Improving Walkability within Existing Urban Design

Building Community Vitality with Rectangular Rapid Flashing Beacon Technology

Walkable Streets – The Way of the Future

Ideas about urban transportation and planning are changing. For many areas of the country, road and highway infrastructure is at or over capacity. In addition, demographics are changing and with that change comes the demand for greater community connectivity on many levels. The convergence of these two factors is creating a shift in urban planning focus towards principles of multi-modal transportation, increased pedestrian service levels, and compact development.
The need to keep pace with this rapidly-changing landscape is becoming a matter of survival for cities across the US. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) notes that, “To remain competitive, communities will need places that respond to changing attitudes and behaviors driving people and businesses toward the center of metropolitan areas.”1 In particular the EPA
cites compact, walkable development as a key feature driving community growth. Movements that encourage this vein of thinking are popping up throughout the urban planning profession. The EPA’s Smart Growth Initiative, the National Association of City Transportation Officials’ (NACTO) latest Urban Street Design Guide, and the Institute for Transportation Engineers (ITE) guidelines for designing walkable urban thoroughfares all focus heavily on principles of connected and compact urban planning.
Walkability in particular has been singled out as a key factor in best practice urban design. Not only do government and industry guidelines focus heavily on the creation of walkable communities, academic thought leaders are also focusing research on the principles of walkability. This research shows that walkability plays an important role in attracting young and creative talent, as well as the baby boomer generation to cities - all of whom value safe, comfortable, and convenient access to amenities, public transit, and their places of employment.2
In short, a walkable community is a sustainable community. But the benefits reach beyond a city’s future population growth. Improved economic vibrancy, a sense of vitality and connectivity, and the enhanced health and well-being of citizens are all direct and immediate results of improving a community’s walkability.
Beyond the Future – Improving Walkability for Immediate Results Economic Vibrancy
Walkable communities can quickly become an avenue to increased economic vibrancy in several ways. As people get out of their cars to interact with their surroundings, businesses experience an immediate benefit. According to EPA Smart Growth research, projects that improve walkability
have had quantifiable results on the occupancy, activity, and sales of businesses in the area, in some cases more than tripling economic activity.1
Environmental Protection Agency: Office of Sustainable Communities Smart Growth Program. Smart Growth and Economic
Success: Benefits for Real Estate Developers, Investors, Businesses, and Local Governments. 2012.
Kaid Benfield. Why Smarter Land Use Can Help Cities Attract and Retain Young Adults. Kaid Benfields Blog. 2012.
Walkable communities also command a real estate price premium and are able to demand higher sale prices for both residential and commercial properties.1 This demand then draws real estate developers and investors who are more likely to be attracted to walkable neighborhoods that command such a premium.
Walkable neighborhoods also lend themselves to principles of compact development, meaning that local governments can benefit from increased property and sales tax revenue without increasing the amount of land they manage.1 Additionally walkability can reduce government spending on road building and maintenance because more people are able use the roads when they are on bike or foot, than when they are in cars.1
Community Connection
In addition to clear economic benefits, walkability also has an impact on the vitality of a community. Research by Sustainability Solutions Group and Royal Roads University indicates that, “Perhaps the most important contribution that the built environment can make to community vitality is to encourage and empower people to walk. The higher the percentage of people who walk, the more vital a community will be in terms of the capacity for its members to make different connections and simply to engage with one another.”3
Likewise, Complete Street Coalition literature indicates that walkable neighborhoods encourage people to be socially engaged with their community and more trusting of their fellow citizens.4 As walkability encourages people to engage with one another, it also has a subtle, but important impact on a community’s productivity. Social engagement naturally creates conversation that results in the casual transfer of information that helps to grow new economic activity.3 While walkability helps to attract new social capital to a city, it also helps to grow the social capital that already exists within its limits.
Community Health
The health benefits of a more active community are obvious and include happier, more productive citizens and reduced health care costs. Statistics supporting the health benefits of a walkable community include:
43% of people with safe places to walk within 10 minutes of home meet recommended daily activity levels.5
High levels of walking for transportation have been associated with a 31% decrease in the risk of cardiovascular disease.6
Every additional hour spent in a car each day is associated with a 6% increase in the likelihood of obesity.7
3 Herbert Y., Dale A. Community Vitality and the Built Environment. 2012.
4 Complete Streets Coalition. Complete Streets: Fundamentals. 2012.
5 Active Living Research. Designing for Active Recreation. 2005.
6 Toronto Public Health. Road to Health: Improving Walking and Cycling in Toronto. 2012.
All-cause mortality, disease-specific mortality, and cardiovascular risk are lower among groups who use active transportation.7
Children also greatly benefit from having walkable neighborhoods that encourage active transportation to and from school. Physical activity in school children is key to battling incidents of childhood obesity which have tripled over the last decade according to the Center for Disease Control (CDC).8 In addition to the physical benefits, recent studies out of Denmark indicate that children who walk and bike to school have a concentration advantage over those who do not. 9 This means better academic performance and greater enjoyment of the learning process for active kids.
