Step one to a healthier community

Ron Williams, P.E., City Engineer, City of Sunset Hills, Missouri

Angelika Adams, P.E., Project Manager, Burns & McDonnell, St. Louis, Missouri

Not a week goes by these days, it seems, without another study reminding us about America's expanding waistline.

One of the latest arrows slung in the war on obesity, however, hits a little closer to home for many of us who live in the suburbs. New research shows that we weigh, on average, six pounds more than our urban counterparts.

One of the primary reasons for the weight disparity, according to the research, is that people in the suburbs have fewer opportunities to walk—and fewer sidewalks to walk upon. To get to the grocery store or bank or just about anywhere else, we need to take our cars.

There is change in the air, however, as planners in established communities throughout the country recognize the benefits of creating more "walkable communities."

Health considerations, incidentally, are only one of the motivations behind this trend. By encouraging pedestrian and bicycle traffic, communities can also help reduce traffic congestion, strengthen neighborhoods, and make their areas more appealing to people of all ages and abilities.

In recent years, in fact, the federal government has been increasingly receptive to pedestrian concerns. The federal TEA-21 and Clean Air Act funding both contain provisions for local infrastructure enhancement projects that prioritize pedestrian and bicycle environments in their capital improvements programs.

Public agencies have also developed more pedestrian-friendly policies, often in response to worsening traffic congestion.

At one end of the continuum are those like the City of Portland, Oregon, which has created a master plan that includes multiple-year studies, extensive public opinion gathering events and book-size reports.

These larger communities' plans typically begin with demographic studies and needs analyses. They outline pedestrian network recommendations, public and private development and zoning guidelines, and facility design criteria. They go on to detail traffic calming and traffic operations guidelines, accessibility and connectivity guidelines, and implementation and funding suggestions.

But let's face it. Not every public agency has a budget—or even a need—for such comprehensive studies. Many communities are discovering that pedestrian master planning can be completed on a smaller scale, too. The City of Sunset Hills, Missouri, is one such community.

Investing in a Pedestrian Master Plan
Incorporated in 1957, Sunset Hills is relatively young, as suburbs go. Located in southwestern St. Louis County, Sunset Hills has a population of approximately 8,300. Within the city limits are three state-owned, multi-lane arterials and several city-owned, two-lane minor arterials, most of which serve residential areas and resemble winding rural roads.

From the time the city's first master land and zoning plan was drawn, in fact, the city has placed high consideration on retaining the best aesthetics of the natural environment. Many of the city's roadways and lot layouts, for example, are indigenous to the contours of the land.

In fact, only about five miles of the city's 46 miles of public streets currently have sidewalks. More specifically, Sunset Hills has 169 public streets; only 18 currently have sidewalks on one or both sides.

Today only about five of the 46 miles of public streets in Sunset Hills, Missouri (Population: 8,300) have sidewalks on one or both sides.

It's understandable, then, that residents sometimes make requests for sidewalks, particularly in residential areas.

When the city receives these requests, it hasn't always known how to respond. It lacked a tool that told it if the site was even feasible for a sidewalk, much less how utilities, terrain and other issues might impact construction costs.

So the City of Sunset Hills became one of the first cities in the Midwest to invest in a Pedestrian Master Plan. With a budget of less than $30,000, the city retained the engineering firm of Burns & McDonnell to create a plan for how the city might improve accessibility for both walkers and bicyclists alike.

The study, by the way, was not designed to prepare sidewalk development and design guidelines. Such guidelines can be adopted from a number of existing sources, including AASHTO design criteria and ADA accessibility guidelines.

Instead, Burns & McDonnell's transportation engineers were focused on providing the city with the information that would make it easier to evaluate future road or pedestrian improvements, and would be helpful when applying for project funding. The final report also gave guidance for estimating possible construction costs and recommended locations for a sidewalk network.

Engineers take to the streets
Over a five-month period, engineers completed field investigations, feasibility studies, schematic cost estimates for sidewalks on all major streets in the city limits, and conducted a public forum and opinion survey needed for its final report.

For the study, the Sunset Hills Public Works Department had divided its 16 collector and arterial roads (which we'll call collector roads for simplicity's sake) into 20 segments, which were the study's main focus.

