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Improve Pedestrian Safety with Sidewalk Design Standards

According to the Institute of Transportation Engineers, sidewalks reduce the occurrence of pedestrian collisions, injuries and deaths in residential areas and along two-lane roadways. It is recommended that sidewalks be on both sides of all urban arterial and collector roads and most local roadways. Although local codes vary, the separation of the pedestrian from motorized traffic is an essential design feature of a safe and functional roadway. The following guidelines and minimums are those from the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), along with the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO).

Sidewalk Design Guidelines

Sidewalks should be kept in a well-maintained condition. All sidewalks require the following elements:

  • Adequate width (read about sidewalk width requirements below)
  • Buffers from vehicular travel
  • Curbing
  • Gentle cross-slope (2% or less)
  • Buffers to private properties
  • Adequate sight distance around corners and at driveways
  • “Shy distances” to walls and other structures (read about “shy distances” below)
  • Clear path of travel free from street furniture
  • Continuity
  • Ramps at corners and flat areas across driveways
  • Sufficient capacity at corners so that the predicted volume of pedestrians can gain access to and depart from signalized intersections in an orderly manner

Sidewalk Width Requirements

Keep pedestrians safe and ensure proper sidewalk widths by following these requirements:

  • Most sidewalk design guidelines require the minimum width of a sidewalk be at least 5 feet if set back from curb
  • A width of 5 feet is the minimum for two people to walk together or two wheelchairs to pass
  • Areas near schools, sporting complexes, parks and shopping districts recommend a minimum sidewalk width of 8 feet

Be Aware of the Shy Distance

The sidewalk area that pedestrians tend to avoid is referred to as the “shy distance.” Pedestrians tend to travel in the center of sidewalks to separate themselves from traffic and avoid street furniture, vertical obstructions and other pedestrians entering and exiting buildings.

They also avoid the edge of the sidewalk close to the street because it often contains utility poles, bus shelters, parking meters, sign poles and other street furniture. Because of the shy distance, pedestrians only use the center 6 feet of a sidewalk that is 10 feet wide. The shy distance for a pedestrian should be a minimum of 2 feet.

Keep Sidewalks Clear of Obstructions

At least 3 feet of the sidewalk width should remain clear of obstructions like signposts, utility and signal poles, mailboxes, parking meters, fire hydrants, trees and other street furniture.

  • Place obstructions between the sidewalk and the roadway to create a buffer for increased pedestrian comfort
  • Place movable obstructions such as sign boards, tables and chairs in a way that maintains the 3-foot minimum width
  • Ensure obstructions do not impair the visibility of motorists
  • Make sure vertical obstructions (signs, overhanging trees, etc.) do not hang lower than 80 inches over a walking area

Planting Strip Requirements and Benefits

A planting strip should be between 5 to 7 feet wide, and landscaped with low-maintenance plantings or grass, or trees. The extra separation from motor vehicle traffic decreases road noise, prevents water puddles from being splashed onto sidewalks and generally increases a walker’s sense of security. Other benefits include room for trees, signposts and poles and a place for snow removed from sidewalks during the winter.

Object Setback Recommendations

Object setback is the area adjacent to the roadway that is free of obstructions. Street furniture such as benches, garbage cans and bus shelters should be out of the normal travel path.

The purpose of object setback is to provide operational clearance, increase driver comfort and avoid a negative impact on traffic flow. It also improves aesthetics, provides an area for excess snow removed and, in areas with curbside parking, provides a clear area to open car doors.

Follow these recommendations for object setback:

  • Minimum object setback is 18 inches, as measured from the back of curb. This minimum may be increased per local codes.
  • Additional object setback beyond the minimum may be required near a turning radius for an intersection or driveway
  • Street furniture that is higher than 3.5 feet can create a sight-distance concern and may require additional setback, depending on the intersection
  • Ensure trees, street furniture and other objects do not reduce the visibility of pedestrians, bicyclists or motorists
  • Set trees at the back of the sidewalk on higher speed roads (40 mph and above)
  • On low-speed roadways, trees are best placed between the sidewalk and curb
  • Areas that have significant accumulations of snow during the winter require a greater object setback
    • A minimum width of 72 inches is recommended for areas where significant amounts of snow will be plowed from the sidewalks

Make Sidewalks Accessible with Low Grades

If possible, keep grades to no more than 5%. Terrain permitting, avoid grades greater than 8%. When this is not possible, railings and other aids can be installed to help elderly adults and individuals with disabilities. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) does not require designers to change topography but encourages designers to work within its limitations and constraints.

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