Land Use Policies

The vast majority of post-WWII land use policies are based on the separation of different land uses, where residential areas were set apart from commercial, retail, and other land uses. This separation was easy to sustain in the past because of the prevalence of automobiles and relatively cheap fuel. As such, much of today's infrastructure is still designed to cater to the automobile first, and the pedestrian second, if at all. However, this separation of land uses causes several problems:

  • Long distances between land uses (e.g., from residential areas to commercial/retail areas) make trip origins and destinations very far apart—this makes walking impractical as a functional mode of transportation in most areas, even when pedestrian facilities are provided.
  • More people driving creates more dangerous traffic conditions for pedestrians; those who decide to walk face longer distances and riskier conditions.
  • As more people are forced to drive rather than walk, the situation is perpetuated as street designers build bigger roads to accommodate traffic and commercial developments are designed to serve motorists.

Fortunately, the traditional ideal of human-scaled development is undergoing a resurgence across the country. While most traditional development characteristics—such as higher densities, vertically mixed land uses, well-designed pedestrian facilities, greater connectivity, and small or no setbacks—were not permitted in most zoning codes in the post-WWII era, these and other traditional elements are now finding their way into land use regulations.

This phenomenon is no accident. It is the work of citizens, communities, professionals, and governments that are striving to establish policies that welcome, encourage, and sometimes require human-scale development that makes walking and bicycling viable transportation options. These efforts are often covered in several distinct but related movements that seek to create more sustainable development patterns, such as "Smart Growth" or "New Urbanism." Studies show that areas consistent with Smart Growth principles, and areas that conform with the principles of New Urbanism, for example, exhibit higher rates of walking than conventional subdivisions.

A broad, but by no means comprehensive, set of polices that can be used to support walking is listed below, along with appropriate examples where possible. These policies are most effective when combined with a broader strategy for growth management. Although a piecemeal approach may be useful in some instances, policies that fit and are consistent with a broader framework of development management are more likely to be successful.

Form based codes

Conventional zoning codes focus primarily on establishing single-use district and regulations for each use, but very little on the collective design of these districts. Form based codes (FBCs) are much the opposite, focusing first on the design of spaces, buildings, and streets, and focusing second on land uses. While conventional codes use text almost exclusively to establish what can not be done, FBCs use text and illustrations to make visible what should be done. The intended result is a more predictable creation of spaces formed to appropriately address the issues of the community, which often includes the need for more human-scale development and pedestrian facilities.

Perhaps the most popular version of a FBC is the "SmartCode," which focuses on the rural-to-urban transect. Created by Duany Plater-Zyberk & Company (DPZ), the SmartCode is now in place in several communities and in the approval process in even more.


  • Form Based Codes Institute—provides education, outreach, standards, and forum discussions on form based codes.
  • "Codifying New Urbanism" by CNU's Planners Task Force—guide to New Urbanist zoning practices, including form based codes.
  • SmartCode Complete—provides educational, training, and purchasing options for the SmartCode.


Performance and incentive zoning

Performance zoning does away with inflexible zone requirements and evaluates each individual development based on specific performance measures. This is often done through a point system, with priority factors receiving more points, and certain point totals required for different types of development. Communities weight factors based on their planning goals to help ensure they are addressed at the project level. For example, a community that values walkability highly may weight factors like sidewalk provision and shorter block lengths to help ensure they are provided. Unfortunately, performance zoning's greater flexibility also makes it more subjective and therefore more difficult to implement. As such, performance elements are often imbedded into certain parts of conventional zoning ordinances instead of adopting true performance zoning codes.

Incentive zoning is a reward-based system designed to provide tradeoffs for developments to address specific planning goals. While a base level of requirements underlie each new development, incentives such as increased building heights and project densities are available in exchange for other measures like additional pedestrian amenities and affordable housing units. Similar to performance zoning, however, incentive zoning can be difficult to administer. Additionally, somewhat regular updates may be required to ensure that the incentives offered are marketable to developers.


  • "Types of Zoning Codes and Formats"—A Discussion Paper Prepared by the City of Palo Alto, Department of Planning and Community Environment that describes multiple zoning types, including performance and incentive zoning.
  • "Performance Zoning" by Lane Kendig—1980 book providing comprehensive information on performance zoning.


Overlay districts

Overlay districts are commonly used in conventional zoning codes to provide additional regulations to underlying zones in specific geographic areas. They offer significant flexibility by avoiding blanket requirements and addressing specific policies in specific areas. Overlay districts may address a wide range of issues ranging from land use to noise levels. Similarly, they may cover varying geographies, such as corridors, neighborhoods, and watersheds. Their flexibility and ability to pinpoint policy areas make them useful tools to promote or require developments and facilities that accommodate walking, bicycling, and/or transit in the most appropriate areas.


  • Model Regulations — American Planning Association (APA) Planners Advisory Service (PAS) Reports offer best practices in land development regulations.
  • "Administration of Flexible Zoning Techniques" — American Planning Association (APA) Planners Advisory Service (PAS) Report, available for purchase through APA, that provides descriptions and implementation information about various zoning techniques, including overlay districts.


