Raleigh's Pedestrian Rebound

Recently ranked one of America's most dangerous places for walkers, the city has a new plan to do something about it.

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City of Raleigh

Who says city rankings don't matter? In 2009, the think tank Transportation for America released a report called "Dangerous by Design" [PDF], ranking the least pedestrian-friendly metro areas in the country. Raleigh, North Carolina, placed sixth—as in sixth most dangerous. News stations reported the story with video of a father hustling his daughter across a major arterial that lacks a crosswalk.

"That was a bit of an eye opener," says Fleming El-Amin, a transportation planner with the city. "From that we said, maybe there's something we needed to do about this."

That something ended up becoming a draft Comprehensive Pedestrian Plan released by the city in October. Raleigh's planning department concluded a public comment period in mid-November, which followed hundreds of survey responses gathered from the community over the past few years, and will release the final plan as early as next week. El-Amin, who is the project manager, expects it to go to the city for adoption in January.

"Some folks would walk if they had the opportunity, but there's no opportunity," he says.

The current plan might be described as part physical and part psychological. The physical element involves the creation of new sidewalks — the plan identifies 212 miles of potential additions — as well as a new GIS-based prioritization system that ranks sidewalk projects on both "need" and "demand." It also emphasizes crossing improvements and provides a dozen best-practice design templates for use at intersections across the city.

Ideally these improvements will occur in tandem at various locations. The intersection of New Bern Avenue and Trawick Road, one of six "example locations" included in the draft plan, is characterized by poor crossing facilities, long crosses, disconnected sidewalks, and heavy traffic. The proposed improvements call for sidewalk links, pedestrian refuge islands, higher visibility stripes, and slip lanes to slow turning cars:

The psychological component involves convincing drivers to be more observant, and tolerant, of pedestrians. To do that, Raleigh has partnered with a state pedestrian-awareness program called Watch for Me, NC. El-Amin says local police will cooperate on heightened enforcement.

The plan also leaves open the possibility of expanding the popular guerrilla wayfinding effort known as Walk Raleigh. Earlier this year city officials had to remove the Walk Raleigh signs, which informed people the time it took to reach certain destinations on foot, because the law prevents them from being displayed as traffic signs. El-Amin says many of the signs have been relocated to places like utility poles for legal compliance.

"We thought it was great," says El-Amin of Walk Raleigh. "What that does is for folks that don't have a concept of how long it takes to walk, particularly places in our downtown, that serves as a really good guide."

The plan is one of several efforts toward sustainable city living being pursued by metro Raleigh, along with a 2009 bike plan and a new ordinance that encourages mixed-use development — all of which feed into a comprehensive 2030 land-use plan.

As for measuring success, the city doesn't have a new target ranking pegged for the next Transportation for America pedestrian danger report. (Raleigh already improved to 13th worst in the 2011 version [PDF].) Generally, says El-Amin, officials expect the city's share of walking commuters to rise, and the number of crashes involving pedestrians to drop, and a more pedestrian-friendly mindset to take hold over time.

"I think generally there's more cities and towns and counties in the mind-frame that streets are not just for cars," he says. "I think when we really make a shift, either statewide or nationally, to think about every street as a complete street, it'll be more at the forefront to look at pedestrian mobility and connectivity more holistically and comprehensively."

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