On the lack of importance of footway clutter

Ever notice how cluttered footpaths can be? This can cause serious issues but a lot of this clutter is necessary. Guest writer Craig Stansfield asks what if the solution is rethinking how our roads are laid out in the first place.

This article was written by guest poster Craig Stansfield.

Footways are important things. Those little strips of pedestrian space at the sides of the road, that we often call “pavements” and our American friends “sidewalks” are vital. They let us walk or use wheelchairs and other important mobility aids safe from all the cars, trucks and vans, and they are so necessary for safe and convenient urban walking.

Emptied rubbish bins and recycling bins block the footway on Knights Road in Lower Hut. Image credit: Craig Stansfield

Imagine if they weren’t there and any time that you wanted to walk somewhere, you had to take your chances amid all the speeding vehicles. Only the foolhardy and the desperate would choose to walk in a city without footways.

And we need many more people walking for many more of their journeys if we’re to create a genuinely sustainable city.

To do their job for us, they need to be free from clutter right? It’s so annoying if you’re constantly having to dodge around all that stuff on the footway: rubbish bags, bins, bikes, scooters, telephone poles, lampposts, signposts, you name it, it’s you versus the clutter, the endless junk on our streets.

If we want to encourage people to walk, all that stuff needs to be got out of the way. Shouldn’t we put at least some of this stuff on the road?

Well, not in my opinion, no. Or at least, I think that we’re looking at the problem the wrong way.

Necessary things

Most of the clutter on our footways is made up of useful and often essential things.

If we don’t have lampposts, we generally don’t have streetlights, and then we have dark, forbidding streets that discourage walking after dark or in winter. If we don’t have street trees, we have exposed, shadeless streets that are measurably hotter, dustier and more polluted. If we don’t have plentiful seating on our streets, we exclude a significant proportion of people who can walk, but only if they can sit and rest when they need to, and we deprive them of the independence that moving on your own initiative gives you.

Seats, bus shelters, cycle stands, rubbish and recycling bins, traffic signs, telegraph poles, lampposts and streetlights, street trees and rain gardens: they can be annoying when you’re endlessly trying to get around them, but they have a purpose, and we often can’t do without them.

A wide variety of street furniture can take up significant amounts of the limited space on the footway. Credit image: Craig Stansfield

Yes, OK, you probably don’t disagree, at least with most of these examples of “clutter”. But can’t these things just go on the road, and stay out of pedestrians’ way? We want pedestrian-friendly streets, don’t we?

Well, yes, lots of these things can be re-sited onto the road. But my point is that this debate about whether any particular thing can or should be on the footway vs the carriageway (the central bit of the road that is available to vehicles) is unproductive and a distraction.

It comes from an assumption that the way that most of our streets are laid out now is normal, or even optimal.

Most New Zealand streets have footways of about 2 metres in width, and many are narrower than this. On a 2-metre footway, I agree, everything other than the people is clutter and has got to go.

But why are our footways so narrow? Do they have to be? What if they were wider? And by wider, I don’t mean 2½ metres wide, or 3 metres, or even 3½ metres, I mean at least 6 metres wide.

Crazy talk? Well, only if your starting point is that footways are those narrow strips at the sides of the road, with the majority of the width in the middle being devoted to vehicles, and that is just how streets are.

A prescription of thirds

In her seminal work The Death and Life of Great American Cities, the late great Jane Jacobs noted that “city sidewalks … serve many purposes besides carrying pedestrians. These uses are bound up with circulation but are not identical with it and in their own right they are at least as basic as circulation to the proper workings of cities” (Jane Jacobs, 1961, p. 29).

At sunset on a Manhattan street, the sun’s rays are visible along the line of the street, producing the effect called Manhattanhenge. Image credit: d26b73

Jacobs observed that sidewalks of up to 35 feet (10.7 metres) in width were needed to serve these proper workings of cities, but also noted that 20-foot (6.1-metre) sidewalks could function adequately for most (although not all) of their needed uses (p. 87).

