependent mess, and spend a lot of money in the process.

Narrowing The Streets

Narrow streets are crucial to making a city walkable. But what can we do with all of the wide roads that currently exist?

We essentially have three basic options;

  1. Narrow the existing street.
  2. Reroute and rebuild the street.
  3. Fill in the wasted space in the middle the street.

Narrowing a street is somewhat easier than you think. Let's do an example mockup;

That's a typical downtown street in a smallish American city. Our first job is to reclaim the majority of the street for people. This means widening the sidewalk, so vehicles only have a single lane;

Now, since the road is no longer in the way, we can extend the front boundary of the properties. We'll give this reclaimed land to the businesses around it. (What business wouldn't be happy that they're getting more room?) Of course, only a couple of the businesses will utilize the extra space. If it's a restaurant, they could stick a patio out the front. If it's a rental property, the property holder could extend that outer wall so they can increase the rental value. Nothing will happen overnight, but slowly they will find a way to utilize this space;

There will still be some businesses that don't utilize that extra sidewalk space. Put an outdoor alfresco cafe there and fill out the rest with some trees. Then there's still the matter of that huge parking lot. Take out the cars, and call it a plaza. Then divide up and develop the remaining empty pockets around your new plaza;

Congratulations. You now have a narrow street in your city, a downtown plaza that you can rent out for the Saturday morning craft fair, and added 4 new businesses to the area. You can now call your downtown 'walkable';

Rerouting Streets

Sometimes, the best option may be just to reroute the area into smaller streets. Particularly if there's a lot of open space, such as parking lots pushing the buildings back from the street. It could be unreasonable to expect all of the businesses to shift or expand their buildings up to the street, so the other option is to bring the street closer to them. Here is an example of an area on the edge of a typical small American downtown;

I'd call that environment unwalkable. There are wide roads everywhere. There are parking lots seperating the buildings from the roads. If a person has to walk across a parking lot, the area's walkability is immediately killed.

The first thing we need to do is reroute the streets so they're against the buildings;

Noticed that I didn't narrow every road, I kept a mixture of wide and narrow roads, and tried to keep a major thoroughfare. Let's see how much space we've reclaimed;

That's quite a lot. Some of that space is too small and awkward to build on, so we may want to use it for open space. However, don't assume open-space means wide roads and parking lots. That's the kind of open space we want to avoid. Open space should be used in a constructive form that adds value to a city, such as urban parks and gardens like this;

Let's fill in those awkard spaces with nice park land we can sit in while we eat lunch;

Now let's sell off the rest of that land and build on it;

Wow. Look at that. All of that coloured in area was just wasted for parking and roads. We have just added 30 businesses to the area, 2 new parks, a variation of narrower and wider streets, and no existing buildings had to relocate or be demolished. The area is starting to look like a traditional city;

At ground level, our city may now look something like this;

There is nothing expensive about it. Each one of those buildings is a simple wood and brick structure. That's a lot cheaper to construct than your typical drive through suburban store.

Reclaiming Streets

When talking about walkable environments built for people, one of the most common things you'll notice is less of an emphasis on cars and a larger emphasis on people;

Sometimes, that may seem a world away from this car-oriented environment;

Notice that the fundamental designs of the buildings aren't very different. They're all multistory buildings with shop fronts at ground level. But the later is a very wide automobile-scale road, while the former is a more reasonable human-scale street. So how can we transition from the later to the former?

The first step is to close the road to private vehicles. You may still allow commercial delivery trucks after hours and emergency vehicles, but during the day time the street will be entirely dedicated to pedestrians;

When you visualize a place without cars, you suddenly get a sense of how much room there is. Next time you happen to leave your home, I urge you to visualize what the place would look like without cars - visualize what that congested downtown road would look like if every car was replaced by a person in the exact same spot that their car is.

