Designing the Active City: The Case for Multi-Use Paths

By Anne Lusk

More people walk and bicycle in cities worldwide where destinations such as grocery stores, post offices or coffee shops are accessible by sidewalks, roads for bicycling and separated multi-use paths. Examples abound in the Netherlands, Germany, Belgium and China. In America, the focus has been on sidewalks for walking, road lanes for bicycling, and recreation-based separate multi-use paths, such as often-distant rail trails and riverside greenways, for walking, bicycling, jogging and in-line skating. To enable all Americans to engage in physical activity as part of their daily routine, the country needs to provide: 1) sidewalks for walking; 2) safe roads for bicycling; and 3)safe separated multi-use paths—for walking, bicycling, jogging and in-line skating—that are also close to home and lead to purposeful destinations. Special design emphasis should be placed on creating multi-use paths that lead to frequently used services and retail locations in suburban and low-income minority residential areas because these populations are more negatively affected by obesity and its associated consequences.


The recent report “Measuring the Health Effects of Sprawl: A National Analysis of Physical Activity, Obesity and Chronic Disease” by Sprawl Watch and the Surface Transportation Policy Project suggested the creation of dense amenity-filled neighborhoods with sidewalks and bicycle lanes. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a report titled “Creating a Healthy Environment,” which included these recommendations: “…(4) providing sidewalks and pedestrian walkways; (5) providing crossing guards and bike paths in areas where most pedestrians are children (e.g., near schools, parks and playgrounds), and (6) providing overpasses, underpasses or tunnels for pedestrians and bicyclists to bypass particularly dangerous roads and intersections.” Both of these reports recommend sidewalks and side-of-the-road bicycle lanes, with mention of bike paths for children. There are important differences, however, in the safety profile and user population of side-of-the road bicycle lanes or striped lanes and separate dedicated multi-use paths.

In the US, where few separate multi-use paths exist, bicyclists are twelve times more likely than car occupants to be killed compared with the Netherlands and Germany, according to John Pucher and Lewis Dijkstra (see “Resources for Active Living” section in this issue). Furthermore, American bicyclists are three times as likely to be killed in a bicycle accident as Dutch bicyclists and two times as likely to be killed as German bicyclists. In contrast to the US, the Netherlands and Germany are building separate facilities for bicyclists to increase physical activity and reduce the chance of death. From 1978 to 1996, the Dutch, a population that already had miles of separate paths, more than doubled their network of bike paths and lanes. From 1976 to 1995, the Germans almost tripled their bikeway network.

The Issues

Even with data that documents bicyclists’ deaths, it is a challenge to defend the creation of multi-use paths in the United States. Critics of multi-use paths correctly point out that bicycling on the road can be safer for skilled and high-speed bicyclists than bicycling on separate dedicated multi-use paths, a result of the number of users and curb cuts on paths. Separate paths can also be less safe than is often perceived due to an underreporting of pedestrian and bicycle injuries. This underreporting is the result of a variety of factors including the inability of the police to record the accident if there is no injury or at least $500 worth of damage, the involvement of children who do not report the accident to an adult, and the generation of data that is then not processed and thus available for analysis. America’s built environment is also more spread out than in European countries—meaning that distances are longer—and more European communities have flat terrain, mild climates and traffic calming. Finally, it is expensive to obtain land and build separate multi-use paths, whereas many communities already have sidewalks for pedestrians and roads for bicyclists. However, for the 65 percent of the population that is overweight and struggling with diets, gyms, surgery and pills, the multi-use path options could be critical.

Therefore, in addition to providing sidewalks for pedestrians and safe side-of-the-road facilities for bicyclists, an important strategy is to provide safe separate dedicated multi-use paths for walkers, bicyclists, joggers and in-line skaters that would be built closer to high population densities and lead to purposeful destinations. Walkers who wish to avoid in-line skaters or bicyclists should continue to stay on pedestrian dedicated sidewalks. Bicyclists who prefer to bicycle on the side of the road should continue to be encouraged to bicycle on the road with safe side-of-the-road provisions. Design innovations could also, though, be considered to bring multi-use paths closer to where people live and to encourage everyone, particularly individuals who are sedentary, to engage in physical activity.

Why Multi-use Paths?

The populations most negatively affected by obesity are individuals who live in suburban developments that discourage physical activity and minority and low-income individuals who have few physical activity resources. White suburban middle-income populations have indicated their preference for multi-use paths and even use these facilities. Still, multi-use paths should not be automatically built for minority populations under the assumption that what is acceptable to one population is acceptable to other populations.

The situation is a complex one. The Chicago Lakefront Trail and the West Orange Trail near Orlando, Florida are adjacent to low-income minority residential neighborhoods and yet these residents do not use the paths in numbers proportionate to their population density. The Shelby Walk, an inner-city Safewalk built ten years ago in Nashville, Tennessee on a low-income neighborhood sidewalk, does not have a large population that walks to the planned destination, Shelby Park, a traditional park with a pond and ball fields. An African-American resident of Detroit, Michigan commented that in car-dependent Detroit, African-Americans do not want to walk because to walk implies they are poor, don’t have a car, have to walk or have to take the bus. Corliss Wilson Outley, an African-American professor at the University of Minnesota, found that African-American children do not always want to do the same physical activities as non-minority children and wish instead to maintain their own sense of identity. Low-income minority residents also face issues of overwork, crime, no funds to purchase athletic equipment, difficulty in storing equipment, a family history that might not include physical activity and lack of information about resources and how to take advantage of them.

