Diversity – of people, buildings, land use, business, and transportation options – vary greatly between urban, suburban, exurban, and rural areas. Addressing our transportation system’s negative effects – congestion, cost, climate, health, safety, isolation, waste, and more – requires multiple strategies and multiple road designs appropriate for different types of areas. The toolkit of mobility strategies and road designs need adjustments and the mix needs to be tailored for the density and other characteristics of each type of place. Rail, bus, shuttle, shared vehicle, and – most powerfully – land-use planning strategies will continue to be part of the package, only they will need to be packaged differently outside of cities. This has even been recognized by the Federal Highway Administration, who recently published the Small Town and Rural Multimodal Networks guide that provides some options for accommodating walking and cycling in small and rural communities. In that same spirit, here are some thoughts about walking and bicycling facilities for non-urban areas.
Cities are the nation’s real “heartland”. The 50 largest cities in the US contain nearly 40 percent of the national population. Over 70 percent of the US population lives in the 486 “urbanized areas” with over 50,000 people. With their huge advantage of financial, expertise, and social interaction density, cities are the driver of economic and cultural growth. The density also increases both the cost-efficiency of and demand for mass transit, shared-vehicle programs, bicycling, and other non-personally-owned-car transportation modes.
But that still leaves a lot of people and a majority of our land in suburban, small town, exurban, and rural areas. Their homes, workplaces, shopping, and social/entertainment locations are dispersed and far apart. The roads connecting everything, especially the “last miles”, are often narrow, long, and winding, without sidewalks or lighting. While some small towns are rich exclaves of the professional/managerial upper-middle class, most are home to working and middle-class families whose incomes have stagnated for decades along with the decline of the farming, mining/lumbering, and manufacturing industries in which they worked – making raising local funds for public facility improvement projects more difficult*. Even when affordable, the typical mix of mobility solutions and road designs that work in cities are not always appropriate for these areas. As a result, because of our geographic-based winner-take-all electoral system, transportation advocates’ urban-based proposals for state programs to improve mobility are often opposed.
(*Among their other insults to the American people, the Trump Administration and Republican Congress are also cutting transit funds for rural areas. Claiming that transit is only of local concern, they’re proposing to cut or eliminate the primary sources of funds for transit in rural areas: Small Starts, TIGER, and transit formula funding as well as New Starts and Core Capacity Programs. This will make most rural areas even more dependent on cars.)
Suburbs and even most rural towns have a town center, a cluster of stores, churches, and civic buildings that serves as a focal point for gathering, commerce, and identity. Many of these are dense or compact enough that most of today’s innovative urban street designs are still useful – even if adapted for the greater space and lower traffic volume of small towns. Wide, tree-shaded sidewalks with benches and other socializing rest spots; bike lanes against no-parking curbs (with parking moved off-street behind the stores); flex-post separated or parking-protected bike lanes (running between parked cars and the curb); short-cycle traffic lights with “leading pedestrian indicators” (an “LPI” gives pedestrians and cyclists a 3-to-8 second head start before cars); lots of bicycle parking racks of a variety of types; way-finding signs showing the distance and walking/cycling time to popular destinations – these set a tone of welcoming friendliness and are all worth doing even if the town center is small.
It’s down the long municipal roads and state highways between town centers that city-country differences most arise. Many rural and even suburban people value the no-sidewalk aesthetic of their towns. In many areas the low number of potential walkers along these low-density routes makes sidewalks or paved paths a very expensive distraction from more important and desperately needed social services, school programs, and public health. But, as in urban areas, there is also a chicken-and-egg problem – the absence of safe, low-stress facilities means people don’t even think about non-car alternatives.
However, just because an urban-style sidewalk or protected bike lane is not cost-effective doesn’t mean that nothing can be done. A compacted pressed dirt, off-road path near a road is enormously less expensive to build (assuming sufficient right-of-way is available) and would provide an improved level of service. Compacted dirt can’t be plowed in the winter and will quickly deteriorate on hills or in wet areas – which is why those sections should be paved even if the rest isn’t. Still, it’s a starting point that can help entice users and demonstrate demand – even if it is necessary to move the path on to the road along sections without sufficient right-of-way width where it’s impossible to get access rights from adjoining land owners.
