Monday, July 7, 2014

Sidewalk design fail: when pedestrians prefer bike paths to sidewalks

I've noticed something I have never thought about before, even if it was right in my face for nearly 25 years. I come from the Québec suburb of Boucherville, which, as far as North American suburbs go, isn't that bad. Sure, the population density is low, but streets aren't too wide, averaging 7-8 meters (24 to 27 feet), most streets have sidewalks on at least one side, elementary schools are largely located in the middle of neighborhoods, within walking distance of most kids, there are some groceries and proximity stores inside residential areas, the city zoned for multifamily apartments along primary streets (where buses are) and near stores, lots of trees...

Small apartment blocks along a  relatively narrow collector street, note the bus stop to the right

Planters serving as pedestrian refuge at a crossing of a main street

Narrow residential street, with trees on either side enclosing the street well
This is a residential street, not a main street, but there are sidewalks on either side and the street itself isn't so wide
At the same time, it still has low density overall, and stores have huge parking lots in front. Some places are quite far from anything, the walk score of my childhood home is 13, but one street over to the west, it's 2. The bus routes make loops inside the city and are almost useless to travel within it, their use is strictly to take people to the nearest subway station, either in Longueuil or to Radisson station on the island of Montréal.

Anyway, one of the things the city has done, being almost a precursor in that regard, is building bike paths on its main streets.
Boucherville and its bike infrastructure
This is what the bike paths look like where I lived, which has been around as long as I remember, so about 30 years (feeling old here):
Bike path in Boucherville
So one asphalt path aside from the street. But in fact, I've not been entirely accurate, this bike path, like many others, are not actually bike paths, but "multi-purpose paths" (piste multifonctionnelle in French). Essentially, it's not only for bikes, but for roller skaters, pedestrians and all active modes of transport. About the only things banned are motorized vehicles. Hence why in the latter photo there is no sidewalk on the other side.

Okay, so where am I getting at? Well, I've noticed a particular phenomenon at work. In places where there is a multi-purpose path on one side of the street and a sidewalk on the other, pedestrians will, almost 90% of the time, choose the multi-purpose path. How is this significant? Well, the sidewalk is supposed to be the place for pedestrians, yet, when given a choice, pedestrians in Boucherville will prefer the multi-purpose path, a path built primarily for bikes where they are forced to shared the path with cyclists.
Multi-purpose path on the right, sidewalk on the left... pedestrians on the right only
 Now, I know what you may be thinking: "Well, there are trees giving shade on the right and apartment blocks on the left, maybe it's not about the design of the paths but simply what's beside it". Except this next photo...
Again, pedestrians opting for the bike path rather than the sidewalk
...shows a place where the sidewalk borders a PARK. You know what's next to the bike path? Railroad tracks, used only by freight trains. Still, people choose the bike path, they will even cross the street to walk on it rather than on the sidewalk.

And I've found a more evident example of pedestrian preference on Street View. This is in Laval, on the Boulevard du Souvenir:
Sidewalk and bike path side by side, everyone in the bike lane (Boulevard du Souvenir, Laval)
Note again how pedestrians keep opting for the bike path rather than the sidewalk... a few feet away!  

And yesterday I was biking in Longueuil and saw this place with bike paths in gravel and sidewalks on each side of the street:
Longueuil, bike paths in gravel in the median, sidewalks on the sides
I didn't take a picture then, but I guarantee you, all the pedestrians I saw were on the bike path, none on the sidewalks.

So what gives? Is there any lesson to learn here about pedestrian infrastructure? Personally, the first thing I get from this is that pedestrians don't actually seem to like the standard North American sidewalk. Maybe it's too narrow, maybe it's too close to cars, either parked or in movement, maybe the curb cuts are annoying, maybe the way it's built is not all that comfortable (concrete blocks with evident joints).

I also get that pedestrians largely do not care about having to share a space with cyclists. Sport cyclists may hate it because the presence of pedestrians forces them to slow down when passing them (like car drivers who hate having to pass slower cyclists on the street), but it doesn't seem to bother either pedestrians or cyclists overall. It seems that since both pedestrians and cyclists are very vulnerable in a collision, and both know it, they can easily travel alongside one another, both will be careful of the other and take care.

Maybe my experience in Boucherville is what made sure I wasn't out of my element on my Japan trips when I had to walk on sidewalks shared with cyclists. I did also much prefer the way the Japanese build their sidewalks to the standard sidewalks here.

