In the book, Walkable City, Jeff Speck states that “the cities with the smallest blocks are the ones best known for walkability, while those with the largest blocks are known as places without street life….” While there’s certainly more involved in getting people out walking than just block size (There has to be somewhere within a reasonable distance to walk to.), it does make sense that if a walking route isn’t direct, it’s far less likely people will use it.
I think it’s fair to say that the area around College and Mountain sees more pedestrian activity than any other part of Fort Collins. The triangle (where the streets run at a 45 degree angle to the compass points) has pedestrian activity all day, every day, all year round. There are other parts of town, on the other hand, that probably don’t see more than a couple of pedestrians a week… if that.
The Downtown Historic District is full of art, trees, interesting buildings and not only wide sidewalks, but also Old Town Square and Oak Street Plaza which give pedestrians places to stroll, explore, or just sit. The area feels like a public living room. Other parts of town? Not so much. But while all of these amenities create a richer pedestrian experience, if it still took you a dogs age to get from one place to another, then these amenities wouldn’t make enough of a difference to create a pedestrianized zone. (The Chapungu Sculpture Park at Centerra has wonderful pedestrian amenities, but the purpose of the park is recreational. It’s not a useful means of getting from one place to another.)
So having places to get to is important. And having a pleasant walk is important. But if routes are limited and circuitous, then even if there are places to go and it’s a beautiful walk, people will still probably hop in their cars. People want both safety and convenience. And smaller block sizes contribute to both of those things to the pedestrian experience.
So how big ARE our sidewalks here in Fort Collins? I decided to pick out a couple square miles of city on Google Maps, and trace the streets to see what each part of town looked like in terms of the walkability of block size.
Each image is in proportion to every other image here. Though they’re not exactly one mile by one mile, they’re pretty close. Major arterial roads are just outside the periphery of each square.
In the images shown just above and below, the blocks appear smaller than they actually are because the alleys have also been drawn in. Alleys add a level of porosity, so they’re certainly worth noting. Each block is about 400-500 feet long on a side.
According to Jeff Speck, “The preindustrial neighborhoods of downtown Boston and lower Manhattan, like their European counterparts, have blocks that average less than two hundred feet long…. The most walkable grids, like Philadelphia’s and San Francisco’s, have blocks that average less than four hundred feet in length.” Given that Old Town blocks are just a bit more than 400 feet per side, that should mean that Old Town is fairly walkable. And if you’ve ever walked it, it is indeed pretty easy to get to where you’re going. There are a variety of routes you can take which provides interest as well as enables a person to easily change routes if there are unforeseen obstacles.
There are two irrigation ditches that run through Campus West, which divides neighborhoods and apartment complexes from one another. Most of the large blocks of space are taken up with apartment buildings and their attendant parking lots.
Due to the large student population in this area, there are a lot of pedestrians and bicyclists. Though pedestrians may not be walking all the way from Taft to campus, they’re often at least walking to a bus stop. And campus isn’t the only common student destination. Many students and neighbors also walk or bike to the King Soopers and other shops located at the intersection of Elizabeth and Taft.
But the configuration of the streets and the size of the blocks forces many people to travel along Elizabeth, which puts pedestrians in proximity with fast moving motor vehicles. Unlike in Old Town, you can’t just head north or south by one block to take an alternate route. There are two alternate routes (Springfield Drive to the south of Elizabeth and Birch-Crestmore-Orchard to the north), but they’re a substantial distance away for those on foot. These streets were created with cars in mind, not people.
Neighborhoods built after World War II tend to be particular bad in terms of connecting neighbors to each other, let alone to nearby amenities. Imagine that you live where the letter A is in the square above. The folks living over at the letter B are really close as the crow flies. In Old Town, these houses would probably be just over a block from each other. But imagine trying to walk from A to B in the above scenario. You’d be forced to go way out of your way. Rather than walking, it’s likely that you’d just hop in your car and drive over.
The configuration of the streets in the Brown Farm area creates distance rather than minimizing it. Even the main connector streets through this neighborhood, Stuart Street and Hampshire Road, are windy and indirect.
As we think about creating a city that’s more walkable, we need to be finding creative solutions for parts of town like this. Stores, restaurants, and other amenities can be added to the area, but if the streets are such that they add distance to a walk, then people will continue to use their cars. The City may need to consider buying up the right of way to some slivers of people’s side yards in order to build pedestrian trails between houses to better connect the neighborhood with itself.
Edit: City Council member Ross Cuniff pointed out on Facebook that there is a walking path that connects point A to point B in the Brown Farm neighborhood, which is great news! It leads to another question, though. How do we help make people aware that these trails exist (especially if they’re unimproved dirt paths that aren’t shown on any city map)? Immediate neighbors may know about the trail, but folks who otherwise might wish to cut through the neighborhood rather than stick to arterials when biking or walking might have no idea it’s there.
Here’s an image of the trail from Google Maps.
This square is particularly interesting because of the bike trails that can be seen drawn in the thinner white lines above. So even though the blocks aren’t particularly conducive to walking due to their size, the trails help to make some important walking connections (primarily to open space, the high school, and one megachurch). Inserting such trails can increase bicycle and pedestrian activity while still maximizing the distance that motorists have to drive. This could incentivize walking and biking over driving if there are nearby amenities such as shops, cafes, and restaurants that residents want to reach.
Here’s another example of streets creating distance rather than reducing it. Houses A and B are about one Old Town block away from each other. But for a resident to get from one to the other would require nearly a mile long walk.
Some neighborhoods not only have the disadvantage of poor planning in terms of how streets are laid out, but there are also additional barriers to walkability, such as a rail line dividing the area and blocking permeability. Oakridge Village and Harmony Crossing residents have created pedestrian crossing areas over the train tracks which the train company has tried to undo by piling mounds of dirt around the tracks to make crossing harder. Clearly people want to be able to travel east to west in this area. The train is an important part of our local economy, but under- and over-passes are needed to keep it from being a social barrier. And to the extent that people are blocked from accessing local businesses because of the train line, it can also have a negative impact on our local economy.
According to Jeff Speck, “no single variable [has been found] to be more predictive of injury and death than block size. … All told, a doubling of block size correspond[s] with a tripling of fatalities.” Block size matters. It can either draw people out onto the streets to walk to local destinations, or it can push people into their cars, which makes the area just that much more dangerous for those choosing to walk and exacerbates congestion problems on the streets.
Fort Collins has already been built out in a way that favors cars over pedestrians. But fixes are possible. The City should be considering ways to make our community more walkable by inserting pedestrian trails in places where they do not exist but are sorely needed. With both City Plan and our local Transportation Plan on the docket for a rewrite, now is the time to address the issue of walkability throughout the entirety of Fort Collins.