However, even with this understanding, multi-use path designs near low-income minority populations can be justified based on other observations. Though the low-income populations in Nashville do not walk on Shelby Walk toward the intended destination of Shelby Park, they walk in the other direction to the grocery store. The residents also walk to Shelby Place, a gazebo park the neighbors have adopted and planted with flowers. Numerous minority residents in Nashville flock to Shelby Bottoms and its five-mile paved greenway where children bicycle and in-line skate beside their parents. In Boston, minority children use the Southwest Corridor multi-use path, even though it is bereft of purposeful destinations and its communicated landmarks are the cross-streets.

While there are formal and informal groups that organize participation in local activities, such as soccer and softball, these opportunities rarely provide the near-daily and year-round kinds of exercise that is needed. Furthermore, they are usually restricted to individuals with particular schedules, skills and group affiliations. Many physical activities require the expenditure of significant amounts of time and money to acquire specialized skills or equipment, such as tennis, golf or rowing, or to access specialized facilities, such as indoor tennis courts and gyms. In contrast, multi-use paths are free, accessible, inclusive and only require shoes. Free bicycles and helmets can be donated and even in-line skates can be acquired affordably through community programs.

The Need for New Designs

America has design models for building rail trails (paths on abandoned railroad beds) and greenways (multi-use paths) along rivers or lakes, but the nation has yet to expand its design repertoire and incorporate multi-use paths in suburbs or already built cities. For people who live in suburbia, design solutions should be considered to integrate separate multi-use paths with sidewalks, streets, front yards, backyards, alleys and playgrounds. For inner-city minority and low-income populations, efforts should be expended to determine how to build multi-use paths close to these populations. In the city it is prohibitively expensive to demolish buildings to construct paths; the most affordable place to locate a multi-use path is on a redesigned sidewalk, road, park or vacant lot, or through a building.

What follows are a few design alternatives that have been tested or are being used in Europe and the US to build multi-use paths in congested areas. These designs are intended to be part of an extended multi-use path system and not, for example, a way to direct road bicyclists to a short two-way multi-use path on the edge of the road and then integrate the bicyclists immediately back into a road system. These designs also do not preclude necessary sidewalks that are dedicated solely to pedestrians or side-of-the-road facilities that should always be available for bicyclists. Instead, the consideration of these designs is a step toward creating an environment in America that contributes to good health for all populations.

Multi-use Paths on Facilities

Erlangen, Germany

A bicyclist, jogger, in-line skater or walker can more safely travel on a Woonerf, a street that is closed to all but residential traffic. This example in Erlangen, Germany features parking on one side and bollards that separate the residential cars from foot powered traffic. Though the surface shown in this photograph includes brick pavers, a smooth surface is preferable for accessibility and in-line skating.

Minneapolis, Minnesota

Minneapolis closed a street to cars and allowed pedestrians, buses and bicyclists into the now popular Nicollet Mall. Some streets in the US failed as pedestrian zones because all users, except the pedestrian, were excluded. The 16th Street Mall in Denver, Colorado has provisions for buses and pedestrians but does not allow bicyclists or skaters into the corridor. Minneapolis’ more European model encourages engagement in physical activity as a routine part of the day.

Multi-use Paths beside Facilities

Paris, France

Paris has an extensive system of off-road multi-use paths in the heavily built and historic city. One provision is a two-way path between a sidewalk and a road with bushes as a visible and psychological separation from the traffic. To bicycle against traffic can be troubling, especially for skilled bicyclists, so the separation by shrubs provides a degree of removal.

Leuven, Belgium

Pedestrians on a sidewalk, two-way bicycle traffic on a red-surfaced corridor, and parallel-parked cars are all accommodated between the historic buildings and the street. Pavers provide space for passenger-side car doors to open and bulbouts with bushes and trees enhance the ride and the street. Bollards further separate the rider from the parallel-parked cars and raised pavers deter cars from parking on the median.

Multi-use Paths over Facilities

Chicago, Illinois

The Chicago Lakefront Trail skirts Lake Michigan but is also bounded by Lakeshore Drive’s heavy traffic. While tunnels and bridges are options for crossings, tunnels increase vulnerability and bridges involve an incline. Bridges can, however, serve several purposes: provide safe travel for path users; improve the driving experience with cascading flowers; flatter the city skyline; and offer elevated vantage points to path users.

Washington, DC

The Metropolitan Branch Trail is a rail trail that goes from Union Station near the Capitol to Silver Spring, Maryland. A new subway station was planned in the corridor and, rather than sever the path, the two facilities were merged. The trail now runs on top of the station and wide elevators take bicyclists from the trail to the trains.

Multi-use Paths through Facilities

Madison, Wisconsin

The existence of a path and a competing use for the land does not mean the elimination of one for the exclusive use of the other. In Madison, Wisconsin the new Monona Terrace Community and Convention Center includes a path, which pre-dated the convention center, built adjacent to the building and out over the water. There is a pedestrian zone near the water with paver stones dividing the pedestrians from wheeled path users. An elevator accommodates bicyclists and others who wish to get to what had once been an inaccessible downtown lakefront.

Erlangen, Germany

Incentive or bonus zoning, used often in urban environments such as New York City, allowed developers to build additional floors of office buildings in exchange for open public plazas, available to pedestrians but no other users. Often, these public plazas traveled through building courtyards and provided enhanced passage for pedestrians wanting to get to the other side. Similar design innovations could be provided for bicyclists, in-line skaters and joggers through buildings as a form of public space that is then available to all populations.

Anne Lusk, Ph.D. is a visiting scientist at the Harvard School of Public Health. Her Ph.D. is in Architecture with a major in Environment and Behavior and a minor in Urban Planning. She has focused on multi-use paths, or greenways, for the past twenty years. Dr. Lusk encourages others who have innovative designs for incorporating multi-use paths in already built environments to send examples for inclusion in further research. Her email is AnneLusk(at)hsph(dot)harvard(dot)edu.

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