If separated paths are the gold standard, the entry-level bottom rung is a “Yield Road” – essentially using signage to tell everyone to share the otherwise unchanged road. If possible, the speed limit should be lowered to 20mph – meaning that drivers will usually go 30mph. (Even better: change the pavement in ways that make it uncomfortable for cars to go over 25mph.) Signage should remind car drivers to yield to walkers and cyclists, perhaps reminding drivers that they bear primary responsibility for not injuring walkers and cyclists. If done well, the road begins to approximate an urban “slow street”, “neighborway”, or “shared space”. Unfortunately, these changes would be hard to install on a very long, lightly populated road. But they might work on a subsection, perhaps a more heavily populated short stretch – if so, it would be best preceded by significant entry/exit structures such as a speed cushion (aka “hump”) or a chicane or an entry gate along with lighted signage.
More innovative, although already standard practice in Holland, are Advisory Shoulders on very low-volume (<6,000 ADT), narrow, two-way roads. Instead of a center line the road has two dotted side lines 4 to 6 or more feet from each side, preferably with “cat eyes” or other low-impact reflective inserts. Cars travel down the 13.5 to 16 feet wide center lane (although 10 to 18 feet is acceptable), going slow enough to watch for cars coming towards them at which point they each pull into the Advisory Shoulders to pass. The Advisory Shoulders are, by default, the place for walking and, more typically, bicycling. At the least, they can serve as an interim design while waiting for anticipated future road widening or other improvements. The new FHWA design manual includes guidance on such a facility, though an official “request for experimentation” is required.
Separated paths, Yield Roads, and Slow Streets all provide safer and more inviting accommodations for walkers, runners, parents with kids, and bicyclists. And Advisory Shoulders provide space for both walkers and cyclists although they are most safely used by the later. But, other than for exercising, the greater distances between typical destinations makes walking or even running less attractive in non-urban areas. Bicycling, perhaps using one of the still-evolving types of e-bikes, is a more probable long-term non-car alternative. The easiest and most conventional approach is to have a 4-foot-or-more-wide shoulder set off by a wide (>8 inches) reflective “edge line” (or two 4-inch solid white lines), and perhaps carefully constructed “rumble stripes” (6-8 inches long, 6-inch wide, <3/8-inch deep with regular yard long “bicycle gaps”). This design also requires that there is no parking on the shoulder, that the shoulder is paved, and that the Public Works department cleans and plows the shoulder along with the road center.
SCHOOLS AND OTHER FOCAL POINTS
Schools are another focal point of concentrated suburban and rural activity. To limit school-drop-off and pick-up congestion (and injuries – more children are hit by cars during school opening and closing times than in any other location or time), and to allow kids to arrive in the classroom having worked off their excess energy and ready to learn, every town should provide safe walking and bicycle routes for all students who live within a half-mile (for elementary) to a mile (for junior and senior high). A school that also serves as a community center for sports or adult education or other after-hours activity should have a surrounding mile of safe, non-car access facilities. At a minimum, school-front drop-offs and pick-ups should be restricted to the physically handicapped; everyone else could be directed to a covered and supervised drop-off point a quarter mile or so from the school. A Safe Routes To School program should be implemented in every building.
Suburban and rural areas are also studded with shopping malls and sometimes deformed with strip malls or large numbers of drive-through stores. The first step for all of these is reducing the expanse of curbless driveway along the main road. Entering and exiting cars should be required to use a limited number of well-placed curb cuts, with a traffic control signal if volume is large. Flex-post separated bike lanes and a well-maintained sidewalk change the tone and safety of these road sections. Large amounts of weather-protected, near-the-door bike parking along with covered bus/shuttle waiting areas (if any are available) are also important.
Road design is the foundation for improved mobility for all users. But having an active advocacy group is what overcomes the inevitable inertia that keeps municipal transportation officials repeating past patterns. And it is vital that advocates in small towns learn from each other, banding together to push state officials (and urban advocates) to take their special needs seriously. One size does not fit every lane.
Thanks to Phil Goff and Bob Wolf for ideas and feedback on earlier drafts.
* A booklet prepared by Alta Design: http://ruraldesignguide.com/
* A presentation by Alta New England Director Phil Goff: https://apd.app.box.com/s/zlq2f95e2ho2lb59jrpmg0zwy2f6latu/file/203602443980
* A pamphlet prepared by WalkBoston: http://www.walkboston.org/ruralwalking
* And the Concord Bike Committee’s site: https://drive.google.com/drive/folders/0B_cvg5cIxvgdMlV2OUV1eGthS00?usp=sharing
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