Field studies began with the engineers walking, biking or driving all streets in the city limits, with the most consideration given to the major roads. Digital photos were taken and organized into subdirectories for easy accessibility.

Using this initial research, engineers then created the study in two parts: a Collector Road Feasibility Study and a Local Road Feasibility Study, using a different methodology for each.

For the Collector Road Feasibility Study, engineers assessed the feasibility of adding sidewalks on collector road segments, ranking their results based on need and cost. Safety, connectivity and other issues were considered, and a point system was developed to compare one segment to another.

Points were assigned based on such factors as speed limits, sight distance conditions and roadway width. Engineers also examined the existing or planned destinations for walkers in a given segment, and the potential for using sidewalks to connect them with those destinations. Points were also assigned based on transit accessibility, residential density and potential use. Using weighted point averages, engineers then developed a list of priorities based on need, ranging from low to high.

One thing that was clear from the beginning of the study was that any new sidewalks would likely be constructed on only one side of the city's streets. The study team, consequently, reviewed topography, existing conditions, land use and connectivity issues to assess which side of the roadways were best suited for sidewalk construction.

Costs for grading, tree removal, retaining walls, drainage, curb, sidewalks and pedestrian signals were included in the schematic cost estimates developed for each road segment. In the final report, road segments were ranked on a cost-per-foot basis.

For the Local Road Feasibility Study, engineers used a similar, but simpler, point system to prioritize the sidewalk needs for 151 local roads. For each road, points were assigned for nearby destinations and connectivity, visibility, road width, topography and neighborhood density. Based on the point totals (cost was not a consideration in this study), need was ranked from very low to high.

Setting priorities
When undertaking this study, Sunset Hills officials had no immediate plans—or funding—to construct new sidewalks. Still, for future planning purposes, city officials wanted to be able to identify the sites where sidewalks were anticipated to provide the greatest benefit for the cost.

To develop such a list of priorities, the engineers combined the need and cost feasibility studies, illustrating both the need-versus-the-cost-per-foot and need-versus-total-construction cost, since the segment lengths varied widely. The report contains a prioritized list of collector roads that fall into the high-need/low-cost range, both for cost per foot and total cost, and priority comparisons for need-versus-cost-per-foot and need-versus-total cost. The second analysis, the city determined, would be useful when working with a limited number of dollars.

These priority lists were developed to help the City of Sunset Hills determine where sidewalks should be added, near-term, as funding becomes available and which should be included in a long-range plan for sidewalk construction.

The engineers also made specific recommendations for groups of streets that could benefit from sidewalks, with the goal of creating a network linking destinations and existing sidewalks at a reasonable relative cost, based on the priorities outlined in the study.

A Pedestrian Master Plan gives the City of Sunset Hills a tool for evaluating sidewalk construction requests, outlining which sites are feasible and what issues might impact construction costs.

After the engineers made their recommendations, the public got a chance to respond. Citizens' opinions were solicited at a public presentation of the study methodology and results, and a questionnaire distributed through the city's newsletter and website. Two hundred twenty-nine surveys were completed, reflecting a wide range of opinions. Sixty-two percent of respondents rated the city's existing pedestrian system as a "1" or "2" on a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 being very poor and 5 being excellent. Even among people who did not generally favor sidewalks, many saw a need for sidewalks on collector roads, particularly narrow or winding roads perceived as dangerous for pedestrians.

The final Sidewalk Master Plan also contains information regarding possible funding strategies for pedestrian improvements, typical sections showing anticipated sidewalk locations, accessibility and roadway traffic calming.

The City of Sunset Hills may be among the first in the St. Louis area to invest in a Pedestrian Master Plan, but joins the growing number of cities and counties throughout the country to consider pedestrians' and bicyclists' needs.

Eventually, the benefits of pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods, where children can walk or ride their bikes to schools and parks, will enhance this thriving suburban community as the master plan is implemented over time.

Ron Williams, P.E., can be reached at (314) 849-3400 or at rwilliams@sunset-hills.com; Angelika Adams, P.E., can be reached at (314) 821-9016 or at aadams@burnsmcd.com.

A modified version of this article appeared in Missouri Municipal Review, January 2004 issue.