Building a Walkable Community Today
Identifying Easily Addressed Barriers to Walkability
With the benefits of building walkable communities clear, the question then becomes “how”. Certainly there are urban design planning principles that encourage and empower walkable communities. However, the design planning and implementation process is often long and complex involving policy, design, and budgetary considerations. For communities looking to make immediate improvements to walkability, there are ways to achieve this goal using existing infrastructure and design envelopes.
According to a TCRP/NCHRP report, two of the main barriers to walkability are the lack of contiguous pedestrian facilities and a concern for personal safety.10 By identifying and focusing on areas where vehicle traffic severs otherwise walkable routes, cities can reconnect existing corridors and improve walkability without making major adjustments to street design.
Identifying the Connective Tissue in Walkable Infrastructure
Communities likely have a good sense of which routes are, or could be, walkable. Although the factors impacting walkability will vary depending on community context, walkable routes are generally characterized by: the room to walk safely; aesthetically pleasing surroundings; a perceived sense of safety from crime; the presence of other community members; appropriate driver behavior; and safe vehicle/pedestrian encounters.11
When identifying areas where vehicle traffic is creating barriers for otherwise walkable routes, problematic driver behavior and concern over the safety of vehicle/pedestrian encounters can be used as indicators of trouble spots.
7 National Collaborating Centre for Environmental Health. Active Transportation in Urban Areas: Exploring Health Benefits and Risks. 2010.
8 Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Childhood Obesity Facts. 2013.
9 Sanne Fettinger. Car Children’ Learn Less in School. The Davis Enterprise. 2012.
10 TCRP Report 112 NCHRP Report 562. Improving Pedestrian Safety at Unsignalized Crossings. 2006.
11Walkable America. Walkability Checklist: How Walkable is Your Community? 2013.
Crosswalks are often the location of such trouble spots since they form the connective tissue of walkable and bikeable routes in a city. Implementing well-designed crosswalks, or improving upon existing crosswalk infrastructure cannot only quickly reconnect existing active transportation corridors without major street improvements, they can also have a dramatic positive impact on the interaction between vehicles and pedestrians.
Well-designed crosswalks are a fundamental part of building infrastructure that encourages mode share within the community. When vehicles and pedestrians are able to interact in a positive manner, people are more likely to walk and bike for transportation. In turn, encouraging people to bike and walk positively impacts the safety of doing so. A report by the Alliance for Biking and Walking shows that cities with the greatest levels of bicycling and walking are also the safest places to bicycle and walk.12
Identifying the Most Problematic Locations
Of particular concern for communities looking to reconnect otherwise walkable routes will likely be marked and uncontrolled crosswalk locations such as the ones pictured below. An FHWA report shows that over 70% of pedestrian accidents occur at busy, multilane marked crossings.13
Therefore, a community’s most problematic crossings will likely be marked crossings on busy roadways. Multi-lane roadway configurations may be creating additional complications and concern for safety.
Problematic crossings may already be flagged by citizens or advocacy groups as crossings in need of attention, due to the fact that they are currently active, but considered unsafe due to lack of appropriate driver behavior at the location. Marked and uncontrolled crossings with a perceived safety problem are one of the primary reasons that otherwise walkable routes are under-utilized and transportation mode share numbers remain low.
12 Alliance for Biking and Walking. Bicycling and Walking in the United States 2012 Benchmarking Report. 2012.
13 FHWA HRT-04-100.  Safety Effects of Marked Versus Unmarked Crosswalks at Uncontrolled Locations. 2005.
Addressing Problematic Marked Uncontrolled Crossings with Rectangular Rapid Flashing Beacon (RRFB) Technology
When deciding how to address problematic marked uncontrolled crossings, city engineers will need to understand the characteristics of the particular crossing including: average daily traffic and vehicle speed at the location; pedestrian volume utilizing the crossing; crossing distance; and road configuration. All of these factors combined will allow city engineers to determine which crossings require safety enhancements.
For crossings that meet the city’s threshold for enhancements, Rectangular Rapid Flashing Beacons (RRFBs) are quickly gaining prominence as the solution of choice. RRFBs are  being chosen by cities across the US for their capacity to change driver behavior long term and for their ability to significantly enhance the safety of vehicle/pedestrian encounters in urban locations.
