On my walk to work this week, I watched workers prepare a stretch of ground for a new sidewalk. I’m a huge fan of sidewalks, and though glad not to have to walk over mud and grass on the way to my office, I was disappointed by a number of aspects of this new pedestrian walkway.
Sidewalks, by design, should buffer people from street traffic. Sidewalks that sit essentially on the street’s shoulder fail. The idea of providing people a sidewalk is to get them out of the way of vehicular traffic. Providing a designated walking path that abuts the street does not do this, not even if a small 6″ curb exists.
That is the fate of my new sidewalk. My new sidewalk path is just an elevated part of the street. If I chose to, I could run my fingers along cars as they passed me. A pedestrian’s distance to traffic is the length of one human arm. A small-framed human arm, no less.
Planned municipal areas, such as Boulder, Colorado, and Overland Park, Kansas, specify the “setback” for sidewalks. That is, there are rules as to how close a sidewalk can be to the street.
Why are setbacks important? For one, people can be clumsy. With a nice setback, if someone falls, they do not fall into the path of that on-coming Hummer. Children, carefree and frolicking, can get to horsing around. When that happens, kids have a grassy area that gives parents time to snatch them before they head of into the path of that 16-yr old Mustang-driving kid that got his license yesterday. As a dog-walker, I know that dogs can get jumpy; a setback provides a place to get an animal under control before Rover jumps out into the street, into the path of that guy driving his Explorer that just got dumped by his girlfriend via SMS message. Thus, there are several practical reasons to provide a 5-ft setback for sidewalks.
Having spent some time years ago working with the Main Street program in town, I was shocked and appalled to discover that the Main Street Committee Chairperson, a local banker, told me that “people did not need to be out walking around. Sidewalks were a waste of resources.” I remember thinking, Wow, this guy, for being a respected member of the community, is dumb. Since then, we have had at least two no-sidewalk related fatalities and numerous serious injuries. The first fatality resulted in promises for sidewalks. Six years later, we are still waiting for those sidewalks to appear.
I spent 1-1/2 years working in a city where sidewalks were not only highly prized, but mandatory in any new development, residential, commercial, or industrial – no difference. The 135,000 residents of this city appreciated, approved, and used those sidewalks. People and families were out in nice weather, year-round, walking, riding bikes, walking pets, jogging, and roller-blading.
Sidewalks reduce crime. Sidewalks, when done well, encourage people to get out of their homes, introduce themselves to neighbors, pay attention to their environment, and create a sense of community. When we watch out for each other, and our neighborhood, crimes lessen.
Sidewalks also help us get and exercise, walk, and encourage good habits. Communities with sidewalks tend to have lesser incidents of weight-related illnesses, like diabetes. They provide another means of travel that does not require gasoline, or the emission of greenhouse gases.
Every new development should be required to accommodate sidewalks. Period. End of story. Do not whine to me about Big Government telling people how to run their lives. Sidewalks benefit everyone, hurt no one, and add a very small cost to the overall price of any development plan, when compared to the benefits.