How Cities Can Create a Pedestrian-Friendly Downtown

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In the majority of American cities, people are most likely to walk in downtown. That also happens to be the place where you’ll probably find the highest concentration of drivers. The question is: how can cities balance the needs of drivers while prioritizing the safety of pedestrians?

  • Cities can help revitalize their downtown areas by creating safe places for pedestrians to walk.
  • When cars are moving at a slower speed, pedestrians feel more secure walking on city streets.
  • Cities can take a variety of steps to reduce speeds in downtown areas, including narrowing of lanes, removing unnecessary traffic signals, creating more bike paths and tree-lining streets.
  • In creating a safe place for people to walk downtown, cities are also setting up conditions for a successful shopping district.

According to an article by city planner and author, Jeff Speck, on “Public Square,” the answer is by controlling speed.

It doesn’t take an AP level physics student to understand that the faster a car hits a pedestrian, the worse it is for that pedestrian. But how much worse? According to the World Health Organization, a person has a 90 percent chance of survival when hit by a car going 30 km/h (18.6 mph) or below; those odds drop to less than fifty percent when the speed is increased to just 45 km/h (~28mph). We examine the many benefits of reducing speed limits here.

Cars parked on the street provide a barrier between the sidewalk and moving traffic, increasing pedestrian safety and comfort levels. (Photo: Jason Briscoe/Unsplash)

Stay in your lane

Speck says that any serious downtown plan will “take pains to address the principal factors that determine driver speed and pedestrian exposure.” In a recent plan he did for downtown Hammond, Indiana, Speck examples nine ways cities can slow down traffic to create safer and more successful downtown streets.

Figuring out the appropriate number of driving lanes, as well as lane width, is key. The more lanes on a street, the faster traffic flows, and the longer the stretch pedestrians have to cross to get to the other side. By putting its streets on a “Classic American 4-to-3-lane road diet,” as Speck refers to it, Hammond reduced injuries to road users by 68 percent. In addition, that freed up extra space can be used for bike lanes and curb parking.

You probably don’t think much of it, but lane width heavily impacts driving speeds. When driving on an urban street, the odds are pretty good the lanes are 10 feet wide, large enough to let traffic move with ease at 35 mph. On the highway, those lanes stretch out to 12 feet to accommodate speeds of 70 mph. Speck points out that drivers instinctively understand this connection and speed up when lanes get wider, regardless of whether they’re on the highway or city streets. That extra speed in urban areas increases risk to pedestrians, so lanes downtown must be kept to a trim 10 feet.

One-way streets are also a culprit. People tend to speed because there isn’t the deterrent of having to worry about traffic going in the other direction. In addition to causing drivers to push down harder on the accelerator, one-ways can harm downtown retail districts due to uneven and unexpected traffic distribution during the day.

Continuous on-street parking and street trees

If cars are a pedestrian’s worst foe on the road, parked on the street they become a friendly ally. At rest, cars provide a barrier between pedestrians on the sidewalk and the roadway. On-street parking scores another win by slowing down traffic. Drivers have to pay closer attention and adjust speeds to navigate around people pulling up to and away from the curb.

Trees not only make a street nicer to drive down, they also have the added benefit of having people slow down due to the visual perception that the road is narrowing in the distance. (Photo: Kgbo/Wikimedia Commons)

Certainly, cities look much better with tree-lined streets. More than aesthetic touches, trees function in the same way as parked cars to protect sidewalks from traffic. Interestingly, planting trees up and down a street also creates a perceptual illusion that the street is narrowing, causing people to slow down.

It used to be that traffic signals represented a city had distinguished itself as cosmopolitan, modern and important. But, some traffic signals may be getting the boot. Current research  suggests that your basic analogue four-way stop sign (or three-way at T intersections) gets the job done much more safely when traffic flow is low to moderate. And with the stop sign about to get “smart,” it could replace the traffic light as the darling in the signal world.

While crosswalks with pedestrian push-buttons were ostensibly designed to assist those crossing the street, we all know they don’t. Speck notes the push button does little more than frustrate would-be crosswalkers who either don’t have enough time to cross or haven’t a clue if the blasted button is even working to get them the walk signal. Instead, he suggests the “traditional and proper signalization system for intersections” called a “concurrent regime.” In this system, pedestrians get the walk signal when cars get the green, in addition to getting the right of way.  Cars must wait for people to clear the crosswalk before making a  turn. Takes all the needless confusion out of the equation.

It’s all in the angles

When it comes to designing walkable cities, what a difference geometry makes. According to Speck, city planners need rectilinear and angled designs, along with tight curb radii. Swooping angles and curves might be artistic, but they are also more dangerous because cars tend to speed up in this environment.

The recipe for creating pedestrian-friendly downtowns wouldn’t be complete without bike lanes. It’s amazing the power of that little slice of real estate. Bikers can help slow cars down and new bike lanes are just waiting in the wings to make good use of all the space left over from the road diet.

Although crosswalks with pedestrian pushbuttons were intended to help, they often cause confusion. (Photo: Getty Images)

Those drivers about to kick up a fuss for having to slow their roll through a downtown might want to reconsider. Your commute, at least in Hammond, will be impacted by less than a minute. An illustration in Speck’s article shows that reducing driving  speeds while traveling through downtown adds only 48 seconds on to travel time.

Currently, Hammond, Indiana is seeking proposals from developers to build in a downtown where the city has recently adopted a new urban plan, is creating a new rail connection to Chicago, and has committed to a transformation of the main street.


Cities would be wise to consider the crucial importance of controlling speed in downtown areas. By implementing some key changes, cities can transform their downtown areas into a safe, desirable and more green place to visit. And, that’s just good business.

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