Tuesday, September 26, 2017

How to encourage walking within your commercial district

Nur Asri is an associate at Larisa Ortiz Associates

Pedestrians in downtown NY. Photo: Kars Alfrink via Flickr
In a recent study by Robert J Schneider, of the Department of Urban Planning at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, two distinct design features were identified to significantly impact shoppers’ choice to walk along a main commercial street rather than drive.

Sure, we’ve all heard that curb extensions, street trees and transparent ground floor facades all play an important role in creating walkable environments but no research study has associated urban design features with the choice to walk rather than drive. Therefore, in order to understand the relationship between urban design and the choice between walking and driving, Schneider tested roadway variables such as the convenience of parking, sidewalk and buffer widths, corner curb radius, number of lanes, traffic volume and speeds. 

After controlling for personal travel and socio-economic characteristics, the study by Schneider identifies two significant design features that are associated with shoppers choosing to walk versus drive between activities in a commercial district. Most importantly, given that survey respondents included in the study all drove to the district, the findings serve to reinforce the ‘park once’ downtown strategy.

1. Fewer driveway crossings

Schneider’s study found that respondents were significantly less likely to choose to walk when the main commercial drag had more driveway crossings. These crossings were perceived as barriers to walking as they added to walking travel time. In fact, every 10 additional driveway crossings was perceived as adding another minute to walking travel time. 

Case Study: Morganton, North Carolina
Earlier this year, we worked in Morganton, North Carolina. A beautiful, small downtown with a commercial core with about 1,300 linear feet of ground floor retail and office space. We found, anecdotally, that customers in the district could easily cross shop at the retail core because there were few barriers to walking, including only two driveway crossings, as shown below.

In addition, one of these driveway entrances is slightly elevated, requiring vehicles to slow down before making the turn into the driveway, increasing safety for pedestrian shoppers who are already walking and browsing up and down the commercial drag.

What was also interesting was the moderate correlation between driveway crossings and annual average daily traffic volumes. This begs the question of average daily traffic as a critical retail site selection criteria. Sure, more cars passing through the street increases visibility of the retailer but if this means fewer shoppers on the street willing to walk over to your business (i.e. sidewalk foot traffic), then what’s the point?

2. Lower speed limits

Next, Schneider also found that the posted speed limit had a significantly negative association to walking within the shopping district. The lower the posted speed limit, the more respondents walked within the shopping districts.  In fact, every 5-mile per hour higher speed limit was found to be equivalent to between a minute and 75 seconds of additional walking time – again, increasing walking time for pedestrians.  

In many downtown districts, the 25mph speed limit has become a common traffic calming action to take to increase comfort levels for pedestrian shoppers. Here in Brooklyn, on Atlantic Avenue, the slow zone has a posted speed limit of 25 mph (in addition to retimed traffic signals to a 25mph progression) to help check motorists’ speed.

Of course, Schneider recommends that other complementary changes be made in order to increase walking within shopping districts. Past studies have alluded to compact and diverse developments leading to increased walking. According to many studies, in compact and dense areas, walking distances between different buildings and stores are short and these short distances are a main reason why walking is a more common mode of transportation in traditional urban shopping districts than in newer suburban retail areas where buildings are farther apart.

In support of this, Schneider’s study also found that when travel times for either walking or driving are the same, for short distances, walking is still preferred over driving. However, when travel distances increase and walking times become much longer than driving times, driving has an advantage over walking.

Finally, mixed uses, mixed jobs and mixed population within an area are all things that enhance walkability, and oft-repeated, that can now be further complemented by the proven design features of fewer driveway crossings and lower posted speed limits.  

Read: Schneider, R. J. (2015). Walk or Drive between Stores? Designing Neighbourhood Shopping Districts for Pedestrian Activity. Journal of Urban Design20(2), 212-229.

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