Local leaders are always on the hunt for new tools and innovations that not only make communities function more efficiently, but provide residents with a more livable and walkable environment. Many of these upgrades start small with a few changes to existing infrastructure. The projects can eventually evolve into larger initiatives that leave a more permanent improvement on a community’s makeup.
Presented in The Imagining Livability Design Collection created by AARP Livable Communities and the Walkable and Livable Communities Institute, the following recommendations offer a list of short-term ideas to jump start a quality of life (QOL) improvement campaign in any municipality:
- Bicycle Lanes (including protected bike lanes)
When done well, bicycle lanes are six feet wide or more and marked with a white stripe. A protected bike lane (or cycle track) is an exclusive lane that is physically separated from motor vehicle traffic by bollards (short, vertical posts), parked cars or other barriers that provide elements of a separated space and an on-road bicycle pathway. Cycle tracks may be one-way or two-way paths that are placed at road level, at sidewalk level or at an intermediate level.
A chicane is a traffic safety treatment that slows vehicles by using landscaped curb extensions, planters, tree wells, bollards or other barriers to create short curves on a straight segment of roadway. For example, one form of a chicane is an S-shaped turn that is created by the placement of two closely sequenced curb extensions on opposite sides of the street. Because the result is a curved roadway that requires the driver to turn slightly left and then right again, the chicane helps reduce vehicle speeds.
- Crossing Islands
Also called a pedestrian refuge island or median island, a crossing island is a traffic-calming measure that’s used when a roadway is very wide or when no traffic light exists. The “island” provides pedestrians with a safe harbor after having navigated across one direction of traffic before taking on the next. This crossing island features a “Z” crossing, which helps ensure that pedestrians are looking in the direction of oncoming traffic as they prepare to step into the vehicle lane. By reducing the crossing distance, an island also increases pedestrian visibility and safety. Another benefit: Crossing islands can feature signage and attractive landscaping.
- Curb Extensions
A curb extension (sometimes called a “neckdown” or “bulb-out”) is a traffic-calming measure that’s primarily used to extend the sidewalk to the outside edge of the vehicle travel lane. Doing this reduces the distance a person must cross, which in turn increases pedestrian visibility and safety. Curb extensions are especially helpful to the most vulnerable roadway users, including children, older adults and people with disabilities. Curb extensions can also include landscaping, signs, seating and bicycle racks.
- Directions (or wayfinding)
Wayfinding is a term that describes the use of signs and connected walkways and bicycle routes to help travelers navigate through neighborhoods, towns and cities. Directional (or wayfinding) signage should be highly visible — preferably with a standardized, decorative color and style — and placed to guide users through a network of routes that connect destinations and neighborhoods.
- Head-Out Diagonal Parking
Parallel parking, in which parked vehicles line up single file flush and parallel to the side of the street, is a common parking configuration. An even safer approach is to convert to head-out diagonal parking, which allows a vehicle to back into a parking space at a slight angle so the front or “head” of the vehicle faces the street. In such a scenario people are protected from moving traffic when they get into or out of a car. Also, when leaving the spot, the driver’s visibility of the road is improved. Another bonus: Headout diagonal parking can yield more parking spaces than parallel parking.
- Lane Narrowing
Many traffic lanes are unnecessarily wide, which encourages high vehicle speeds and increases the chance and severity of collisions. Narrowing lanes from 12 or 15 feet wide to 10 or 11 feet wide encourages lower, safer vehicle speeds and increases safety for all users — especially for people who are walking and bicycling. The narrowing of lanes rarely disrupts the normal traffic flow, even for trucks and emergency vehicles.
- Parklets and Pocket Parks
A parklet is a small space that serves as an extension of the sidewalk, providing amenities and green space for neighborhood retail streets and commercial areas. A pocket park is a tiny park, often located within curb extensions or in alleyways, parking lots, empty building lots and other underused spaces that create places where people can rest, gather and socialize. Parklets and pocket parks both accommodate an unmet demand for public spaces and often have a distinctive design that incorporates seating, landscaping, bicycle parking, signage, play structures and even artwork.
- Pedestrian-Scaled Lighting
In many communities, lighting is installed on very high poles in order to light the street for the safety and visibility of motor vehicles. Pedestrian-scaled lighting illuminates sidewalks, bus stops, seating areas, paths and other walking and bicycling features.
- Rain Gardens
A rain garden or “bioswale” is a landscaped depression or hole that allows rainwater runoff from roofs, streets, driveways, sidewalks, trails, parking lots and compacted lawn areas to soak into the ground as opposed to flowing into storm drains and surface waters. Such landscape features help prevent erosion, water pollution, flooding and diminished groundwater quality.
- Safety Buffers
A buffer is a painted or physically separated area that provides a safety zone between people walking or bicycling and moving vehicles. For instance, a line of paint creating a 3-foot-wide gap on a road to the right of a bicycle lane creates a “door zone” between people on bicycles and the parked cars, thereby removing the threat of a bicyclist colliding with an opening car door. Other buffer examples include parked cars, bicycle lanes and crossing islands that act as protective buffers between pedestrians and passing vehicles. In the image at left a crossing island protects pedestrians who are crossing the street. A bicycle lane acts as a buffer for a driver getting into and out of a parked car. People walking on sidewalks are buffered by trees, parked cars, a bike lane and street furnishings such as benches and informational kiosks that are placed next to the sidewalk.
A sharrow is a shared-lane marking that’s placed in the middle of a travel lane to indicate that bicyclists are permitted to use the full lane. Such a marking helps establish a shared understanding between drivers and bicyclists that they can each use the lane, so they’d best keep an eye out for one another.
- Street Trees
In a neighborhood setting, street trees provide shade, safety, greenery, storm mitigation, energy savings, fresh air and a haven for songbirds and squirrels. Trees visually screen utility poles and concrete sidewalks, and they help to quiet street noise. Trees can be planted in (among other streetscape locations) tree wells, between sidewalks and streets and in curb extensions and refuge islands.
Editor’s Note: Updated July 26, 2019.
Learn about cycling safety trends and funding: