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Civil Engineer blog

Designing for pedestrians

19 September 2019

John Schoon examines the issues around pedestrian characteristics and practical design to see how people can be encouraged to walk more.

Designing for pedestrians
Image credit: Free-Photos/Pixabay

In the UK, the safety and convenience of walking has, except for some notable recent exceptions, decreased considerably. A tenfold increase in the motor vehicle fleet, the associated spreading of suburbs and proportional decline in public transport have all contributed to this decline.

Transport infrastructure is often based on the 1930s notions of motor vehicle convenience. Notably, the UK has the worst pedestrian death rate compared to all road deaths of Western European countries.

More dramatically, in the UK about 400 pedestrians are killed each year and another 4,500 seriously injured – equivalent to a jumbo jet crashing each year with all killed and another crashing each month with all seriously injured. A further nearly 15,000 are ‘slightly’ injured.

On a personal level, perceived dangers have resulted in more car use for transporting children to school and for recreation. Also, many disabled and elderly people are deterred from making essential visits to shops, accessing public transport, visiting medical facilities and meeting friends and making other vital social interactions – all essential to health, wellbeing and economic independence.

The need for more walking

As civil engineers are largely responsible for fixed transport infrastructure, perhaps we should be asking whether this safety record is acceptable.

Along with other disciplines, the need for a solid performance basis in our transport system is fundamental - as with any other realm of human activity. The need for greater independence from motorised travel is linked closely with issues ranging from climate change and urban design to legislative processes and access for disabled people – all involving engineering inputs to ensure optimum success.

Areas of concern

A wide variety of sources of information is available to engineers and others responsible for planning, implementing, maintaining and improving pedestrian facilities. The design and engineering guidance typically addressed by governmental agencies at national, county, and local levels may be influenced by professional organisations, and local, regional, and national interest groups.

Together with targeted research, various changes are evolving. Yet certain basic, possibly cultural, assumptions pervade the basic engineering approach to design.

One of the key aspects in this is that drivers are the key elements of actions to avoid collisions. Virtually no consideration is given to the fact that drivers are fallible so that designs should enable pedestrians to be in control of their own safety.

Possibly, this approach is exacerbated by the almost complete lack of coordination of advice given in the Highway Code with official design guidance.

One example of this is that in the design guidance for junctions, the designer is recommended to figuratively ‘drive through‘ the proposed design, yet no mention is made of the need for pedestrians to ‘walk through’ the design.

Engineering pedestrian facilities

Design of pedestrian facilities is not extensively taught in university engineering courses, and at best is usually considered an add-on to design of streets and highways.

The detailed, numerically defined, characteristics of drivers’ reaction times, acceleration and deceleration rates, and vehicle dimensions – all essential bases for drivers safety - are rarely, if at all, considered for pedestrians, yet are equally, if not more important for designing for the latter’s safety and convenience.

A consequence of this approach is that the engineering of pedestrian facilities, including that to accommodate disabled people in accordance with the Equality Act 2010, has serious deficiencies.

Current practice and the way ahead

Typical characteristics traditionally considered in designing for pedestrians include basic movement patterns, physical design features such as roundabouts, junction configuration, crossing features, signal timing, and interaction with other non-motorised users.

Continuing research and examination of current design assumptions, methods, and new approaches to pedestrian movement are currently being adopted. Among these are new and modified street configurations to reduce vehicle speeds and encourage pedestrian movement, combined pedestrian and bicycle routes, measurement methods to determine levels of service and auditing of new and existing facilities.

A number of significant movements, official recognition of interest groups promoting non-motorised transport and recognition of environmental issues are addressing key concerns.

One example is the Institution of Civil Engineers’ publication describing both theoretical and practical aspects and titled Pedestrian Facilities by John Schoon. This book is now in its second edition. Hopefully, it will contribute to the safety and convenience of walking and its associated benefits to individuals and to society at large.

  • Dr. John Schoon, Chartered Civil Engineer & Visiting Fellow, Transportation Research Group