A Solution for Suburbs: Bypass the Roads

tigardtrails.jpgA map of a neighborhood in Tigard, Oregon. Some of the proposed new trails are marked in blue.

The demand for walkable neighborhoods is up, but in order to fill that demand, we’re going to have to transform our suburbs. How that might be accomplished was one of the most vexing issues discussed at last week’s Walk21 Conference.

Suburban layouts aren’t about connectivity; they’re about space, with lots of separated roads and cul-de-sacs, and few direct routes from one place to another. But the folks at Kittelson & Associates, a transportation planning firm, have one suggestion: bypass roads entirely. That’s what they’re doing in Tigard, Oregon.

Tigard is a pretty typical Oregon suburb: It’s about 10 miles from downtown Portland, it’s 11.5 square miles, and about 47,000 people live there. That low density gave Kittelson and officials from the Oregon DOT the chance to connect areas of town by building trails that bypass roundabout suburban street design, allowing residents to easily walk or bike around their city, and get direct access to their neighbors, local businesses, and city parks. The idea came organically: For years, residents had carved out their own informal "desire paths" to get around. The Tigard Neighborhood Trails Project is meant to make existing trails safer, and to build new ones to form a better overall network.

On top of gathering community input at formal town meetings, Kittelson and ODOT also put together a website where residents could draw and comment on new trails on a Google Map, as well as point out existing informal ones. Jamie Parks, a planner on the project, said that the web interactivity made it so that far more members of the community had input into the project and, hopefully, will use the trails when they are completed.

The plan is done, and Tigard has begun implementing each trail, so it’ll take some time to see how well this idea works out. Still, this could be a great way make disconnected suburban street networks much more walkable. It’s a relatively cheap way too — a network of 42 trails is set to cost approximately $1 million.

  • An intriguing glimpse of the future.

  • James

    The big barriers with this are the cost to secure the easements from the property owners where the trails will run and the fear that the bypasses will attract the “riff raff”. In homogeneous suburban Oregon, it’s probably easier to implement a project like this than it would be in, say, Nassau County. NIMBYs have even shut down or at least negatively impacted the route of proposed MUPs even in pretty well off places – IIRC, a proposed rail trail on Boston’s wealthy South Shore was absolutely skewered by paranoid suburbanites not too long ago.

  • Brooklyn

    Trail security also struck me as a potential divider for support. From the limited Tigard streets available in Google streetview, connecting pedestrian trails seems a good idea — relatively dense housing and nothing under tree cover — the trail would be obvious and out in the open. In other, more exurban development paradigms like “manors in the woods,” for example, the trail might literally disappear into the brush. It would only take one abduction/disappearance/homicide event to rile up the milk-carton crowd about this.

  • rex

    There is interesting bias to the security argument: The only way to police bad people that are self-propelled, is with good people in cars.

  • Just putting in trails isn’t enough IMO, there need to be reasons to use them. You don’t have the density in these suburban neighborhoods to get enough users on these trails. Suburban roads are desolate enough… imagine trying to walk one of these trails at night.

    I always thought it would be a cool idea to try and buy foreclosed properties that form these sorts of connectors and put a row of stores there. Not only do you get the connections but you get mixed use neighborhoods and reasons to use these connections all in one shot.

    I’d also still think they need to be open to cars (of course with generous sidewalks). Getting more people on these roads creates a virtuous cycle in encouraging even more use.

  • rah

    I grew up in the Baltimore suburb of Columbia, a 60s-era experiment by the developer James (Jim) Rouse in the creation of a “planned urban community,” which for all intents and purposes is a suburban community. However, one fundamental element of Rouse’s planning process involved including a network of bike paths throughout the city that were intended to link pedestrians and bicyclists to “village centers” comprised of interfaith worship space, community centers and commercial space. When I was a kid (I’m 30 now) I used the bike paths to safely get around, mostly to go to school and the community pool. I didn’t realize how unusual the paths were until I left for college.

    Anyway, the paths described above pretty much sum up the paths put into place some 40+ years ago in Columbia. There, the paths are spotted with heavily used public playgrounds, referred to locally as “tot lots,” and are still in widespread use by walkers, from what I can tell.

  • Colorado suburbs have been doing this for a while. You may remember Highlands Ranch from the PBS special a couple months ago. Its still suburban hell, but at least kids can bike to their neighbors without braving the arterials. You can see this well on google maps-


  • Mark31

    Pedestrian and bike connections are a common feature of modern cul-de-sac estates in Australia.

    They’re not that great. They’re sometimes used for recreation, or to get to a bus stop on the main road, but mostly they’re not used at all, because they don’t take you anywhere useful. When you do get through to a main road, the pedestrian experience is not very appealling.

