The Making of an Unwalkable Street Intersection

By Dom Nozzi

January 15, 2005

In community town centers, the pedestrian is the design imperative. Everything else comes second.

A grievous example of how this can (and often is) disregarded is a case that I was involved with as a town planner in Gainesville Florida.

In this case, we had a project proposed that was at the northwest gateway of the most walkable, pedestrian-friendly neighborhood in north central Florida.

But the old bugaboo raised its fearsome, tiresome head in this case. North Main Street and North 16th Avenue – where this project was located — is considered a “failed” intersection (for cars, that is). As I mention often in speeches I give, the “failed road” is a common, inflammatory term used by carbarians to have their way when they seek a bigger road or intersection.

Who could be against “fixing” a “failed road”? People are dying! Right?

So in this case, we had the spectacle of City and County “planners” and engineers (who have probably never walked to a store in their lives) DEMANDING that this proposed gas station provide the “amenity” of “fixing” this “failed” intersection by widening that stretch of North Main from 4 lanes to 5. Not only were they ignoring the endlessly stated double-left-turn-lane-intersection-bouldertruism that we cannot build our way out of congestion. They also overlooked the stunning, ironic fact that by widening this intersection from 4 lanes to 5, it would become a failed intersection FOR PEDESTRIANS.

In the most walkable neighborhood in the area.

As an aside, part of the spectacle I observed repeatedly in this community was how often we had non-pedestrians and non-bicyclists design pedestrian and bicycle facilities. Is it any wonder that so few people walk or bicycle? Or that our pedestrian and bike facilities have so many design flaws?

Above is an example of a failed intersection design (for the forgotten pedestrian) in Boulder CO.

I find it enormously illuminating that while we have precise, mathematical, well-known ways to determine when a road or intersection is to be called “failed” when it comes to cars, we have no equivalent way to know when a road or intersection is to be called “failed” when it comes to pedestrians.

Why is that? Is it perhaps that most of us are never pedestrians for significant trips and therefore always forget that there are, in fact, pedestrians in the community?

Note that, of course, this 16th and Main intersection is ALREADY a failed intersection for pedestrians. Unlike with cars — where “failure” refers to a situation where a large number of cars are delayed for a brief time — a failed intersection for pedestrians occurs, in my opinion, when (1) there are no pedestrians using the intersection; and (2) the intersection is too dangerous for anyone but the most capable and quick to cross on foot.

In this case, city and county staff were DEMANDING that this intersection become even MORE of a failure for pedestrians.

So much for the pedestrian as the design imperative. So much for this being a community with a walkable, prideful sense of place.

One of the main aspects of my outrage is that the gas station designers found that it was very costly for them to give up eight feet of their property to install a turn lane at the intersection. They agreed with my point that by far, it would be preferable to improve the intersection by taking Main Street from 8th Avenue to 16th Avenue from 4 lanes to 3 (and have turn pockets along the way).

The street would become more permeable, safer, livable, and efficient. And more likely to promote healthy retail and residential development along the corridor.

But they were stopped in their tracks when they learned, recently, that county staff OPPOSED taking this portion of Main Street from 4 lanes to 3. I had heard that the obstacle to doing this in the recent past was that Publix was foolishly objecting (incorrectly believing that such a diet would reduce car-carrying capacity).

Does county staff not understand that such a diet would not reduce capacity, or does it assume that since they’ve heard that Publix is opposed that it is therefore a non-starter to recommend it?

Why would city and county staff, who do not live near this walkable neighborhood, go against the wishes of the neighborhood? Why are they instead calling for the further degradation of the neighborhood perimeter?

Why do the “escape route” interests of outlying suburbanites outweigh the community-building, community-enhancing wishes of such a neighborhood?

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