Choosing streets to walk

business on a two-way, two-lane street (Capitol at 18th)
business on a two-way, two-lane street (Capitol at 18th)

I walk a lot in midtown, going to and from various destinations such as the train station, nonprofits and agencies I work with, grocery stores, theatres, farmers markets, breweries, etc. I was thinking last night as I walked to and from Capital Stage about what streets I choose to walk on.

Almost all the time I choose to walk on two-way, two-lane streets. I rarely choose to walk on the multi-lane streets and the one-way streets, except for short distances as I zigzag to my destination. The two-way, two-lane streets are usually quieter, less traffic and traffic moving more slowly. I can relax more with the quiet, and I can look around more, paying more attention to everything around me and not just traffic.

Why is this significant?

As I walk, I am always looking at the businesses I pass, and I not infrequently discover new businesses that I’d like to check out, right then or later. Since I don’t walk on the busier streets, I’m not seeing those businesses located on the busier streets. Some of the businesses on the busy streets are no doubt there because they were there before the streets became so busy, perhaps even before the streets were made into high volume one-way traffic sewers. Other businesses have probably located there because they saw all the traffic and thought it would be a good place to do business. But I doubt they are good places for business. Most of the motor vehicle traffic is just moving through, going from somewhere else to somewhere else, and not stopping to frequent the businesses. I think it is in part the walkers and bicyclists who are keeping these establishments viable.

traffic, yet, business, not so much (J St east near 10th)
traffic, yet, business, not so much (J St east near 10th)

Other cities have completed both surveys and counts on the mode mix on various streets with retail. In urban areas, there are almost always more pedestrians, bicyclists and transit users than the business owners thought, in some cases way more. I’m not aware that any such studies have been done in Sacramento, but I can’t imagine midtown is much different from other cities that have a fairly high level of transit, walkability, and bikeability in their urban cores.

Fortunately, this is a pretty easy problem to solve. The one-way streets can be made into two-way streets, and the multi-lane streets can be made into traffic calmed, or right-sized, two-lane streets. I’ve written about this before, in a series of posts. The city is certainly not unaware of the benefits. Several streets have been traffic calmed, but progress is very slow, and it seems as though one-way to two-way conversion is not under active consideration, though it was at one time.

When streets are traffic calmed, right of way is freed up for other uses. Where sidewalks are too narrow, I believe that widened sidewalks are the highest and best use. Bike lanes or protected bike lanes, and parking are other possible uses. Though we rarely need to add parking, I think we need to be very careful about eliminating it. That would  remove the traffic calming effect of parked cars, and lose the chance for creative conversion of some parking spaces to bike parking, bike share parking, and parklets.

Note about the photos: I picked two photos which illustrate the end points. It is certainly possible to find two-way, two-lane streets that are not successful for businesses, and conversely one-way and multi-lane streets that are successful, but nevertheless I think the pattern holds. Street design is just one of the factors that influence the success of business, but it is an important one to keep in mind.

When I’m bicycling, I use somewhat different criteria for selecting streets, and I’ll write about that in the future.

Author: Dan Allison

Dan Allison is a Safe Routes to School Coordinator in the Sacramento area. Dan dances and backpacks, as much as possible.

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