Federal and State Approval of RRFB Technology
The viability of Rectangular Rapid Flashing Beacons for crosswalk improvements has been noted in research reports by the Federal Highways Administration (FHWA), the Transit Cooperative Research Program (TCRP), the National Cooperative Highway Research Program (NCHRP), and several state authorities. Likewise, many states have been given blanket FHWA approval for the implementation of Rectangular Rapid Flashing Beacons at uncontrolled crosswalk locations statewide including Ohio, California, Minnesota, Arkansas, Oregon, Alaska, and many others.
In keeping with the growing importance of crosswalks in creating sustainable urban centres, Rectangular Rapid Flashing Beacons have also been included as part of Complete Street guidelines in Boston, Chicago and other cities. The technology also appears in national urban design guidelines like the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) Bike Design Guide.
Effectiveness of RRFB Technology for Marked Uncontrolled Crossings
The prominence of Rectangular Rapid Flashing Beacons in federal and state approvals and guidelines is due largely to research studies proving the effectiveness of the technology. Several research efforts have proven the value of the technology, finding that at marked uncontrolled crossings RRFBs are effective for:
Improving pedestrian safety even across wide, high-speed multi-lane roads14
Improving driver yield rates up to 96% in some locations14
Increasing driver yield rates 73% over traditional beacon systems such as side-mounted and overhead beacons14
Maintaining appropriate driver yield behavior over several years14
  14 U.S. Department of Transport Federal Highways Administration. Effects of Yellow Rectangular Rapid-Flashing Beacons on
Yielding at Multi-Lane Uncontrolled Crosswalks. Publication No. FHWA-HRT-10-043.
Creating long distance visibility of crosswalks and improving driver yield distances to
>100 ft. 15
Increasing driver yield rate to close to 100% in nighttime conditions15
Additional Benefits of Rectangular Rapid Flashing Beacons
In addition to being backed by multiple federal research studies, RRFBs have additional benefits for communities looking to improve walkability within existing infrastructure and design. In particular, Rectangular Rapid Flashing Beacons provide a cost-effective option for cities that have limited funding for pedestrian and bike improvements.
The technology is simple and some Rectangular Rapid Flashing Beacons can be installed on crosswalk sign posts that already exist at marked crossings. This allows for installation of the technology by city crews rather than specialized installation services. In some cases advocacy group volunteers have even been able to assist in the installation (see image below).
Additionally, the technology can be solar-powered, which eliminates costly trenching procedures for city crews. In less than an hour, crews can make significant improvements to a marked uncontrolled crosswalk location.
In addition to simplicity, RRFB technology is also a fit with the aesthetically pleasing environments that are so important to encouraging walkability. Some RRFB technology, such as the technology pictured here offers a slim profile and fits onto existing hardware, allowing it to blend easily into the cityscape. In addition, solar powered options have a compact solar engine that is easily visible to crosswalk users and vehicle traffic, making a community’s commitment to sustainability visible to all. 
15 Van Houten R., Malenfant J.E.L. An Analysis of the Efficacy of Rectangular-shaped Rapid-Flash LED Beacons to Increase Yielding to Pedestrians Using Crosswalks on Multilane Roadways in the City of St. Petersburg, FL. 2009.


Improving walkability is a vital part of creating a sustainable future for all cities. People of all ages want to live in communities that provide easy connection to amenities, employment, and to each other. Well-connected walkable communities are not only beneficial to citizens, but can also deliver real economic rewards to businesses and local governments.
While sustainable urban planning is an important part of the way forward for cities, many communities have safe, walkable routes already present within existing infrastructure and design. By identifying existing routes that simply require reconnection, cities can quickly improve their walkability and boost community vitality.
Crosswalks play a central role in reconnecting communities since existing walkable routes are often under-utilized due to safety concerns in areas where pedestrian and vehicle traffic meet. In particular, marked uncontrolled crossings that exist in busy, multi-lane locations are often the most problematic locations.
For crossings a city deems as requiring safety enhancements, Rectangular Rapid Flashing Beacon (RRFB) technology is becoming the solution of choice for its ability to improve driver behaviour and increase the safety of pedestrian/vehicle encounters in busy urban locations. In addition, RRFB technology is cost-effective, and is easily deployed by city crews: a bonus for cities operating with limited resources.
In short, Rectangular Rapid Flashing Beacons provide a quick, effective, and cost-sensitive way to mend the vital connective tissue of active transportation routes within a city, helping to create healthy, vital, and economically viable communities now and into the future.