Saturday, April 19, 2014

Setbacks, sidewalks and on-street parking: pedestrian space in cities

In order to build environments that are human-scaled and friendly to pedestrians, one of the first things we tend to favor is narrower streets. But the reality is that proximity is desirable to shorten walking distances, but not the only thing that matters. 

Here is an example of two narrow streets, one in Québec city, the other in Bruxelles.
Narrow street in Québec city
Street in Bruxelles

So, these two streets are really narrow, but how do they feel to you if you were asked to walk there? For me, these are pretty terrible places to walk, and not a place where I would want to hang around. In fact, they feel very claustrophobic to me. So what's the problem here? They are narrow streets after all, like we often ask for.

So what is it that makes someplace comfortable for pedestrians? Is it simply the space from building-to-building, the wider it is, the better it is? Let's take an example, very wide street with a lot of space between buildings.
Phoenix residential street
Iowa commercial avenue: very wide space between buildings, terrible walking environment
Okay, so that's not it either. This is even worse than the previous two. So what's the deal here?

I think that the main factor here is width, but not street width, it's the width of the pedestrian corridor and pedestrian-friendly areas.

In the two first cases, this corridor is extremely narrow, it's essentially two sidewalks of about 1,2 meter (4 feet), stuck between walls and parked cars. The parked cars are important here, some urbanists like them for the fact that they make a barrier protecting pedestrians from moving cars, but they forget that they serve another purpose: they make a barrier to pedestrians, telling them to keep to the sidewalks, that on the other side, only cars are allowed. In other words, they represent a permanent claim cars have made on the street, they represent a frontier between "car space" and "pedestrian space". You will also often notice a propensity of cyclists to bike in the pedestrian space unless there are clear counter-indications (like bike lanes) in the presence of long lines of parked cars.

These streets were likely fine prior to the car, but once they arrived in great number, 75% of the street were given exclusively to cars, transforming comfortable walking areas into tiny corridors where it's hard to walk two across, stuck between the walls of the buildings on one side and a wall of cars on the other.

What would they have looked like had cars not taken over the street permanently through on-street parking? Probably a bit like this:

Québec City street in the touristic area, no sidewalk, cars are allowed to pass through but not park
 Or even like this:
Street of Takayama

Street of Tokyo
In the Japanese case, the walking corridor is very wide because there are no sidewalk nor parked cars to indicate to pedestrians that they don't belong there. So despite buildings being very close to one another, even closer than in Bruxelles and Québec city, it's still a comfortable place to walk because to pedestrians, their corridor is extremely wide as there is no place off-limits to them.

Another aspect to consider is what is next to the pedestrian on the outside. Just like the presence of parking lots incite car drivers to drive faster even if the street they are on is narrow as they feel that the area just outside the street is still part of their corridor, the presence of lawns, porches and semi-private areas is beneficial for pedestrians, who consider these areas as part of the pedestrian corridor, or at least as a pedestrian-friendly area.

In the first two cases, Québec City and Bruxelles, there is no such area, the sidewalk ends with the walls of the houses, and the proximity between pedestrians and the private area inside homes means that windows will likely be permanently shuttered, because who wants passer-bys to be able to see you inside your home? So people will take steps to protect their privacy by transforming the facade of their homes, despite the door and the windows, into blank walls.

Now here is an example of places with setbacks:
Plateau-Mont-Royal, Montréal
The case of the Plateau-Mont-Royal is interesting because of the setbacks of the buildings to the sidewalk. To save space, builders took the stairs to upper-floor apartments outside, characteristic of Montréal buildings (and copied afterwards in other cities in Québec). The setback also provides some privacy without shuttering windows and allows for the building of porches and balconies, which most Montréal walk-ups have. Note also how big the sidewalks are. They are maybe about 3 meter-wide at their widest (10 feet), so wide they planted trees on them.

For pedestrians, this front yard, though it is private property, is still somewhat welcoming to them because it is an human-friendly area. There may also be interactions between people in these areas and the pedestrians on the street. Which helps make streets living areas instead of just places of transit from one place to another. Note also that in commercial areas, if the facade of the buildings are windows and allow people to look into stores and restaurants, then these private areas are still considered human-friendly.

