Bus Rapid Transit Series: The Importance of a Good Walking Environment

2 Sep

Walk Diamonds

The importance of walking access to the stations along Omaha’s first BRT route is self-evident since nearly everyone who uses the transit service is expected to walk either from wherever they start their trip to a station to get on the vehicle, from a station to their ultimate destination after the transit trip, or both. In order to best support people in their use of BRT and to take full advantage of the fairly substantial public investment in the project, every effort should be made to shape the environments directly surrounding the stations into places hospitable to walking. At a minimum, it would be great to see sidewalks that are smooth and wide enough to support the safe and comfortable movement by people walking or in wheelchairs, and streets that are easy to cross with marked crosswalks and ample time built into the traffic signal phasing for crossing. Dodge Street, home to our BRT route, is pretty wide, and passengers coming and going from all but two stations will need to negotiate crossing it.

The vast concrete expanses that pedestrians must currently negotiate at the intersection of 72nd and Dodge, the approximate location for one of the BRT stations, are emblematic of the conditions near many of the proposed stations. The crosswalk in the photo has faded nearly to the point of invisibility.

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Ultimately though, the walkability of an area is dependent on more factors than components like sidewalks and crosswalks. Land use patterns and street connectivity play an even larger role in determining the likelihood of people walking for transportation. In short, buildings need to be close together and there need to be clear paths for people to get where they want to go.

A helpful tool in delineating the most critical areas to focus on the walk environment is the five-minute walking diamond, which is basically a back-of-the-envelope look at how far a person could walk from one point in five minutes traveling only along the streets (i.e., not cutting across lawns or parking lots). This equates to 0.25 miles walking at 3 mph. The BRT should attract passengers from further away than a five-minute walk, but this area is most likely to supply passengers, and thus, it is the area most deserving of attention. (You can also use a 10-minute diamond.)

The figure immediately below shows the BRT route in blue with the five-minute walking diamonds at the 42nd and 50th Streets stations. 50th Street is on the left. (The station locations are approximate.) Building outlines appear in light gray. From a connectivity standpoint, it doesn’t get much better than Dundee’s grid. A person walking can access quite a few potential destinations by sidewalk. If the sidewalks are in decent shape, pedestrians can easily travel to and from locations around this station. Of course, the development density could be a little higher in the area immediately surrounding the station.

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Most of the stations from Midtown Crossing to downtown also show decent connectivity in their surrounding blocks. Looking at downtown on the right side of the image, you will also notice that most of the blocks near the stations are densely filled with buildings – plenty of potential origins and destinations for travelers. Unfortunately, the freeway and its surrounding land uses cut through a significant portion of the grid.

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The stations at 72nd, 84th, and 90th Streets, visible below, paint a bleaker picture. They reveal a real lack of connectivity and less-than-ideal concentrations of buildings. The poor street connectivity near 90th and Dodge Streets means that some houses well within a quarter mile of the intersection are not within a five-minute walk of it, at least along city streets and sidewalks.

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In addition, the location of buildings on their lots is not conducive to walking. The bird’s eye view of an office park below is the area just northwest of 90th and Dodge Streets. The parking lots, haphazard placement of buildings, and lack of pedestrian facilities makes it an uncomfortable place to walk, limiting the potential for the area to contribute to BRT ridership as much as we might want it to.

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The issues raised above are fairly substantial. How can we address them? Many cities have taken the approach of crafting small-area plans for the areas immediately surrounding the stations of their premium transit service. The goal is to foster transit-oriented development (TOD) of exactly the nature that can best support transit. Key features include relatively high density, a mix of commercial and residential uses (at least along the corridor, not necessarily at each stop), fewer parking lots since the whole idea is for people to use transit, and building and streetscape elements designed to make walking and bicycling as safe and comfortable as possible. Examples include active first floors with many windows, bicycle facilities, and connected sidewalks.

According to the ITDP best practices, a corridor that supports pedestrian access is critical to the success of a BRT system:

“A BRT system could be extremely well-designed and functioning but if passengers cannot access it safely, it cannot achieve its goals. Good pedestrian access is imperative in BRT system design. Additionally, as a new BRT system is a good opportunity for street and public-space redesign, existing pedestrian environments along the corridor should be improved.”

The City of Omaha should take on this type of planning to ensure our BRT lives up to its potential for high ridership. This type of holistic systems-level thinking is the way a transit project can have the power to change the way we live our lives in this city.

6 Responses to “Bus Rapid Transit Series: The Importance of a Good Walking Environment”

  1. Terry September 3, 2015 at 10:01 am #

    Excellent and informative! Walking in Omaha, outside of residential neighborhoods and places like the Old Market and Dundee, is a miserable experience. I would also encourage planting grass and trees along the paths to bus stations – have you ever tried to walk along 72nd or Dodge Streets near that intersection in the middle of summer? It’s a death march.

  2. dirk September 3, 2015 at 1:48 pm #

    all sounds good but very pricey, any thoughts as to how we might get tax money to pay for such improvements given our current mayor and all?

    • modeshiftomaha September 3, 2015 at 2:18 pm #

      It’s more about having the City set up a framework for future development than going in there to rebuild everything. It’s a slow process to remake an area, but it wouldn’t cost the City much beyond the time put into planning.

      • dirk September 7, 2015 at 3:15 pm #

        it would have to cost substantially more than time/planning, either the money would have to be shifted from other projects or added to the budget, no?
        in terms of the short-term what would be the most useful/powerful change to make given our current climate of austerity politics?

  3. AChittenden September 3, 2015 at 2:46 pm #

    I like what Terry has to say about trees. As someone who’s come through a diagnosis of melanoma, which diametrically altered my relationship to the outdoors and summer sunshine, I now actively seek shaded spots and tree cover when out and about. This consideration could also be considered in the design of the stations of course. With that, Terry’s adding a good point to this discussion.

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