Perils for Pedestrians

TV talk about people who walk

Retrofit Sidewalks

What are some of the reasons that some people don't want sidewalks?

The concept of Complete Streets says that every street should be designed to accommodate all the types of users it will have, motorized and non-motorized. The nature of the accommodation depends on the context, and no single street design will be suitable for every location. Nevertheless, the most common accommodation for pedestrians is the sidewalk, and there are very few populated places where sidewalks would not be appropriate.

Many places in the United States were built without sidewalks, particularly suburban areas in the decades following the Second World War. Many residents of these neighborhoods would like to improve their community by putting in the missing sidewalks. When they make a proposal to build sidewalks, they are sometimes surprised that there are people who do not want sidewalks. Who could possibly be against giving children a safe place to walk?

Sidewalk opponents will give a long list of reasons why a sidewalk should not be built on their street. It is important to listen carefully and do what can be done to address people's concerns. However, it should not be a surprise when opponents respond by coming up with an even longer list of additional reasons. It's a never-ending game of Whack-A-Mole. Much of the opposition comes down to people just not wanting change of any sort. Here are a few of the many excuses given, along with some possible responses.

  • No one will use it.
    If there is only one structure within walking distance of itself, and no transit stops, the sidewalk might not be needed as a transportation facility, although it still might be useful for recreational walking. If there are two or more buildings within walking distance of each other, there is the potential for pedestrian traffic and you need a sidewalk.

  • Everybody here drives everywhere.
    Maybe they drive because there are no sidewalks. In fact, about 30 percent of the United States population does not have a driver's license. Some are young, some are old, some have a disability, and some just choose not to drive.

  • No one with a disability lives in this neighborhood.
    Even if that were actually true at the moment, in a few days someone might have an accident, and in a few years people will age and grow frail. Meanwhile, what about visitors?

  • The street is so quiet that pedestrians can just walk in the road.
    This is where you apply The Tricycle Test. Would you allow a 4 year old to ride a tricycle in the street while you watch from the front porch? In the rain? At dusk? If the answer is no, you need a sidewalk

  • The street is so dangerous, we should not encourage people to walk there.
    If people live or work on the street, they will walk there. If it is the shortest route to a destination, people will walk there. So there is no choice but to make it safer with a sidewalk.

  • sidewalk built after child fatality.No one has ever died there.
    One approach to safety is to wait until someone is killed before you address a problem. A far better approach is to identify hazards and mitigate them before someone is killed. This sidewalk was added to Beachway Drive in Fairfax County, Virginia, after a girl was killed walking to Bailey Elementary School. Sidewalks should be built before they are monuments to dead pedestrians.

  • I grew up here without sidewalks, and I'm okay.
    Mothers with strollers in street.This ignores the increase in traffic over the decades. It assumes that everyone has the same tolerance for a high-stress environment, since sidewalks contribute to pedestrian comfort and peace of mind. And it also assumes that a long streak of good luck will not run out. Consider peple like the mothers in this photo, walking on Maryknoll Avenue near Burning Tree Elementary School in Bethesda, Maryland, before a sidewalk was built.

  • Pedestrians prefer to walk on grass.
    If one observes pedestrians where sidewalks exist, one will quickly see that the vast majority of pedestrians choose the concrete over the adjacent grass. For those few pedestrians who do prefer to walk on grass, they still have the option of walking on the grass next to the sidewalk.

  • I might back over a pedestrian on the sidewalk when leaving my driveway.
    It is not at all clear why a driver would have seen a pedestrian walking on the grass, but would not see them once part of that grass is paved with a sidewalk. By putting the pedestrians in one place on the sidewalk, they should be easier to see and avoid.

  • Runners prefer to use the street.
    Some runners prefer an asphalt street to a concrete sidewalk, but most pedestrians prefer to use the sidewalk. If pedestrians are not using an existing sidewalk, it might be blocked with overgrown shrubbery or illegally parked cars.

  • Cars will drive faster if pedestrians are not in the street. Memorial by street.
    This treats pedestrians as human speed bumps. However, the density of pedestrians in the suburbs is seldom great enough to keep cars from resuming their illegal speed before they get to the next pedestrian in the street. And it is a big problem for any pedestrian walking in the rain or after dark when speeding drivers might not slow down in time. The memorial in the photo sits on the side of Archer Lane in Irmo, South Carolina, where a 15-year-old girl was struck and killed while walking with a friend along a street with no sidewalk. The driver did not slow down until after he struck the girl.