Jacobs’s recommendations were given in the context of North American cities, such as New York City with its Commissioners’ Plan, 60-foot-wide streets and 100-foot-wide avenues. On 60-foot streets, Jacobs’s recommended 20-foot sidewalks represent a third of the width (a 20-foot sidewalk, a 20-foot carriageway, and a 20-foot sidewalk).

It is true, Jacobs was very clear that her observations related solely to great cities (of millions of people) and not to little cities like Wellington; her observations shouldn’t be taken as “guides as to what goes on in towns, or little cities, or in suburbs which are still suburban” (p. 16).

Nevertheless, in respect of her “prescription of thirds” for street layouts, I think it beneficially applies anywhere that is (a) urban and (b) wanting to maximize its street life.

The quarter-acre paradise

a photograph of Glenn Road in Kelburn, looking up the street from the centre of the road, showing the extent of the road given over to vehicles
Glenn Road, Kelburn is a classic example of a typical New Zealand 1-chain road. Image credit: Craig Stansfield

Colonial New Zealand’s original urban areas were commonly designed on the basis of streets 1 chain (66 feet/20.1168 metres) in width. The archetypal Kiwi quarter-acre section is a 1-chain street frontage by 2½ chains in depth.

Applying Jacobs’s “prescription of thirds” to a 1-chain street would give us a 6.7-metre footway, a 6.7-metre carriageway, and another 6.7-metre footway. A 6.7-metre carriageway is more than wide enough for buses and trucks to pass each other comfortably.

Of course, here I’m referring to the road reserve width. And in hilly Wellington, the road’s constructed width is often less than its legal width and the earthworks needed to construct a road to its legal 1-chain width would sometimes be substantial and undesirable.

Equally, however, in other places, there is scope to provide wider footways within the existing road reserve without major earthworks.

The point is not the exact width, but the normalization of streets where two-thirds of the space is used for the footways, not for the carriageway.

a photograph of Central Terrace in Alicetown, showing the width of the road and the narrowness of the footway
Central Terrace, Alicetown: a typical 1-chain road that is more than 70% carriageway. Image credit: Craig Stansfield

Appeals to tradition

Among many logical fallacies, philosophers talk of argumenta ad antiquitatem, appeals to tradition or to common practice (i.e. “this is the right way to do this because this is how we’ve always done it”). Let us not fall into this trap with our street design.

We commonly give 70% or more of the width of our streets over to the carriageway. With the speed and weight of modern motor vehicles, other road users are bullied out of using this space, leaving us to fight over who gets to use the scraps left over on the sides.

We don’t have to do this. Our footways don’t have to be the scraps. They can be wider. Not a bit wider, but much, much wider.

a photograph of Te Niho Park showing the paving and planting and its relationship to the carriageway of Victoria Street
Te Niho Park (Victoria Street, Te Aro): not actually a park, just a footway of a decent width. Image credit: Craig Stansfield.

Let’s put our carriageways on diets. If we do this, our footways have plenty of room for all of those good things that we need on our streets— not as clutter, as assets.

It’s true, the street furniture still needs to be organized, usually in a zone along the kerb, so that there is an unobstructed walking route (particularly for pedestrians who are blind or have low vision). And we can and should do that.

But let’s take back that width. Let’s normalize streets that have proper footways, that each take their full third of the street’s width, and let’s reap the benefits rather than letting ourselves be distracted by “clutter” that very often needs to be there.

Further resources

3 comments on “On the lack of importance of footway clutter”

  • James Barber says:

    Having spent a long time reading another Wellington discussion blog finding this one has been a real breath of fresh air and interesting ideas. Thank you.

    • Editor Isabella says:

      Cheers James! Glad you like what you see. Have a cruise through the earlier posts, too – we’ve been going for a few years now and there’s a rich catalogue

  • Patrick Morgan says:

    Great post. Despite what some would have you believe, there’s never been a golden age where footpaths were 100 percent dedicated to foot traffic.
    It’s common to see posts, wheelie bins, seats, trees, bike racks, pets, art, stalls, kids on bikes and scooters, sandwich boards, parked vehicles, and other bits and pieces on the path.
    I agree we can and should rethink street designs to fit the modern age.

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