Designing for Both the Car and Pedestrian


In the rare moment that the Minneapolis weather allows and I have the time, I ride my bicycle instead of driving. I’m not one of those people who have a $4,000 bike wearing Lance Armstrong clothing, I ride slow and leisurely. I’ll admit, most don’t go slow and are fast bikers. If I want to go fast on a bike I have a Buell Motorcycle that is a whole lot quicker on two wheels than a bicycle. I’d rather get the exercise on my bike. This city is known to be one of the most walkable and bikeable cities in the nation.

Yet it’s no secret that pedestrian deaths have skyrocketed in this town. By pedestrian deaths, that also includes those that ride bicycles.

I live on 26th Street, a minor collector street which curves at my lot. The area that contains the bike lane is wider, but wider streets also encourage speeding, so cars coming from the west are typically driving faster than the 30 MPH limit, and if not paying attention or distracted, can easily misjudge the curve. On a regular basis we see cars wander into the bike lane. I have a choice when leaving my driveway, use the bike lane and take my chances, or use the sidewalk across the street to the next block, where the lane ends. After that, for a long distance, 26th Street is a narrow two-way street with short blocks, an occasional stop sign, and no bike lane. It does have a sidewalk on one side of the street. Long straight streets encourage speeding, but the multiple stop signs help keep traffic somewhat in line.

Minnesota law does NOT prevent biking on sidewalks (unless specifically posted), and I’d be first to admit that riding anything fast on a sidewalk with pedestrians is dangerous – the keyword is fast. We respectfully slow down to a crawl when we must pass a pedestrian on the walk – in a very safe and friendly manner. I could choose to be another statistic in the skyrocketing deaths (or with a permanent injury) and ride in 26th Street.

Last year, when slowly about to pass a 50ish woman jogging on the sidewalk, she stepped right in front of me with her hands crossed and told me to get off her ‘f#$king sidewalk’ and use the street. I was speechless. She said it’s illegal to use the sidewalk and I must use the street, intermixing ‘f#$ker’ and ‘asshole’ as she spoke. I could not even think of a good response but must have muttered something as I went around her waiting for the attack from behind, which never came.

When there is a dedicated bike path far away from a street, we of course use it. It’s far away from the danger of two-ton vehicles undoubtedly moving at a speed somewhat higher than posted or intended. That said, in many cases those bike lanes are one way and not going our intended direction, so the choice is – ride in the street and take chances or use the sidewalk and be safe. Guess which one I’m using? The sidewalk that I’m legally allowed to use, and which seems to be an issue with many pedestrians.

This past Sunday morning I rode to Uptown and was on the east side of Lake Calhoun. Wanting to head home, I had three choices.

A. Use the one-way bike path and go three miles out of my way.
B. Go on the narrow street that curves and take my chances.
C. Use my legal right to be safe and use the sidewalk.

I chose the sidewalk. A 50ish gent was walking his dog, so I passed at walking speed and he stepped in front and said: ‘You motherf#$ker, it’s illegal to ride in my sidewalk and get your f#$king ass on the street’. I said in fact it is legal for me to be on the walk and I’m not going in the street to be hit by a car. This exchange quickly deteriorated to something you’d expect in an upscale neighborhood of entitled and misinformed pedestrians.

This is a big city – with associated big problems.

Since you are reading this in New Geography, you have already read points and counter-points on the attempts of social engineering that seek to rid the world of cars which apparently caused the evil sprawl. In the imaginary world of social engineering planners intermix people and vehicles in as close proximity as possible to slow down the traffic, thus inconveniencing the car driver to the point where they might instead walk, bike, or better yet take the bus. The real world unfortunately has collateral damage from this intentional assault on cars – innocent pedestrians who are being hurt because of the close proximity of cars and pedestrians on urban streets. I do not intend to be in this group and will continue to ride my bike on sidewalks where safety is a concern. I would do that even if it were illegal. If I was a speedy Lance Armstrong wannabe I’d certainly be in the street.

What’s the answer? Nothing easy.

One option is to buy a car with pedestrian detection and automatic braking that works up to 40+MPH. I lease a Chevy Cruise Hatchback specifically because it was represented by the dealer as having that feature when I ordered it. After owning it a week, I tried testing to see if the car would automatically brake – it did not. Seems the sales lady at Village Chevrolet did not quite know her product. Next time I’ll demand a demonstration before signing the lease. I can’t change the city I live in nor the fact that when it was designed well over a century ago, cars were slow moving vehicles of which a family had just one of them.

We live in a different world today than when this city was designed.

The neighborhoods we design at our shop separate the pedestrian and vehicular systems – guaranteeing safer places to live and pass through. It would be impossible to redesign existing cities that way unless we could start over such as bulldozing large blighted areas by starting over.
The neighborhoods we design today can take years or decades to mature. We have written many articles about separating these systems and have no idea how many adopt what we have put in the public. Reducing or eliminating conflicts between cars and pedestrians (bikers also) would have a drastic impact on safety but would go opposite of the social engineering planners.
By having far fewer intersections and pulling walks away from the corner we can reduce possible impacts and allow pedestrians to be seen. In existing urban higher density cities we can design open meandering park-like streetscapes that separate people and vehicles as far away as possible. Wider walks can handle pedestrians and slow bike traffic that would lead to even wider main trails that cut through the site in common open spaces – far away from vehicular traffic.

We can (and should) make better choices and upgrade our vehicles to have an extra layer of safety with the latest technology and will surely become standard equipment as the seat belts are today. Even the new Mustang can be ordered with pedestrian detection - with night vision!

In my opinion, those planners who intentionally place people and vehicles in close proximity to foster change in some effort to stop sprawl should be held responsible when those design decisions take a life or cause great injury. We have to place our priorities not on any particular urban form but the safety of residents who live in the city.

Rick Harrison is President of Rick Harrison Site Design Studio and Neighborhood Innovations, LLC. He is author of Prefurbia: Reinventing The Suburbs From Disdainable To Sustainable and creator of LandMentor. His websites are and

Photo: Via