  • Trees will be cut down. Sidewalk curves around tree.
    Sidewalks can be curved to avoid trees. In fact, this is one of the few times a sidewalk should deviate from the straight line direct route.

  • It will add to storm water runoff.
    This is one of the reasons to have a planting strip between the curb and the sidewalk. A wide planting strip will absorb most of the runoff from the sidewalk. In severe cases, permeable pavement can be used to eliminate all runoff. Streets, parking lots, driveways, and rooftops are more concentrated -- and therefore more problematic -- sources of runoff than sidewalks.

  • Sidewalk without a curb.There isn't a curb and gutter.
    Sidewalks can be built along open-section roads without adding curbs, as in this photo of sidewalks added to Glenbrook Road in Bethesda, Maryland, without adding curbs and gutters.

  • It will increase crime.
    In fact, increased pedestrian activity will be "eyes on the street" that reduce crime. Who is more likely to be discouraged by a lack of sidewalks -- a grandmother who uses a cane, or a drug addict in a stolen car?

    The Rails To Trails Conservancy did a study on trails and crime, "Rail-Trails and Safe Communities" and found that trails actually reduced existing problems. The letters from sheriffs and police chiefs in the Appendix make interesting reading.

  • Nice home with a sidewalk.It will ruin property values.
    Studies of trails indicate either no effect or an increase in property values. A study from Ohio, "The Impact of the Little Miami Scenic Trail on Single Family Residential Property Values". found that "being closer to the Little Miami Scenic Trail adds value to the single family residential properties."

  • Pedestrians will leave trash on my lawn.
    This might happen, but there is an abundance of litter along roads where pedestrians are not even allowed, so one might want to worry about drivers instead. If residents care about their neighborhood, they will stop to pick up litter while they walk on the sidewalk. If residents don't care about their neighborhood, litter is just a symptom of more serious problems.

  • Dog walkers will leave poop on my lawn.Pooper scooper sign.
    This can happen with or without a sidewalk. The community needs a pooper scooper law. It is possible to change the culture of dog walking so that dog walkers bring plastic bags with them and clean up after themselves. The plastic bags used for newspaper delivery work well for this.

  • It will bring people too close to my house.
    If pedestrians currently walk on the grass, they will not be any closer. If pedestrians currently walk in the street, they will be a little closer. If one stands at the curb, and then stands two steps in from the curb, one can tell how little difference there is in what pedestrians can see from a sidewalk.

  • It will take my front lawn. Property marker distant from curb.
    In most cases, there is enough public right of way to build a sidewalk without taking private land, so it usually is public land that is being used for the public sidewalk. Many homeowners do not realize how far from the curb their property line actually is.

  • It will destroy my landscaping.
    If the landscaping is in the public right of way, it should have been designed with public use in mind. Pedestrians should not suffer because of inconsiderate gardeners. Shrubbery should be transplanted or replanted with a sufficient setback from the sidewalk to minimize maintenance needs. Landscaping can even be designed to complement a sidewalk.

  • Fence in right of way.It will destroy my fence.
    In most places, a fence in the public right of way is illegal and should not have been there in the first place. Furthermore, if it was built on public land, it was probably built without a permit, which might also be illegal.

  • It will force me to park next to traffic.Cars overflow driveway.
    If cars are currently parked on the grass at the edge of the road, or on the driveway apron, like here, they may end up parking on the paved portion of the street instead. If it is too dangerous for cars to be parked in the street, what does that say about how dangerous it is for pedestrians to be walking in the street?

  • It will cost me money.
    There are municipalities that charge the adjacent property owner for the construction and maintenance of sidewalks. This is a bad policy that should be changed. Sidewalks are not there just to benefit the adjacent property. Rather, sidewalks are part of the transportation network that benefits the whole community, just like the streets do. Therefore, the sidewalk should be paid for in same way the adjacent street is paid for. Change the policy, and then let property owners know that they will not be assessed for the sidewalk.

