Pedestrian Tunnels: Connecting People with Communities Part II

About the Author

CED Program Interns & Students
Pedestrian tunnel at UNCG

Although pedestrian tunnels are often a less visible and flashy form of crossings, they are still an important part of pedestrian safety. That said, tunnels can be exciting too! Tunnels are often out of the public’s eye and have the ability to exhibit creative freedom. Not only can a tunnel make an impact on a local community, but it can also achieve this impact in a subtle manner. Similar to a pedestrian bridge (check out this post on pedestrian bridges), before an organization can determine if a pedestrian tunnel should be installed, it needs to understand the purpose, cost, and funding, and analyze relevant examples.


The purpose of a pedestrian tunnel is to improve safety, access, and connectivity to a community. The Safe Routes to School Guide notes that “the effectiveness [of the pedestrian bridge or tunnel depends] largely on the likelihood that it will be used by pedestrians and bicyclists as an alternate at-grade crossing. For bridges and underpasses that are used by a large proportion of pedestrians and bicyclists, studies show that pedestrian related crashes decreased by 91-percent.” Unlike some crossings, tunnel terrain needs to be fairly conducive for building an underpass. In many cases, roadways and railroad tracks need to be elevated in order for a pedestrian tunnel to fit underneath. Now, in addition to serving as an underpass, a tunnel can serve other needs. Recently, a $1.2 million pedestrian tunnel was built in Walker, Michigan, and the city commission considered that “… the most balanced solution is to seek partnerships for a tunnel that can improve area drainage, eliminate trail vs. highway conflicts, provide advertising and notoriety for the [Downtown Development Authority], and provide the opportunity to include some art and education along the linear park.”

Now, it should be noted that the primary difference between pedestrian bridges and pedestrian tunnels is the overall feeling of pedestrian comfort. As some may have experienced, walking through pedestrian tunnels can be uncomfortable. If overhead lighting is dim, pedestrian tunnels can feel both eerie and uncertain. Local governments sometimes struggle with the question of “would the tunnels become an element that police and the city would have to monitor constantly?” Again, the key components to overcoming these obstacles are for tunnels to be open, well lit, and safe.

Cost and Funding

As noted in the NCHRP Report 500, “the cost [of pedestrian tunnels] ranges from $500,000 to $4 million, depending on required right-of-way acquisition and site characteristics.” As an illustration of this price variation, two example projects in Eagle County, Colorado, cost between $900 per linear foot for a simple box-culvert to $5,600 per linear foot for a more complex underpass with enhanced aesthetics.

Installation of a pedestrian bridge also involves many stakeholders, including but not limited to: federal, state, and local governments, neighborhood associations, school districts, outdoor advocacy groups, and local artists. Similarly, funding can be filtered through many channels. Federal, state, and local governments are the largest sources of funding and grants. Some new developments, for instance at universities, are able to build pedestrian tunnels to connect campuses to broader communities as well.


An example of this campus-community connection, UNC-Greensboro built a pedestrian underpass that is “…built to run underneath the railroad tracks, is 170-feet long, costs approximately $10 million to build, and was a joint project of UNCG and the N.C. Railroad Company.” A local article states that “[The underpass] will serve other UNCG projects in the future, such as the new Student Recreation Center and UNCG Police Station. It also will serve the general public, including the surrounding neighborhoods. Along with Spartan Village, it aligns with Greensboro’s revitalization plan for the High Point Road/West Lee Street corridor. The underpass is also designed to allow for an extension to pass beneath Lee Street if needed in the future.” The UNC-Greensboro underpass has already earned numerous accolades, and the project was recently named the best construction project under $20 million by ENR.

In terms of deciding to build a bridge or tunnel on UNCG’s campus, “planners initially depicted it as a bridge over the tracks. In 2008, analysis revealed that an underpass was more appropriate because it would cost less and be more user friendly.” From a safety perspective, a local article highlights that “extensive security is arranged for the underpass, which includes cameras and lighting. The most notable security feature is a new UNCG Police Station next door.” Chancellor Linda P. Brady praises the new underpass, saying “we wanted to ensure that not only students but faculty, staff and residents of the neighborhood had safe and efficient access to the campus.”

As seen in Figure 1, tunnels can be an outlets for creative art. Unfortunately, they can also become magnets for prejudice. Since the 1960’s, N.C. State’s campus has had an iconic underpass located on Central Campus that connects the two halves of campus split by the railroad tracks. This “Free Expression Tunnel” has become a staple for the importance of students expressing thoughts and feeling as well as broadcasting upcoming events on-campus. As an example of the its standing to campus, the tunnel was even included on student tours as a significant symbol for the campus.

In recent years, some people have taken advantage of this artistic freedom, and vandalized the tunnel with discriminatory messages. This has become enough of an issue, that at one point, the tunnel was painted entirely white. The university has now begun to urge students to censor any expressions that are deemed “social injustice.” Even still, tunnels like the Free Expression Tunnel can be used as an outlet to help a community form an identity. Acknowledging some of the negative downsides, the Free Expression Tunnels has cultural significance for an entire campus, as even exemplified by a recent piece of artwork placed on the tunnel wall – the celebration of Indigenous Peoples’ Day.

Understandably, pedestrian tunnels have positive and negative aspects, but when aptly applied, underpasses can be an efficient and cost-sensitive way of connecting communities and showcasing artistic expression.

Paul Hogge is a second-year business school student at the UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School and is currently a Community Revitalization Fellow with the Development Finance Initiative.



Leave a Reply

We will read all comments submitted to us, but we will publish only those comments that serve to advance our readers’ understanding of a post and are consistent with our institutional commitment to non-advocacy.

XHTML: You can use these tags: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>