No Shortcuts on Road to Walkable Communities

No shortcuts on road to walkable communities
by Katie Jacobs

Photo by Paul Simpson

Signs and intersections like this make walking around the Centre Region an unfriendly and often dangerous endeavor.

College Township residents planning to attend the next council meeting should probably make arrangements to drive there. That’s because it’s illegal to walk across College Avenue at the intersection in front of the College Township Municipal Building.

The anti-pedestrian signs on College Avenue are just some of the many roadblocks that render the Centre Region unwalkable. For most residents, trips to school, work or the grocery store mean hopping in the car.

Nevertheless, steps are being taken to create more walker-friendly areas. Halfmoon Township is in the process of enacting high-density ordinances to save the area’s green spaces from sprawl and make developments more walkable.

There are several causes of suburban sprawl, according to the Association for the New Urbanism in Pennsylvania.

ANUPA calls "separation of uses" the number one cause. Grouping residential, shopping and work areas into separate "pods" makes it difficult to travel except by car. Oversized residential lots also contribute to the problem.

New urbanism is a development strategy created in response to suburban sprawl and the reliance on motor vehicles. New urbanism aims to make communities more livable and sustainable.

Organizations such as ANUPA and prioritize increasing walkability. Making a community walkable reduces problems associated with the dependence on motor vehicles, stimulates a sense of community and improves the community’s aesthetic appeal, according to ANUPA.

Increased walkability means increased sustainability. Current outward growth trends and the increasing demand for gas-based transportation are unsustainable. Eventually, space and fuel will be depleted.

The current dependence on cars and other motor vehicles threatens sustainability. Road systems result in massive traffic congestion. Since 1982, the time Americans spend in traffic has increased 236 percent, according to Motor vehicle accidents are responsible for more than 42,000 deaths in the United States each year.

More walkable communities require less motor vehicle use. This helps conserve fuel and reduce harmful pollution.

According to PennSCAPEs, a Web site developed by the Hamer Center for Community Design Assistance at Penn State’s School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture, walkability fosters socialization.

To improve walkability, the Web site says, houses should be built close to the street, with the main entry to the home facing the street. This reinforces the idea of the sidewalk and street as a public place. When people are closer together, they are more likely to socialize, which makes the community more familiar and comfortable for residents.

"Especially for people with kids, it’s nice to know your neighbors and have that sense of security," said Kelleann Foster, an associate professor of landscape architecture at Penn State. When people know their neighbors and feel comfortable, they’re more likely to choose walking as transportation, she said.

The best way to increase walkability is to increase density.

For a place to be considered within walking distance, it should be no more than a quarter-mile away, Foster said. A denser community makes it easier for people to walk and results in lower dependency on motor vehicles. A high-density community includes a variety of stores and restaurants within walking distance.

"Zoning and regulation play a huge role in creating a walkable community," Foster said. If regulation allows for bigger lots, it will result in bigger houses that are more spread out, Foster said.

Pedestrian safety is also an important factor.

"How safe a person feels is a major factor in an individual’s choice to walk," said Trish Meek, a transportation planner for the Centre Regional Planning Agency.

PennSCAPEs provides ways to make communities safer for pedestrians.

According to the Web site, wide streets allow cars to park on the sides and inhibit visibility for pedestrians, and wide intersections allow cars to take turns without slowing down and increase the chance of a pedestrian being hit. Narrower streets and intersections force cars to slow down and make streets safer for pedestrians.

An aesthetically pleasing community is also a more walkable community.

More aesthetic appeal may compel people to choose walking as a form of transportation, Foster said. Variation in house design along with trees lining the sidewalks makes the neighborhood more interesting to look at.

"People need something to walk to," Foster said. "There also needs to be something for pedestrians to look at."

PennSCAPEs focuses on the design of new communities, but Meek said existing communities can also be made more walkable.

"Communities can definitely be retrofitted to be walkable," Meek said. "In most cases, it requires infrastructure improvements and sometimes zoning changes that would allow fill-in development. But it can be done."

Developer John Imbt is planning to build an "urban village," similar to downtown State College, on 172 acres of land in Ferguson Township, next to Circleville Farm. The walkable village would include both residential and commercial space.

Halfmoon Township is nearing completion of high-density ordinances to preserve the area’s open spaces and make developments more walkable.

"We’re getting very close," said Halfmoon Township Supervisor Reed Moyer Moyer. "It’s been a long, arduous process."

walking and bicycling in College Twp

CollegeTwp. badly needs some investments in "walkability" that probably would cost not much money but would improve the situation described by Paul a lot.

Because of hills and streams there are some crucial roads that should be walkable. Branch Rd and Pike Str form a necessary connection of Lemont to east and west with no possibility of walking on parallel streets with less traffic, and yet they have shoulder of variable width, from adequate to none. Perhaps it would be hard to make Pike Str walkable because of the terrain, but a parallel alternative can be easily developed on the unused railroad track (that should be connected to side streets like Limerock Terrace), or along the bank of Spring Creek.  This is a non-trivial safety problem because Branch/Pike is twisty, has large traffic and quite a few joggers etc. 

Then there is a number of small ``missing links'' in most crucial plces. The sholder of College Avenue is liquidated next to township building for a stretch of 100 ft to make place for a lawn gracing the front of a gas station. After converting it to a sidewalk, one could convert the crossing illustrated here to a pedestrian crossing.

Another missing link is located at the end of a beatiful sidewalk in front of Macy's at Nittany Mall. The sidewalk ends with signs prohibiting further walking, so a pedestrian cannot legally walk from Nittany Mall to stores on the other side of Benner Pike. Again, extending the sidewalk in front of Barnes and Noble would allow for that connection. As it is, university students (and others) take CATA bus to Nittany Mall or WalMart/Barnes and Noble plaza with no legal possibility of walking between the two. Perhaps even some of the shoppers who drive there would prefer to walk rather then drive from store to store.

And these are not outlandish standards. Shopping centers near North Atherton are all connected with decent sidewalks and pedestrian crossings. College Twp. is the least walkable part of the Centre Region.



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