    Land use is the biggest problem you have to solve. To access shops and services, and especially employment people pretty much need to use their cars in these places. Primary schools are usually accessible by walking though.

    It’s a vicious circle, because the less people that use the paths, the less appealling they are.

    An interesting recent paper in this regard is “School Travel Modes: Factors Influencing Parental Choice in Four Brisbane Schools”.

    The respectable middle-class suburb (Forest Lake) with the urban form described above, where 70% of children were driven to school (not the highest of the four), the reasons for not allowing children to walk were ‘Might be assaulted’, 48%, ‘Might be hit by car’, 29%, ‘Might be bullied’, 14%. Only 7% said it was too far too walk.

    Pedestrian connectivity is just a titchy part of the problem you have to solve.

  • geografree

    I’m with Charley. Unless there’s some compelling reason to link these cul-de-sacs- what’s the point? Perhaps there are some destinations along SW Gaarde St that are worth connecting to, but that would remove the utility of about half of those blue lines. (put $500k into something else).

  • Mark

    Yes, the connections are probably the best way to “fix” these unconnected suburban roads but there still needs to be a compelling reason to walk. Shopping, movies, and employment need to be reasonably close to housing and that will take much longer to fix.

  • Similar to Rah’s comment (#6), I grew up in Kingwood, Texas, “the livable forest,” and it too had trails connecting all the neighborhoods and schools. It was a great connector through the large forest swaths and a shortcut to get to your friends’ homes. For children, it’s the number one reason to live in Kingwood (oh, and every neighborhood has a pool!).

    See the map on Kingwood’s website (just like the map above):

  • Tim

    From what I can tell from the above picture and the Tigard Neighborhood website, many of these “desire paths” cross through private property.

    If this is the case, how on earth are these “desire paths” remotely feasible from a political perspective? I understand that the govt can seize private property through eminent domain. But it’s hard enough to build a new road this way. A bike/walking path – forget it.

    From a purely tactical perspective, I cannot think of anything that would set the liveable mvmt back more than lobbying to build a bike path through someone’s private property, i.e. their living room/vegetable garden. It would create a huge firestorm, and really stoke up the other side.

    Does anyone truly believe that we should argue in favor seizing private land to build bike lanes?

  • Tim – Iuno mang, looks to me like almost all the blue lines skirt the subdivisions, and use the ‘greenbelts’ between them.

    (Greenbelts are the late 20th century’s response to our utter loss of faith in built environments. Rather than sculpt parks, we leave stuff fallow – it’s the safest way to avoid screwing it up.)

  • Larry Kooper

    Reston, VA has a trail network like the one planned for Tigard.

  • Patrick Mc

    Clearly it would be better to have started with a more connected street network, but retrofitting full streets between cul-de-sac neighborhoods would encounter far more opposition than small paths that could accommodate bicyclists and pedestrians.

    As for the demand, it’s going to be greater when there are routes to schools, retail, park space, or employment served by the connections, but simply shortening the distance between existing residential locations can make it easier for children with friends nearby and create greater neighborhood cohesion.

    Maybe with the current housing crisis local governments could buy up appropriate vacant/forclosed properties, build connector paths, add a permanent easement, and then sell the property.

    The best part about this is that community members are actively involved by identifying valuable connections and then the engineers & local jurisdictions can determine feasibility, cost, and other factors.

    While we can do better when designing neighborhoods from scratch, this type of retrofit may be the best option available for the many disconnected suburban communities built over the past 50-60 years and I expect it will be common in the near future.

  • KristenT

    I live in the area of the sample map on this article.

    These trails link neighborhoods to other neighborhoods using greenspaces– around Gaarde, that means the ravine where the creek runs, and the riparian zones around the creek and its tributaries.

    There are no other destinations here; these are for people walking their dogs, or jogging/walking for exercise, or kids walking to their friends’ houses.

    Never mind that there is a middle school 1 mile away that the kids in these neighborhoods can’t even walk to, because there are no sidewalks, paths, crosswalks, or shoulders on 121st, the next “connector” street (to the East) over from Gaarde that separates these neighborhoods from that school.

    I’m all for connectivity, but it’s pretty sad when the City decides to spend a wad of cash on trails instead of bringing 121st up to the 21st century’s standards of transportation– and the same for Walnut, which runs right past the school. No shoulders, no bike lanes, no sidewalks… yep, it’s a sad state of affairs in this neck of the woods.

    Gaarde, by the way, is signed as 35mph (which means everyone drives 40+)– it does have sidewalks and bike lanes, and this particular section shown is called by local cyclists “The Wall” because that’s what it looks like: VERY steep. No way to cross this street, either, unless you walk to Walnut on one side (off the top of the picture) or 121st (further off the picture to the right and down), where there are traffic signals and crosswalks.

    That’s not very good connectivity.

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