December 3, 2014

Creating A Culture of Activity Blog

In This Post: Safe and Inviting Streets

Introduction: I had planned to post the 2014 Active Towns Initiative Report and What’s New For 2015 – A Preview in our blog post today, but this topic started trending this morning and I felt compelled to say a few things. I will be sure to follow up with the promised report and preview in the coming days. And now, onto the topic at hand…

Are Our Streets Killing Us? We Need Safe and Inviting Streets

This morning, Charles Marohn, a friend from Brainerd, MN and the founder of the Strong Towns movement published a blog post titled Just Another Pedestrian Killed.

I encourage you to pause now, please read his important post at this time and then come on back here when you are done. 

musical_note_3_clip_art_12287 whistling during the intermission musical_note_3_clip_art_12287

Welcome back… Tragic, right?

I could not agree with Chuck more on this account and here is what I said on Facebook when I shared his post on my personal page:

Building our streets to highway standards in urban environments in an effort to prioritize motor vehicle speed has proven to be deadly: it kills pedestrians, cyclists, businesses, prosperity, quality of life and yes it even kills a heck of a lot of motor vehicle drivers, with a high percentage of the 32,000+ lives lost each year because of this engineering/design approach…

First of all, my thoughts go out to the family so tragically impacted by this needless and preventable crash. Unfortunately their plight drew into sharp focus and reinforced how needlessly dangerous our urban streets have become due to poor land use patterns and a traffic engineering design approach which prioritizes motor vehicle speed and a false sense of safety, for the driver, that is.

The connection that this “engineering and design challenge” with regards to the Active Towns theme is pretty obvious: When our streets, which are arguably our largest and most prominent public places, as the space between our city’s buildings, become hostile, danger zones they have little chance of serving as inviting activity assets for the community.

Before diving further into the discussion, let me first define what I mean when I say “activity assets”. At Active Towns we view an Activity Asset as a built or natural environment feature or facility which helps to facilitate and encourage healthy physical activity, whether it be for utilitarian, recreational or wellbeing purposes. A good example is the Boulder Creek Trail in Boulder, CO, and is actually part of a vast network of trails and on-road facilities, which connects the city to a pleasant natural environment and serves as a useful commuter route for cyclists and pedestrians, as well as a great place to go for a little exercise or mental health break.

So yes, I am implying here that our streets can and should be considered as potential Activity Assets. Let’s start with the visual that Chuck used of the “stroad” in front of the library. 


Not familiar with the term “Stroad”? Here’s how it is defined on the Strong Towns website:

“A STROAD is a street/road hybrid and, besides being a very dangerous environment (yes, it is ridiculously dangerous to mix high speed highway geometric design with pedestrians, bikers and turning traffic), they are enormously expensive to build and, ultimately, financially unproductive.”

I would even go so far as to say this is a “Complete Stroad” as it features a bike lane/shoulder and what appears to be a minimally acceptable, standard width sidewalk, even on both sides, wow!

Would this “Complete” facility be consider as safe and welcoming environment for all users based on all modes of travel, ages and abilities? Not even close. Would you want your 12 year old daughter biking along this corridor with her friends? I hope not, at least not with its current design.

When I look at this photo and ponder on the tragedy that took place, it occurs to me that, in addition to the “challenged” urban street design, the setting or land use pattern has contributed, as is common, to the problem at hand. This family was trying to make their way to the surface parking lot across the “stroad”. Pause to let that sink in. A surface parking lot, which has a long history of prompting the motor vehicle driving patrons of the library to logically “jay walk” at this dangerous mid-block location.

Now, imagine if you will, the parking lot is replaced by a wonderful block of 2-3 story mixed use retail and residential buildings matching the older, more charming architecture in the area and… here it comes, wait for it… street parking. Yep street parking and lot’s of it, priced so that 85% is occupied at any given time. What better way to slow cars down than a bunch of parked cars and vastly narrower lanes or better yet, no lanes at all.

What the heck, since we’re hanging in the Imagine-Nation, visualize what it would be like if this street was not viewed primarily as a transportation corridor, but as a space for people, a place where motor vehicle drivers were still allowed and welcomed, but were prompted and encouraged to proceed at with great caution at speeds considered safe for everyone. And yes, in this fantasy land the penalties for causing danger or harm to more vulnerable users of the public realm would be severe.

In certain urban settings, especially those where there is a desire promote intensity, vitality and prosperity, Shared Space should be considered as a viable strategy to creating an inviting and invigorating environment.

Not familiar with Shared Space? Here’s a quick primer from a recent USA Streets Blog post and it includes a must see 4 minute video.

Image of Pittsburgh, PA from the USA.StreetsBlog article above

What makes this approach truly shine is continuous low speed flow through an entire connected urban area that is inherently at a walkable and bike-able scale. To learn more about Shared Space I encourage everyone to check out the work of Ben Hamilton-Baillie from the UK. I had the chance to hear his presentation at CNU 22 in Buffalo this past year and it had a profound impact on my view of this strategy as a potential solution to creating more inviting and invigorating environments: Active Towns.

Also, you may enjoy listening to the two Strong Towns podcasts featuring Ben. They are quite educational and entertaining.

Links to these podcasts and other shared space resources provided below.

Later this evening I will be attending my first public meeting since making the move to Austin, TX. The topic on hand: a transportation study of the Guadalupe St corridor known as “The Drag” to enhance mobility, safety and quality of life in the area. Hmmm… sounds pretty relevant to me.

In conclusion, our streets need not be the hideous danger zones that they have become. They can transform into valued and cherished Activity Assets, safe and welcoming places, which support and encourage physical activity, in addition to serving as a platform to creating prosperity and social cohesion.

A primary theme here is that the purpose of the urban street is in desperate need of being redefined and in fact, in making a triumphant return to its original and historic definition as a place for the people. Once this concept is embraced, through community engagement and a multi-disciplinary approach, as a real possibility, the process of visualizing the street in a fresh “new” way, once again, can truly start.

Shared Space is a viable strategy to seriously consider when the environment calls for the mixing of pedestrians, cyclists and motor vehicle drivers. 

Image of Limited Access Shared Space in Vail Village ~ Vail, CO – An Active Towns’ photo

If prevailing speeds of motor vehicles are to exceed 20 mph in urban environments where you have ample real estate and resources, then by all means protected, segregated space must be provided for cyclists and pedestrians and their safety and movement should still be prioritized over that of motor vehicles. This would understandably be a more more expensive and potentially more difficult approach… and the topic of a future Active Towns blog post.

Links for More Information: Ben Hamilton-Baillie:

StrongTowns Podcast: episodes: 179 and 196 featuring BHB

BHB at CNU22:

Poynton regenerated video, a must see:

City of Austin, Guadalupe St Public Meeting:

What Do You Think? We Encourage You Join In On The Conversation and Get Involved

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Thank you for helping create and support Active Towns everywhere! 

johns signature blue

John D Simmerman, MS
Co-Founder, President & CEO
Advocates for Healthy Communities, Inc.
Actives Towns Initiative