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Paths or Sidewalks along Suburban Arterials

A trend I’m seeing more often is agencies whose high-speed arterial roadway design standard calls for the construction of a sidewalk on one side of the road and a path on the other side. The photo below is one such roadway, with a concrete sidewalk on the west side of the road (probably 5′-6′ wide) and an asphalt path on the east side of the road (probably 8′ wide). For the purposes of this discussion, we can assume that the only difference between sidewalks and paths is the width (6′ vs. 8′), and the materials they’re made out of (concrete vs. asphalt). The path is intended primarily for bikes (although it’s a shared-use path), and the sidewalk is intended primarily for pedestrians.

6' Concrete Sidewalk on left, 8' Asphalt Path on right

In most situations, this situation is not optimal because it requires cyclists and pedestrians to sort themselves onto opposite sides of the roadway. In practice, this doesn’t really happen. Cyclists and pedestrians tend to just use whichever facility happens to be more convenient. For example, in the photo above, if your trip origin and destination are both on the west side of the corridor, you’d have to cross the busy roadway twice to bike on the path rather than the sidewalk. Most people would just bike on the sidewalk, especially in cases where they are unlikely to encounter a pedestrian.

Paths work just as well as sidewalks for pedestrians in this context, but sidewalks don’t always do a great job for bikes. The extra 2′ of width and smoother ride of asphalt goes a long way to making cyclists feel more comfortable. The biggest benefit of an 8′ path over a 6′ sidewalk is that it allows users (bikes or peds) going in opposite directions to safely pass each other.

In these situations, I usually recommend that the client construct shared-use paths on both sides of the roadway. From a cost standpoint, it’s usually about a wash (if anything, the path tends to be a bit cheaper than the sidewalk). The path requires 2′ of additional width than the sidewalk, but (as in the photo shown above) space is often not a large constraint.

4 comments to Paths or Sidewalks along Suburban Arterials

  • I really resent these paths. If they were designed carefully, with proper intersection treatments (like the cycletracks you’ve blogged about previously), they could be really helpful. But I’ve never seen one that offers its riders more than a regular marked crosswalk, and even those are not universal. I’ve also never seen one that avoids making the paths cross at street level — so who cares how smooth the asphalt is, if you lose a spoke when you need to navigate curb ramps and gutters at each Walmart driveway or cul-de-sac entrance. Worst of all, the presence of these paths gives drivers cause to resent bicyclists on the road (even if, in absence of intersection treatments mentioned above, it’s much safer). I’ve blogged about my experience avoiding these paths in Lakeville and Apple Valley. (I wrote that a year or so ago, but in the twenty or so times I’ve ridden from Northfield to Minneapolis, I have never not been honked or yelled at for riding on the street.

    I also disagree about the materials. A new asphalt path is smoother than a typical sidewalk, but use of asphalt creates real maintenance issues. While a well-installed concrete walk can last 50 years, an asphalt path will need to be seal-coated at least every five years, and completely repaved every 10-15. We can barely get local governments to keep up with this maintenance cycle for cars — they certainly don’t do it for bikes and pedestrians (just look at some of the paths in Bloomington). The other maintenance issue that this creates is snow-clearing. Asphalt is very difficult to shovel, and an 8′-10′ path is a lot more burdensome for a homeowner than a 6′ concrete walk. Instead, these go mostly unplowed, with a limited number cleared. If they were maintained properly, the lifecycle cost of the asphalt would be much higher, especially with snow-clearing factored in.

    Unless local government is committed to plowing and maintaining this material — and sometimes it is, like the Minneapolis parkways — it should not be used. And if it must be used, it should receive the design care and attention of a true cycletrack.

  • Sean, thanks for the comment. I think a lot of cyclists resent corridors like this. I think most cyclists I know (including myself) wouldn’t mind if high-speed suburban arterials like this didn’t exist at all. Unfortunately, though, these roadways are becoming more prevalent, not less prevalent in suburban areas. It’s a worthy question to ask whether these roads should exist, but the context of this post is that 1) a suburban roadway agency has already determined that their building a 50 mph 4-lane divided roadway, 2) bike lanes are not an option because the agency does not feel that on-street lanes are appropriate on high-speed roads, 3) given these constraints, the agency would like my recommendation to accommodate bikes and peds. Given these constraints, what would your response be to the agency?

    I wrestle with this recommendation to clients all the time. On one hand, for all the reasons you mention in your first paragraph, I recognize that this is far from ideal. I recognize that I personally have very little desire to cycle in a context like this. On the other hand, the realistic alternative for most agencies building roads like this (typically counties) is not to build excellent danish-style cycle tracks, or even standard on-street bike lanes, it’s to build nothing. If the options are 1)typical sidepath or 2)nothing, I will recommend the sidepath nearly every time. If we hold out on building anything until we find an agency willing to jump head-first into danish cycletrack designs, we’ll be waiting a long time.

    That being said, I agree that there are certainly things we could do to greatly improve our standard sidepath designs, particularly our curb ramps.

  • Reuben:
    Yeah, I realize engineers like yourself are often constrained by fundamentally wrongheaded specs. This whole situation is messed up, because if you ask the county commissioner or city councilor who helped bring the project about why they need a 50-mph, 4-lane roadway, they’ll almost certainly tell you “the engineers told me so” (that it was more safe, more efficient, whatever). In my hometown of Northfield, engineering firm Bolton-Menk recommended a 2-lane, 22′-wide roadway be replaced with a ~90-ft wide divided roadway that would cut between residential developments. This project would be a “safety” enhancement, of course.

    Anyway, I digress. Back to the way you put it: if a 50 mph suburban mini-freeway is inevitable, here’s what I’d like to see:

    wide shoulders to accommodate those who do not wish to use the paths. This is fairly standard already, but there are some streets, like Dakota County 42 in eastern Apple Valley that have no shoulder at all, and volumes of traffic that make “taking the lane” unrealistic for even the boldest of cyclists.
    concrete shared-use paths — I simply do not trust local government to maintain the asphalt. I’m not an expert here, but it seems the bumpiness of concrete sidewalks is not inherent to the material. There are many concrete streets (for example, 77th/76th St from Penn to Cedar) that have very smooth control joints. Is there a reason this method could not be applied to sidewalks/paths?
    (at a minimum) zebra crosswalks at turning conflict points — preferably a more cycle-track-like marking, but zebra crosswalks, being the Mn/DOT standard, seem like they’d be relatively inoffensive to local government.
    Signage like this reminding vehicles at every right-turn point to keep an eye out. This is from Wisconsin, but there’s something very similar in the MnMUTCD.
    Automatic pedestrian signals at lights, at least for bikes/peds travelling along the major roadway. Even pedestrian-hostile S Cedar Ave in Apple Valley/Lakeville manages to achieve this.

    Am I too naive to think a local government could be talked into these?

  • Oh that was supposed to show up as an ordered list, but I guess your WP install cracks down on tags. Anyway, I realized that there is actually a decent example of a concrete shared-use path along Hiawatha Ave/TH 55 in Minneapolis. The control gaps here are inoffensive to bicycle tires. This still doesn’t have adequate treatment at intersections, but does an okay job for what it is. Bonus points for actually planting trees in the planting strips — it seems those are usually eliminated or moved to the outside of the sidewalk/trail, prioritizing the safety of vehicles crashing onto the sidewalk over the comfort and safety of pedestrians.

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