So, should we revise the way we build sidewalks in North America? Is it just a case of a bad design we keep on using because, well, that's how we've been building them for a century or so and it's the standard?


  1. I think a generous amount of space is at least part of it. Being a bit further from traffic too, especially if it's faster traffic. I've noticed this here at the University of Waterloo campus too.

    Laurel Trail (multi use path) goes between the university and the "plaza" where most students eat (also a lot of student housing that way). Going along Laurel Trail, you have some greenery (a mix of trees, weeds, shrubs and grass) on one side, and railroad tracks and the backside of the plaza restaurants on the other side.

    Parallel to Laurel Trail is Ring Road which circles around the edge of the university (most of the campus is pedestrian only). On one side there's a standard width (ie narrow) sidewalk, with the road right next to it (no buffer) and the same greenery on the other side (separating it from Laurel Trail). On the other side of Ring Road is a wider sidewalk, also with no space separating it from traffic, and on the other side are university buildings, occasionally (but not always) with greenspace between the buildings and sidewalk. The buildings are mostly inwardly facing with limited windows and entrances facing the sidewalk.

    Laurel Trail definitely gets the most use by pedestrians here. The narrow ring road sidewalk gets very little use, and the wider one is somewhere in between. A lot of students are walking in groups, so I think for that reason they prefer the wider sidewalks, and I think they'd also prefer to mingle with cyclists than be next to car (and bus) traffic. The surroundings probably have little to do with it being rather dull in each case (unmaintained landscaping, blank/back walls). I'd say about a few hundred pedestrians per hour on Laurel Trail during the day, about 1/3 of that on the wider Ring Road sidewalk and about 10% of Laurel Trail usage on the narrower sidewalk. There's maybe on the order of 1 bike for every 10 pedestrians on Laurel Trail (so potentially >1 per minute). Traffic on Ring Road is maybe around 40-50km/h, with I'm guessing about 30-200 vehicles/hour depending on time of day.

    1. Good to see this isn't limited to my observations in Québec.

      Looking at examples of bike paths besides sidewalks, I've noticed that the main factor seems to be distance from cars. The farther away from cars, the better. If the sidewalk is built on the exterior side of the bike path and both are at the same level (I know it sounds weird, but it happens in Longueuil), then people walk on the sidewalk. I don't know if it's just distance or if these bike paths are perceived as "bike only" paths rather than multi-purpose paths (they have lane markings for one). People seem to like buffers between themselves and vehicles, and parked cars don't count if I go by the image of Laval.

      In Japan, not only are sidewalks generally wider, but they tend to put trees, fences or small pillars at the limit between the sidewalk and the street, which may act as a buffer separating cars and pedestrians, and which incite cars to give a wider berth to the curb.

      Maybe that's the key. I don't think user segregation on the street is essential everywhere, I love the narrow residential streets I saw in Japan, but if users are to be segregated, as it leads to faster speeds on the road, buffers may be called for, either just spatial buffers (grass) or physical buffers (trees, poles, fences, etc...).

  2. Here in SLC, Liberty Park has a nice ring sidewalk, about four meters from the ring road and shaded but only 1.5m wide. There's also a bike path, 3m wide and right on the road next to cars, with a slight camber toward the road, and little shade. Outside the bike path, there's also a chipped wood jogging path, designed to be easy on the knees of runners.

    It's a well used park, busy all year round. Summers routinely reach temperatures up to 40º (about 20 days of 40º last year), so the shade seems like a nice amenity. The jogging path was designed specifically to appeal to runners in geometry and surface. The only advantage of the bike path is width and the longer space between grooves in the concrete.

    The pedestrians and runners all prefer the bike path and crowd onto it, avoiding the running path and the sidewalk. Some of them are pushing prams or carts of various kinds, but most of them just choose the bike path in spite of its apparent lack of appeal. I always walk on the sidewalk because it's objectively nicer for walking.

    Maybe I'm just more capable of walking on a 1.5m path than most; when I ride my bike in the park it's apparent that many pedestrians weave around like drunk monkeys whenever you're trying to get past them without a collision.

  3. I think there's certainly something to be said for the quality of the pavement and the clearance of the right-of-way on bike paths versus sidewalks. The jointed concrete is more of a tripping hazard, as well as curb cuts, as has already been mentioned. I think another factor is that sidewalks are generally not respected by adjacent landowners and utility companies, so you have poles and junction boxes right on the sidewalk, as well as garbage cans and untrimmed bushes and trees. These sorts of things will not be tolerated on a bike path, and it makes walking on a sidewalk that much more unpleasant.