  • Tax dollars could be better spent on other things. School children on a new sidewalk.
    This argument typically pits sidewalks against teachers and police. However, sidewalks are an integral part of the street, and therefore are an integral part of the budget for streets. Find a balance between the overall transportation budget and other budgetary needs. Then make sure those transportation funds are spent equitably for all modes, including sidewalks as part of a Complete Streets policy.

    In this photo, children walk home from school on a new sidewalk in Cabot, Arkansas, while school buses go by on the highway. School systems spend tens of billions of dollars on school busing. In many places, the potential savings on hazard busing would more than pay for building sidewalks. Less money on busing leaves more money for textbooks and teachers.

  • Other sidewalks should be built first.
    Municipalities should have some way to prioritize which sidewalks will be built first. Usually it is a combination of the potential for walking to nearby destinations, the speed and volume of traffic, crash histories, proximity to schools and other places for children, proximity to senior housing and other places for the elderly, transit stops, community requests, and intangibles that cannot always be easily quantified. Local opposition to a sidewalk should be given less weight than the underlying need for a sidewalk. Finally, it should be made clear that the purpose of the calculation is to set the priority for which sidewalks will be built first, and that virtually everyone should expect to get a sidewalk eventually.

  • I will be liable if someone gets hurt.
    Liability is determined by state and local law. However, in a world full of lawyers, a property owner might be sued for anything that happens on the lawn in front of their property, even if no sidewalk is there. This is why property owners carry liability insurance. Sidewalks do not increase insurance rates. Since sidewalks reduce danger to pedestrians, it is perverse that this would even be an issue.

  • Edging lawn along sidewalk.It will take too much time to maintain.
    Most maintenance tasks, such as edging the lawn along the sidewalk, only need to be done once a year. Unless shrubbery is planted too close to the sidewalk, it will only need to be trimmed once in spring to keep it from encroaching on the sidewalk. In the photo, a recently edged sidewalk contrasts with one that is badly overgrown. It takes years to get that bad, so annual edging would usually be adequate.

  • I will have to shovel snow.Pedestrian in snowy street.
    Some towns treat pedestrians with the same respect as automobiles and plow the sidewalks as well as the streets. However, most jurisdictions leave it up to the adjacent property owners to remove snow. This is a job where local teenagers could earn a bit of money. Neighbors can volunteer to help the elderly who find shoveling difficult, either directly or through churches and community organizations. In areas with significant snowfall, neighbors might want to pool resources to buy a snow blower to share.

    The most difficult part of snow removal is where snowplows deposit mountains of packed snow and ice on the sidewalk. This can be reduced with good street design, and is another reason to have a planting strip next to the curb.

    The more snow there is, the more dangerous it is for pedestrians to share the snowy street with cars, so the more important it is to have sidewalks and keep them clear. Neither drivers nor pedestrians are happy when they are forced to share snowy streets, as they do in this photo.

  • There are hills or other obstacles in the way. Slope at the curb.
    In steep terrain, it might seem that building a sidewalk would require a retaining wall to cut into a hillside, or a raised structure over a steep drop off. And in some cases, this is necessary, and the sidewalk will be more expensive than on level ground. However, in other cases, there is excessive width in the street, and the curb can be moved to create a level space for the sidewalk.

  • It will ruin the "rural character" of the neighborhood. Rural sidewalk by gravel road.
    In fact, small towns in rural areas do have sidewalks. In some cases, they have concrete sidewalks even when the streets are just gravel. It is a uniquely suburban phenomenon that poor pedestrian facilities are considered an attractive feature of being rural. The rural community in this photo has a paved sidewalk even though the road is gravel.

  • It will ruin the "historic character" of the neighborhood.
    In fact, historically, sidewalks used to be included in neighborhoods that could afford good infrastructure. It is only in recent decades that sidewalks have been left out. The real deviation from history is the large number of cars we have today, which is why sidewalks are more important than ever.

  • It will ruin the "Dennis the Menace character" of the neighborhood.
    Sidewalk opponents have actually said this with a straight face, even though anyone who looked at the comic strip could see that Dennis the Menace has sidewalks. Margaret pushes her doll's baby buggy down a sidewalk, not down the street.

  • They knew the neighborhood did not have sidewalks when they moved here.
    This gets closest to the underlying reason for much opposition -- people do not like change. But no neighborhood is perfect, which means that every neighborhood needs improvement. It is the civic duty of every citizen to do what they can to improve the community where they live.