Here is a more recent street in Montréal that is a modified version of the Plateau, losing much of its attractiveness:
Lasalle, Montréal, many of the same characteristics as the Plateau, but much worse for pedestrians
So you have 2-3 story buildings like on the Plateau. On-street parking is still very present, exterior stairs and balconies too. Yet, this is far from as pedestrian-friendly. The major problems here are that:

1- The sidewalks have been made much narrower in comparison to the Plateau, reducing the pedestrian corridor
2- A lot of the setback is used by driveways leading to garages, which is not an human-friendly buffer zone
3- The street has been made much wider
4- There are no trees

So if you want to build narrow streets and dense neighborhoods, on-street parking is not recommended, but shared streets are. If there is a lot of space between buildings, on-street parking is tolerable as long as you make sure that pedestrians have wide enough corridors. Adding some pedestrian-friendly buffer through a setback isn't bad either. And trees, trees make everything better for pedestrians.

So, because I like schematic visuals, here is what these all look like, to scale:

What you want is to maximize the green space. Then, to make sure that as much of the rest of the area is yellow, to reduce the red to a minimum.

This also reveals an issue with the typical suburban model of a single-family detached home with a driveway in front. The regular one with a very wide house is not much of a problem. Well, the density is atrocious and no one is going to walk anywhere because there is no place reachable by walking, but otherwise the walking environment is not necessarily bad. But if we try to densify these areas by making lots narrower, we come to a big problem:
Note we are losing the yellow space, the pedestrian-friendly buffer, replacing it with pedestrian-hostile driveways and garages? We're making the area less and less pedestrian-friendly as we densify. That's probably why New Urbanists want to remove driveways to the alleyway. The alternative is to make driveways smaller or less intrusive, like the Japanese do, to make the driveway seem to be part of the front yard.


  1. One possibly you haven't considered is to have shared space in the middle and allow cars to park on the side, at the very edge of the right of way, possibly right next to the buildings if there is no setback. I'm thinking like in many old Italian towns (but old towns elsewhere can be similar too), you'll have the whole street from building to building paved with uniform stone, and then bicycles, motorcycles/scooters and cars parked at the side.

    It means that much of the street can be used by pedestrians, possibly even all of it if on-street parking isn't utilized much. It also helps for privacy, since parked cars are empty 99.9% of the time and the pedestrians in the centre of the street would be further from the house windows. Of course you could have rules to prevent parked cars from blocking doors and shop windows, and maybe tall vehicles like small delivery trucks from blocking light to house windows?

    You would also want to make sure the street is traffic calmed so sharing it is not an issue. Ideally low traffic volumes so pedestrians don't constantly have to move out of the way for cars. Cobblestones (or stone/brick paving in general) help at discouraging through traffic and making sure any traffic that exists is slow. Having narrow streets helps too. Reversible one ways can help to discourage through traffic (though not so much speed).

    In the suburb I lived in as a teenager, which was low density (about 110x130ft lots), the streets were relatively narrow by North American standards (20-25ft paved) with no sidewalks on the side streets and on street parking (during the day only). Basically on street parking wasn't used much since there was a lot of off-street parking (long driveways, 1-2 car garages). The side streets had little traffic, and it was usually relatively slow (30-40km/h) so you often had kids playing on the street, people walking and biking down them, even sometimes letting dogs off leash on them a bit (if the owners were with them).

  2. The suburb I lived in as a child (pre-teenage years) was denser, lots of townhouses, which means narrow lots (20ft?) and being a Canadian suburb, you of course had to have a driveway. However, I feel it wasn't too bad, because a lot of the time you had car-ports instead of "snout" garages. The homes often had entrances from the car port (which you could see through the car port) and unlike snout garages the car ports didn't hide the windows from sight when viewed diagonally.

    I also remember that as a kid, we'd often use the front yards and driveways of our neighbours as one large playing area, especially when they weren't separated by barriers (just grass and asphalt at the same level). I notice that with Lasalle, it's different because the stairs block the driveways off from each other.

    The steep slope of the driveway might limit the types of games that can be played on them too. We played basketball, tag, jump-rope, four-square, chalk drawing and crazy-bones (90s fad) most often (and in snowbanks), sometimes also street-hockey. Adults weren't seen out front much though, just one couple of friendly neighbours that combined their two narrow adjacent lawns into a shared yard (where other neighbours also occasionally hung out with them) and a gear head who was often working on his car in his driveway, and occasionally another guy blaring music in his jeep.

    I feel like if you check out the suburbs of Bangkok, they have a good chunk of the homes' frontage for driveways/carports, but it still doesn't feel soulless, so maybe that's a good example of how to do dense suburbs with off-street parking.

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