Have you ever had a friend return from a vacation and gush about how great it was to walk in the place they’d visited? “You can walk everywhere! To a café, to the store. It was amazing!” Immediately after saying that, your friend hops in their car and drives across the parking lot to the Starbucks to which they could easily have walked.

Why does walking feel so intuitive when we’re in a city built before cars, yet as soon as we return home, walking feels like an unpleasant chore that immediately drives us into a car?

A lot contributes to this dilemma, like the density of the city, or relative cheapness and convenience of driving. But there’s a bigger factor here: We don’t design the pedestrian experience for dignity.

This is a national problem, but certainly one we can see throughout our own Twin Cities metro: Even where pedestrian facilities are built, brand-new, ADA-compliant and everything else — using them feels like a chore, or even stressful and unpleasant.

Dignity is a really important concept in active transportation, but one that we often miss in the conversation about making streets better for walking and biking. I’ve been delighted to see the term appear on a social media account advocating for pedestrians. But as we plan and design better streets for active transportation, we need to consider the dignity of the pedestrian experience.

A Hierarchy of Needs

Three related concepts exist in designing great pedestrian spaces, and they can be arranged similarly to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. The base of the pyramid is the most essential, but having a complete and delightful pedestrian experience requires all three layers. The layers are: compliance, safety and dignity.

A pyramid showing a base layer of the word

Compliance: Often Not Enough

Shady Oak Road in Hopkins and Minnetonka (Google Street View)
St. Olaf Avenue in Northfield has a dignified amount of shade — not tunnel-like, but keeping the sidewalk cool and protected from the sun.

A dignified facility needs consistent shade during hot summer months. At night, shadows should be minimal and the route should be clear. Especially when a tree canopy is present, this is best achieved with more individual fixtures installed lower to the ground and at a lower light output. However, a fairly consistent light level can be achieved even with basic cobraheads, as long as there are enough to light the corridor fully.

A sidewalk with relatively little street lightingA well-lit crosswalk in Richfield

The flowers are beautiful, but a dark street at night is less dignified than a well-lit one. Left is 70th Street near Garfield Avenue; right is Lyndale and 75th.

Convenience

Routes should be intuitive, easy, and not feel tedious to navigate. Having to make sharp, 90° turns or go out of your way feel awkward and make you feel like your time and effort is wasted — even if the detour is relatively minor.

An inconvenient sidewalk routing in Edina8th Avenue in Hopkins, showing a clear street wall on left

Compare these two streets in Hopkins: Shady Oak Road, which is wide open with sense of enclosure, and Eighth Avenue, which is better-proportioned with a clear street wall.

It’s a very uncomfortable experience to walk along a wide-open corridor with no walls or edge definition — and it’s a common experience along suburban arterials, where you may have a wide road on one side and a wide-open parking lot on the other. You feel exposed and vulnerable. At the same time, overgrown sidewalks or ones that encroach on pedestrian space can feel claustrophobic and inconvenient. The right balance is needed.

Engagement

Blank frontage showing privacy fences in bad repair
This sidewalk in Brooklyn Park has only the frontage of dilapidated privacy fences.

Finally, engaging frontage is always more appealing than blank frontage. The extreme of this principle is obvious: Walking down a traditional main street is more pleasurable than walking through an industrial park. But even where land uses are similar, engagement of frontage can vary a lot: picture the difference between walking past front doors of houses in a traditional neighborhood, and walking past privacy fences and back yards in cul-de-sac suburban neighborhoods. The traditional neighborhood is more interesting and engaging to walk through.

When I was visiting downtown Northfield, I noted a new building along Water Street (MN-3), which had similar materials to the older downtown buildings on Division: windows, brick, [cultured] stone base. Yet the back was turned to the street, and the experience walking past was undignified.

A building with attractive materials but blank frontage, with a man taking a selfie in foreground.Downtown Northfield, Minn, showing active street frontage

Consider the visual interest of these buildings in downtown Northfield. On the left, walking past tinted windows and blank walls on a new building along a concurrent section of Water St and Highway 3 on the west side of downtown. On the right, Division Street’s engaging storefronts.

A Pedestrian Cannot Live on Compliance Alone

Creating compliant sidewalks and trails is a high priority for agencies seeking to avoid litigation and serve pedestrians on the most basic level. Although that has some benefits, it isn’t enough. Whether actively undermining walkability (like removing crosswalks to achieve ADA compliance) to simply not doing enough (adding a new curb ramp to an otherwise wheelchair-hostile sidewalk), we need to go much further.

To make walking and rolling a desirable, everyday activity, we need facilities that are compliant, safe and dignified. We have many examples in our communities of great pedestrian ways — but we have a long way to go to make it universal, and truly move the needle toward walking.

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