There is so much free space out there! What can we do with these now car-less wide streets? We've just unlocked all of this extra free land, so it's now time to be creative. Let street performers and local musicians use it;

Allow local artists to display their works;

What better way to get the community in touch with local talent while everyone enjoys the fresh air and sunlight? There are so many things you can do to make a wide street more interesting;

What else can we do with a very wide street? How about divide it into two lanes;

Then we can fill the middle with benches, trees, trash cans, pay phones, and public art;

Or actually build something in the middle, like street cafes;

Or a newspaper stand;

So there you have it. I've presented three practical ways (narrowing an existing street, rerouting the street, and filling in the middle of the street) to turn a non-walkable automobile-scale environment;

Into a wonderful walkable human-scale environment that is 100% place;

That's cheaper to maintain, and increase the quality of life for its residents;

Adds character and charm;

And most of all, would be a great place to live;


And work;

Interacting With Suburbia

There still exists the problem of getting people between our walkable environments and their home, with their home most likely including conventional non-walkable suburban sprawl;

When we want to attract them into working and shopping every day in a traditional walkable human-scale environment;

In an ideal world, we would eliminate the problem by having people live in a walkable environment itself. Historically, most people either lived in apartments above shops;

Or in dedicated townhouses;

But, there is so much non-walkable suburban sprawl out there that we have to accomidate interfacing it with our walkable human-scale environments. That's pretty much where public transportation comes in. But then again, if their house is set so far back from the road, there's a lack of sidewalks, and the bus service only runs every 15 minutes and occasionally doesn't show up, it's much more tempting for someone to jump in their car and drive to their local big box retailer;

It's a tough problem. We built a wonderful walkable urban environment, but we need to make it accessible for people that live in car dependent suburbia to access it. There are two approaches you can take. The first extreme is to do what Venice does, and provide parking on the outskirts;

While making the rest of the environment strictly car free for everything except commercial delivery and emergency vehicles;

But completely eliminating cars from the environment may be a little extreme for those who have spent their entire lives depending on them and cannot imagine it any other way. The alternative is to do a European perimeter-block approach;

See all of that free room on the inner edges of the buildings? Let's use that for our parking;

This is what it looks like from the street;

Perfect. The parking is out of the way, and we only need to allow private cars down every other street to access the parking;

Congratulations. You have a safe, cheap to maintain, walkable, human-scale, urban environment. People that live in the area can go about their daily life without a car, while we're also accommodating for tourists and suburban commuters. Build this in a country like the United States and you'd be pouring in the tourist dollars.

Better Suburbia?

Can we make suburbia better by making it more human-scale and less car dependent? Of course. Personally, I don't see suburbia in its current form lasting. It's simply too expensive and unsustainable. While I understand that not everybody wants to live in a dense metropolis or out in the country, I see the suburbia of the future being traditional walkable urban villages, connected together with rail. These walkable urban villages actually exist today.

This is Jakriborg in Sweden. A modern walkable 'urban village' built in the 1990s, housing over 500 families;

Parking is provided on the outskirts for those who require a car, and there's a rail station just off the right of that image. Here is Jakriborg at street level;

It feels like a traditional peaceful village, and most people own their own home just like in a conventional suburb;

There are lanes running behind the houses that can act as shortcuts;

If you get sick of village life you can simply stroll out into the beautiful field;

Every home is just a few minutes walk from a bustling village centre;

If you ever get bored, you can take a train into Lund, a city of 82,800 to the north;

Or to Malmö, a city of 302,835 to the south;

If you want to design a walkable urban environment, that is the model to follow. Not something like this that New Urbanists preach about;

There are sidewalks. There is housing density. But there's simply nowhere to conveniently walk to. Here are some better examples of walkable housing;

Tell me that they don't look like great places to live.


Building walkable environments with a high quality of life means building human-scale streets with actual useful places to walk to. There are many examples of succesful walkable environments around the world, and we need to learn, imitate, and develop our own styles from them. Focusing on sprawled suburbia is unsustainably expensive as it strains our infrastructure budgets and our quality of life.

We don't need public transportation to build a walkable environment, but public transportation can assist in entering, leaving, and moving around an environment that is already walkable. Likewise, simply adding sidewalks or a bus system does not increase walkability. To increase an environment's walkability, you need make walking more attractive than driving. Having to cross over a wide road or a parking lot instantly kills walkability.

It's not overly hard or expensive to design, or even transform an existing city into, a truely walkable city. This comes naturally once we start designing our cities and streets at a human scale - even incremental steps in the right direction are better than continuing on a path of car-dependency. We need to get out of the habit of building wide roads and sprawling isolated suburbia. By doing so, we'll save money, attract a lot of tourists, and increase the quality of life of those that live there.