Transit-oriented development

Transit-oriented development (TOD) refers to village-like development that centers on a specific transit node. While the transit node is most typically rail of some sort, bus nodes are also used under the right conditions. Similar to neo-traditional developments, TODs include higher densities, vertically mixed land uses, good connectivity, and strong pedestrian and bicycling amenities. However, there are important differences. TODs need a higher level of activity to generate the needed transit ridership, which in turn requires greater commercial diversity and higher employment densities. TODs are also beholden to high-quality transit service that requires good transit planning.

These measures are designed to encourage greater use of transportation modes other than the private automobile — most notably transit. Since transit is a sister mode to walking and bicycling — every transit user is a pedestrian — the design is necessarily favorable to non-motorized modes as well. For example, TODs are typically designed at one-quarter to one-half mile diameters to ensure that walking is a viable option for residents and visitors. Traffic-calming measures, stronger parking policies, and adequate bicycle facilities are also usually included.



School siting and transportation policies

The vast majority of schools recently constructed are sited in suburban and rural greenfields. This trend is due in large part to the convergence of several factors, including: cheaper land prices, availability of larger land parcels, minimum acreage requirements, insurance premiums, building code pressures to construct single-story structures, and the associated cost and building code issues of expanding and rehabilitating schools in existing urban areas.

The placement of practically all new schools away from existing neighborhoods and infrastructure, along with the typical lack of new pedestrian infrastructure, has significantly affected school-related transportation behavior. From 1969 to 2001, the percentage of school children who walked or bicycled to school fell from 42 to 16 (according to the National Center for Safe Routes to School). A 2004 US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study found that the distance to school was by far the most overwhelming barrier to children walking or bicycling to school. While this reduction has the short term effect of providing fewer walking opportunities for children, it also has the long term effect of disassociating children from walking as they get older and begin to form their own personal transportation habits and perceptions.

Fortunately, communities are once again beginning to realize the value of walkable schools and are working to change their policies. These changes are driven by the need for more efficient use of land, communities' demands for smaller schools with more transportation options, children's health concerns, the increasing cost of busing students, and evolving building and zoning codes. However, changes towards more walkable schools require better coordination and cooperation between school boards, planners, and the communities they serve.

It is clear that school siting is a significant factor impacting walkability. A 2003 Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) study found that schools with greater proximity to students have higher likelihoods that they will walk or bicycle. Several states have removed their minimum acreage requirements for schools, although school districts often are not informed about this removal. Communicating these policy changes with school districts is imperative.

The following are just a few school siting strategies relevant entities can use to achieve their walkability goals:

  • Building smaller schools reduces catchment areas and increases the percentage of students within walking distance. Smaller schools, especially when built at more than one story, require less land and make new urban schools and retrofitting of existing schools more viable. However, the down side of smaller schools is that some of the benefits of larger schools, like lower administrative costs, will not get realized.
  • Increased coordination between school district officials and land use planners can allow for improved walking outcomes. Planners can include school siting as a concern in long-range plans, while schools can work with planners to ensure that school location decisions are consistent with long range land use and transportation plans. In sum, a collaborative process between school officials, planners, and other related stakeholders to ensure that a variety of goals are achieved.
  • The Safe Routes to School Online Guide states that "infrastructure within the school zone and beyond is a prerequisite for walking and bicycling." Additionally, the 2003 EPA study found that students are more likely to walk or bicycle through a higher-quality built environment. As such, requiring adequate pedestrian facilities for new schools is essential for short and long term walkability goals. Well-designed sidewalks, bicycle lanes, and off-street paths should be provided to connect to surrounding neighborhoods or to prepare to connect to adjacent developments that will arise in the future. Read the section on School Zone Improvements for more information.

Regardless of where a school is sited, transportation policies are needed to ensure that children have the option and encouragement to walk. The following and additional transportation policies may be considered:

  • Campaigns to support walking and cycling, such as Safe Routes to School (SRTS), provide children, parents, teachers, and school officials with comprehensive information, encouragement, and tools to make walking a safe and viable school transportation mode.
  • A no pickup policy within school zones requires students to use a different transportation mode to get to and from school. However, if adequate walking and/or bicycling infrastructure does not exist within the zone, this may be unsafe and may increase the number of parent-driven students.
  • Reducing parking supply and/or increasing parking permit costs at high schools may encourage more students to use other modes like walking and bicycling, provided that a safe route exists and the distance to school is not too long.
  • Walking and bicycling facilities on and near school grounds must be designed to be safe, convenient, and welcoming to encourage student use.


  • Safe Routes to School (SR2S) — provides planners and communities educational materials, case studies, and guidance to encourage and enable more children to safely walk and bicycle to school.
  • KidsWalk-to-School — community-based program by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that provides education materials and resources aimed to increase opportunities for daily physical activity by encouraging children to walk to and from school in groups accompanied by adults.
  • Travel and Environmental Implications of School Siting — 2003 EPA study that provides information on how school siting affects how children get to school.
  • Barriers to Children Walking to or from School United States 2004 — 2004 Center for Disease Control and Prevention study that uses the 2004 ConsumerStyles Survey and a follow-up recontact survey to describe what parents report as barriers to their children aged 5 to 18 years walking to or from school.
  • Walking School Bus — provides information on how to start a walking school bus — a group of children walking to school with one or more adults.
  • Making Current Trends in School Design Feasible — publication by the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction that examines size, sustainability, and walkability solutions for new and rehabilitated schools.