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Can We Connect?

by PCJ Editor Wayne Senville, reporting on the Association of Metropolitan Planning Organizations conference in Saratoga Springs, New York

One of the key themes I heard during sessions at the AMPO conference was the importance of making connections. I'm not referring to the networking that went on among conference attendees (though I'm sure there was plenty of that), but to the connections needed to make our communities more walkable -- and better connect pedestrians to nearby shopping and to transit corridors.

That means focusing on one of the most basic components of a community's transportation network: sidewalks.

Heading South to Florida

Think of South Florida and what image comes to mind. Sunshine? Of course. Sparkling beaches? Yes, you’ll find them. Plenty of room of growth and new housing developments? Well, not exactly.

As Greg Stuart, Executive Director of the Broward County MPO explained at the AMPO (Association of Metropolitan Planning Organizations) conference, South Florida “is pretty much built out. Our arterials are done. We have no more lots for single-family homes -- unless you buy one and tear it down.”

For the Broward County MPO, which serves 31 municipalities, that means remedying some of the deficiencies that came with the surge of housing development of the 1970s, ‘80s, and ‘90s.

“Redevelopment efforts” said Stuart, “have to occur on our corridors. What we’re really focusing on today is how people connect from single-family areas to our mobility hubs and corridors.” Sidewalks connect residents to nearby arterials/corridors, where they can get to local stores and also the transit system.

Roadway and sidewalk in Pompeii
Mmm -- climate is similar, but it sure doesn't look like South Florida! You might have guessed that this is a photo of suburban Pompeii (taken a few years ago during a visit there). Sidewalks, and crosswalks too, could be found along the main roadways. Sidewalks were important thousands of years ago -- and still are today. Photos by Wayne Senville.
Crosswalk in Pompeii
Large blocks on Pompeii's streets allowed people to cross, while also permitting chariots and carts to pass through. We're not suggesting this as a model for complete streets today -- unless we retrofit all our vehicles as hi-risers!

Providing sidewalk connections has become a priority for the MPO. “Our Board is starting to spend significant amounts of money on this,” Stuart noted.

Chris Ryan, the MPO’s Public Information Officer said that building sidewalks is part of a growing focus on “complete streets.” “We want a balance of all modes, so that we’re talking about how best to move people, not cars.” Another big advantage: “complete streets are flexible to implement, they don’t have to cost a lot.” That’s because, as Ryan explained, they can be built in smaller pieces -- not as huge projects like building a new roadway or expanding an arterial. [For information on the Broward Complete Street Guidelines]

The MPO and elected officials, Stuart noted, realize that “the majority of Broward residents want more nearby sidewalks, better pubic transportation, bike lanes, more destinations within walking or biking distance, and want to feel safe while commuting without a car.”

The key, Stuart said, is not to put forward long, drawn-out projects. “Make things happen quickly, keep people engaged -- don’t wait for two years to get something done -- keep projects short and implementable.”

Heading North to Minnesota

I don’t know if it had been planned this way, but right after our “visit” to Broward County, conference attendees were spirited way up north to Duluth, Minnesota, on the shores of Lake Huron.

Interestingly enough, though Duluth’s climate (cold), topography (hilly), and rate of growth (slow) is quite different than Broward’s County’s, the area MPO shares a strong interest in sidewalks.

But first just a thumbnail sketch of the MPO and the region (as provided by Andy McDonald, Principal Planner with the Duluth Superior Metropolitan Interstate Council, the MPO):
-- the MPO serves a population of 145,000 in four cities; two states; two counties; and a surrounding ring of townships.
-- Duluth/Superior is the largest port on the Great Lakes and important rail hub.
-- it’s an older region, with slow growth, and a harsh Winter climate.

Why care about sidewalks?

McDonald ticked off a list of reasons:

  • sidewalks provide an improved climate for retail businesses.
  • sidewalks offer community health benefits
  • sidewalks get more “eyes on the street,” helping curb crime rate.
  • sidewalks lead to a stronger sense of community
  • sidewalks are becoming more important since there’s an increasing number of young people don’t own cars (yes, apparently even in Duluth).

Duluth Sidewalk Study

The MPO developed a three-part sidewalk study. In a nutshell, it included: (1) a sidewalk inventory; (2) developing a method for prioritizing sidewalk needs; and (3) preparing sidewalk guidelines.

1. Sidewalk inventory. The project started with digitizing some 400 miles of sidewalks in Duluth from aerial photos. Two interns and one temp were then trained in how to collect data on sidewalk condition, using a GPS device that allowed for inputting of data while in the field.

Data gathered included: the presence/absence of sidewalks or the presence of a dirt path; the sidewalk material; the sidewalk’s width; its relationship to the roadway (e.g., abutting, boulevard/tree belt); presence of a curb ramp; obstructions to the sidewalk; and a rating of the sidewalk’s current condition.

2. Method for prioritizing sidewalk needs. The MPO drew on a methodology used in San Diego, tweaking it to meet local needs. Basically this involved mapping out existing “pedestrian attractors” (schools; transit stops; parks; neighborhood retail; post offices; libraries), “pedestrian generators” (transit stops; dense clusters of seniors or young people more dependent on walking; and other factors); and “pedestrian detractors” ( barriers creating by freeways or railroad tracks; steep slopes). The end result was a composite model reflecting the data on pedestrian attractors, generators, and detractors.

3. Sidewalk guidelines. This part of the study was aimed at developing a set of best practices for sidewalks. As McDonald explained, the guidelines drew on material from the ITE Guidelines for Installing Sidewalks; as well as from information from the FHWA; the National Center for Safe Routes to School; and the American Planning Association.

The MPO also took a close look at what other communities -- especially those with comparable climates -- were doing with their sidewalk programs.

To download a pdf about the sidewalk study.

I’ll be checking in with McDonald in coming months to find out about how implementation of the sidewalk study is proceeding. There was one major setback not long after the sidewalk condition data work had been completed -- and it wasn’t from one a blizzard. Instead, torrential rains hit Duluth this past June, resulting in substantial areas of erosion. So, a good deal of sidewalk data will have to be re-collected much sooner than originally planned.

While I’ve just highlighted work in Broward County and Duluth in this posting, I heard others at the AMPO conference also speak of the importance of complete streets and sidewalks -- all in the name of making better connections.