One of the great things about being in a rural town or city is the opportunities to enjoy walking, out in the woods, the bush, by a river, in the mountains, all at your doorstep. Unfortunately, many rural towns are poorly laid out for walking, and provide little or no sidewalk amenity, that walking can be difficult or even dangerous.

Sometimes it’s nice to be able to walk along a meandering country road, stopping to pick the blackberries growing by the side of the road, but equally, one thing that cities have got right is valuing sidewalks and footpaths as part of the streetscape, even enforcing the installation of them during subdivision of land. Most North Americans are more aware than ever before that they should probably be out doing more exercise, and that walking is a good form of low impact fitness training. When you sit at a desk or drive a truck all day, you need to get out for a walk at some stage.

Why Sidewalks?

Where there is a density of population, or even a common transport route between areas of residence and business, sidewalks should be considered to separate and protect pedestrians from vehicular traffic. Sidewalks shouldn’t be installed on every street, but foot and bicycle traffic routes should be identified early in the planning process and pathways installed to suit.

A recent article in the Chicago Tribune shows how many residents in rural feeling subdivisions don’t want sidewalks…

Sidewalks crack suburb tranquillity | Chicago Tribune

Although sidewalks are fine with many communities, adding them to existing neighborhoods can create a firestorm. In Western Springs, people have complained about the cost.

In Mokena, residents in an older part of town opposed sidewalks because they would ruin the rural feel. And in Northbrook, more than 170 homeowners have signed petitions against having sidewalks poured on their blocks after the town budgeted $6 million to add them in targeted areas across the village. Some say sidewalks could disturb trees and landscaping, and others fear who might come sauntering through their neighborhoods.

walkingThe article goes on to bemoan the various impacts of sidewalk on all aspects of life, and why lots of people are fighting against it. I love the arguments relating to fear, what’s with that? Do predators only walk on sidewalks? Are they more safety conscious than the average person?

The safety aspects can’t be ignored, especially on highly trafficked roads and highways. Through town, here in Castlegar, Columbia Avenue (Highway 22) has sidewalk on at least one side of the road for most of it’s length, but in those areas where it is only on one side, the other side of the road is downright dangerous to walk on, with residences fronting onto the highway.

Here’s a useful checklist for why we should be installing sidewalk…

PEDSAFE : recommended guidelines/priorities for sidewalks and walkways

Typically, communities should focus on:

  1. improving conditions for people who are currently walking (including improved accessibility to sidewalk facilities for pedestrians with disabilities),
  2. increasing levels of walking, and
  3. reducing the number of crashes involving pedestrians. Setting targets will help in the development of criteria for installing and retrofitting sidewalks.

The Engineering Side of Sidewalks

Sidewalks are generally constructed from concrete, and in some cases asphalt, they provide a smooth, easy cleaned surface for pedestrians of all ages and levels of mobility to navigate safely through an area. People with limited mobility, particularly those with walking difficulties, those that are wheelchair mobile only, and those with limited vision are able to use the public space of the road reserve in a manner that poses less risk or threat of injury when there are sidewalks installed. An interesting statistic is that 20% of the US population has a disability, and 30% of the population doesn’t drive (source Pedsafe). These people need suitable facilities to walk.

pedestrianSidewalks are often, but not always accompanied by curb and gutter. Several subdivisions I was involved in designing in Australia retained stormwater swales and culverts, no curb and gutter, and managed to include an extensive network of footpaths and bike paths. It just requires a bit of innovative thinking.

However, curb and gutter, or some type of concrete structure, an edge beam perhaps, will help define the road width better and protect the traveling surface from raveling and breaking apart. Roads with curb and gutter usually have less stormwater issues, with low points being drained by a system of catch basins and pipes. Many rural residential roads could be easily improved through the installation of defined drainage paths and well landscaped paths.

Many people think that because I’m a Civil Engineer, everything must be in straight lines, perpendicular or parallel, perfectly geometric circles to the fourth decimal place…

I got over that years ago.


Subdivision design is not about straight lines and perfectly geometric shapes, it’s about creating a sense of place, with a design that does work geometrically, (cause we do have codes and standards to meet), but also meets a standard of aesthetic that is usually found in the real of landscape architects, not engineers. Pathways and sidewalks are an easy part of the urban fabric to bend and twist to suit the site, sweeping around existing trees, winding through the road reserve corridor, adding interest to the urban realm.

The Sidewalk Solution

There is no one right answer to the how’s where’s and when’s of sidewalk installation.

Most new developments with a density of more that five lots to the hectare, (half acres lots) should have sidewalk at least on one side of the road. Existing developments without dedicated sidewalks should be considered for formalizing one side of the road right of way for walking. In Castlegar, BC where I live, many of the roads are without curb and gutter or even ditches, as the underlying material is so sandy that 95% of the runoff is easily infiltrated to groundwater. This makes installing concrete sidewalks difficult, but perhaps even gravel paths would suffice in many of these areas. Alternative surfaces can and should be investigated and raised as an option to the local municipality.

A community without walking paths is less likely to walk.

Resources: Pedsafe – US Department of Transportation

Published by Mike Thomas

Mike Thomas P.Eng. ENV SP, is the author of and Director of Engineering at the City of Revelstoke in the Interior of British Columbia, Canada.

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