Thoughts on walkable cities

I’m a bit of a contradiction when it comes to pedestrian issues. I’m an avid walker, and hardly drive on a routine basis. I’ve been involved in pedestrian safety issues at a neighborhood and city levels, and consider myself pretty well versed in the research.

I also love to drive, often for the sheer joy of driving.

These two sides of my personality give me a particular set of biases in terms of what I look for in a pedestrian-friendly city. I’m very critical of the type of driver-hostile policies and engineering solutions sometimes proposed by the most intense safety advocates.

Charleston is somewhere in the middle of the pack when it comes to walkability. It’s not intentionally anti-pedestrian the way some of our cities are (I’m looking at you, Las Vegas) and it’s not so sprawling that walking is impractical (that’s you, LA). But it’s far from the top of the list – I’m spoiled living in the Twin Cities, but other great pedestrian cities I look to are Barcelona and DC.

There are a few things that make walking here a bit tricky. First, many intersections with traffic controls lack walk signals. Normally, I wouldn’t consider this an issue, but there are also a lot of one way streets here. Without walk signals, if you’re walking against traffic on a one way, you often have no way of knowing which direction has the right of way. That’s especially true here, as placement of traffic controls make them impossible to see from certain corners of one way intersections.

Another issue, related to the preponderance of one way streets, is a lack of signage visible to pedestrians. I’ve come across a number of intersections where there was no way as a pedestrian to tell which streets I was on.

I’ve seen very few bumpouts, crosswalks, or other engineering solutions designed to make crossing easier. Worse, there are a number of areas where the “sidewak” is level with the roadway, with no median. That makes it very intimidating – a wandering car or a jerk out to harass walkers can easily stray into your space.

Culturally, it seems like a mixed bag. Most drivers are relatively respectful of folks crossing the road, but I haven’t seen a single case of a driver stopping proactively to allow someone across. I had one incident involving a person in a Jeep who wanted to right turn on red intentionally threatening to run me over, to express their frustration with me (I was crossing with the signal). These sorts of things happen everywhere, but some cities (San Francisco) seem to strike a better unwritten agreement between pedestrians and drivers.

So, a mixed bag. It hasn’t stopped me from enjoying walking the city. And it could be worse. Could be Dallas.

1 thought on “Thoughts on walkable cities”

  1. You’re right: Dallas is horrible to walk in. So is Atlanta (downtown; I don’t know about the neighborhoods). It sounds like Charleston won’t be on “age-friendly cities” lists any time soon. My favorite walking city of them all: New York! I even walked about 10 blocks through Tribeca barefoot. I don’t recommend it but the sidewalks were clean (I put my heels on to cross the streets.)

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