11 Ways to Make Streets Safe for Walking

And these pedestrian-friendly improvements benefit motorists and bicyclists, too

A family of five taking a walk in downtown Phoenix

Founded in 2013, FitPHX sponsors events that encourage people of all ages to go for walks in downtown Phoenix. — Photo from City of Phoenix/ FitPHX

After a generation of designing roads for cars and speed, traffic and transportation engineers have developed what's become a tool kit of well-proven innovations that make walking less dangerous and more pleasant. 

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"These pedestrian improvements also typically improve motorists' and bicyclists' safety," says Charlie Zegeer, director of the University of North Carolina's Pedestrian and Bicycle Information Center. "It's a win-win-win. Everyone's safer." 

1. Reduce the number of car lanes on wide streets

Downsizing four-lane streets to two travel lanes with an alternating turn lane in the middle has become a popular trend across the country. When this "road diet" approach was used on a stretch of Edgewater Boulevard in Orlando, crashes declined by 34 percent, injuries by 68 percent, and property values on the street rose 8 to 10 percent. Plus, drivers' travel times actually decreased. All this explains why the Federal Highway Administration (FWWA) designates road diets as "proven safety countermeasures" traffic engineers can use to reduce crashes at intersections.

2. Reduce the width of car lanes

"Many communities created 12-foot travel lanes for cars simply because it was a recommended standard," explains walkable communities expert Mark Fenton. "Increasingly they've realized wide lanes invite speed, and in neighborhoods, retail districts, and near schools, narrower lanes send a better message to drivers." 

3. Reduce the length of crosswalks

A shorter walk across the street is a safer one. Extending the sidewalk out a few feet into the intersection also improves safety for all road users by making pedestrians more visible and slowing the speed of turning traffic. A study in Albany, Oregon, found that these curb extensions significantly reduced the number of drivers failing to yield to people walking across the street.

4. Make crosswalks more visible

Crosswalks can be marked with bricks or bright swaths of paint. Or, better yet, elevate the crosswalks to curb level, a solution that works in Boulder, Colorado, and rural Harrisonburg, Virginia.

5. Add medians or pedestrian islands in the middle of busy streets

Medians or pedestrian islands reduce crashes by providing a refuge for people crossing the street. The FHWA deems them among its "proven safety countermeasures."

6. Give walkers a head start at traffic lights

A 3- to 7-second head start allows pedestrians to enter the crosswalk first and be more visible to motorists, resulting in up to 60 percent fewer pedestrian-vehicle collisions, according to the National Association of City Transportation Officials.

7. Ban right-turns-on-red

Drivers, focused on watching out for other cars as they turn, often don’t see people crossing the street on green lights.

8. Install speed humps, roundabouts and other traffic-calming measures

These are valuable tools for reminding motorists to mind the speed limit and keep an eye out for people on foot and bicycles. A traffic calming project in West Palm Beach, Florida, resulted in safer streets, less crime, increased property values and $300 million in business investment. Roundabouts (another FHWA safety countermeasure) added to La Jolla Boulevard in San Diego led to more people walking, new businesses, more on-street parking and shorter travel times for motorists.

9. Convert one-way streets to two-way

This encourages safer driving and less noise for local residents. Tampa, Dallas, Louisville and San Jose are among the cities changing one-way streets back to two-way.

10. Install red-light cameras and other safety tools

It's prohibitively expensive to station a police car at every unsafe intersection, but cameras can nab lawbreakers who speed, run red lights or don't yield the right-of-way to people walking. More than 550 communities from Sacramento to Charlotte use them. Even a sign flashing motorists' speeds can reduce traffic injuries.

11. Stricter enforcement of traffic laws

Killing or injuring people with a car is no less tragic than doing it with a weapon. Seattle won top honors as a Walk Friendly Community in part for its Aggressive Driver Response Team, where neighborhoods work with police to curb dangerous drivers, and the 2012 Vulnerable User Law, which zeroes in on negligent but not criminal traffic errors that injure or kill pedestrians.

This article was adapted from the book America's Walking Renaissance, published by America Walks and the Every Body Walk! Collaborative, which can be downloaded for free. Author Jay Walljasper writes, speaks and consults about how to create healthier, happier communities. 

America's Walking Renaissance was published in 2016

Why Walking is So Popular Again

One reason walking is going places: The U.S. Surgeon General's "Call to Action" to promote walking and walkable communities.


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