Monday, September 15, 2014

Sidewalks: Problems and Solutions

This is the post I was intending to write before my attention was necessarily focused on the extremely dangerous gang problem happening in my neighborhood.

First, a brief explanation for the handful of people who don't understand the importance of sidewalks. Sidewalks are a vital component of city life. Out in the suburbs, most people drive to wherever they are going. In the city, even a small city like Waterbury, most people walk. We walk to the park, to the playground, to the bus stop, to school, to the store, to a friend's house. On most Waterbury roads, no matter what the speed limit might be, cars typically go at least 40 mph, often faster. Sidewalks reduce the amount of stress pedestrians have when they are trying to get somewhere. Sidewalks keep pedestrians safe.

Sidewalks aren't just about safety. Studies have shown that pedestrian-friendly cities are healthier, have lower crime rates, increased pride, and are more likely to see higher income residents move in.

Waterbury has two large sidewalk problems, and one small problem.

The big problems:
1. Not enough sidewalks;
2. Sidewalks that are falling apart.

The small problem:
3. New sidewalks are not ADA compliant.

Problem number one is pretty straight-forward: not enough sidewalks. I once tried walking to Lakewood Park from my house. Walking on North Walnut Street, which has no sidewalks, wasn't too bad, since there were very few cars driving by. I felt like I was walking on a rural road. It was nice. Then I got to Lakewood Road, where I felt like I was risking my life. Traffic on Lakewood Road goes 40-60 miles an hour (even though the posted limit is 25). The south side of Lakewood Road, from Massachusetts Avenue to the park, has no sidewalks. I had to choose between running across the road (jaywalking) to the sidewalk on the other side, or walking in the shoulder facing traffic (technically legal and correct, but scary!). There is a sort-of path on the side of the road, but it's on a slope, so if you stumble, you could fall into the road. Now imagine if I were a kid trying to do this. It's just not safe.

There are countless areas of Waterbury where there are no sidewalks, but there should be. In addition to needing more sidewalks, we need more crosswalks. And they need to be real crosswalks, where pedestrians can get a walk signal, not the half-hearted crosswalks where pedestrians are always crossing against traffic, hoping they don't get run down.

Problem number two, sidewalks that are falling apart, is a layered problem. First, sidewalks in severe disrepair are dangerous. Depending on how they are crumbling, cracked, or broken, pedestrians risk twisting an ankle or falling down and breaking a leg. If the condition of the sidewalk is truly terrible, pedestrians will choose to walk in the street. Seriously, some of Waterbury's sidewalks are so bad, pedestrians would rather risk getting hit by a car than try to walk on the sidewalk.

Another major problem with crumbling sidewalks is the issue of blight. A crumbling sidewalk is a form of blight. While the City of Waterbury is trying to crack down on blighted buildings, they are neglecting their own blighted properties (sidewalks). When sidewalks are blighted, property values go down, outsiders think poorly of the neighborhood (which can cause blight and crime to increase), and community morale goes down.

Problem number three addresses the new sidewalks that the City of Waterbury has installed in the past few years. The first time I saw the city putting in a new sidewalk, I was pleased--until I realized that the utility poles and sign posts were placed smack dab in the middle of the sidewalk, making the sidewalk completely useless for anyone in a wheelchair or pushing a stroller. There are places where you have to turn sideways to get around the utility pole in the middle of the sidewalk. It's absurd!

While the City of Waterbury recognizes the first two problems, it has failed to implement a plan for solving them. It's probably safe to assume that every neighborhood complains about their sidewalks, and every neighborhood has been told that there is no money to do anything about it. Every year, however, a few small stretches of sidewalk get installed. Sometimes the funding comes from Federal grants. Most recently, the Mayor used his discretionary power to siphon money from the city's road budget to have a new sidewalk installed on Oronoke Road in Town Plot.

When I first read about the new sidewalk being installed on Oronoke Road, I was annoyed and offended. According to the article in the Rep-Am, the Mayor was responding to a complaint from one taxpayer in Town Plot. Well, dozens of people from my neighborhood have been trying to get new sidewalks for more than a decade. We've tried complaining to every mayor, we've tried complaining to the Board of Aldermen, we've tried applying for a CDBG grant, all with no success. Apparently, Mayor O'Leary promised taxpayers in Town Plot to give them a new sidewalk if he got re-elected. So what about his promise to taxpayers in the Scovill Homes to give us new sidewalks if he got elected?

To be fair, we did get a little bit of new sidewalk on Walnut Street recently. Waterbury Development Corporation built two new houses on the corner of Walnut and Wood Streets, replacing the sidewalks in front of the houses. But they didn't bother doing the sidewalk on Wood Street, which was in far worse condition. If I were paranoid, I would take it personally. Wood Street residents have been begging for new sidewalks for years, and when we finally get a chance to see improvement, we're snubbed. (Fortunately, I'm not paranoid!)

Wood Street sidewalk deemed acceptable (apparently) by WDC and the City of Waterbury.

The real issue is not political favoritism. The real issue is that the City of Waterbury does not have a comprehensive plan for improving the pedestrian experience.

I don't want mayoral candidates promising new sidewalks to specific neighborhoods. I want a solid plan guaranteeing new sidewalks to every neighborhood. People understand that it's expensive and can't happen over night. What they want is to understand how the decisions are made, and to feel confident that decisions are made in a fair, equitable, and logical way.

Here's what I propose: budget a minimum of $10 million per year for sidewalks; supplement that budget with grant funding wherever possible; draft a construction plan that starts with making sure there are usable sidewalks on both sides of the busiest streets first, with the streets near parks and schools first, with the streets on bus routes first. It might take 20 years to get to every street, but we will know when it will be done. The plan could even specify what year to expect a certain sidewalk to be worked on, easing everyone's minds about the topic.

The first step in the process is to create an inventory of the sidewalks. This doesn't have to be done by city employees. Main Street Waterbury has a template for exactly this process, which could easily be tweaked for my proposed plan. Once the template is prepared in an Excel spreadsheet, the inventory can be done by volunteers. Each of the various neighborhood organizations could take responsibility for inventorying the sidewalk situation in their neighborhood. Stretches of road would be categorized based on the condition of the sidewalk (or lack of sidewalk). The inventory would then be compiled by the city's Public Works department.

The second step would be to prioritize streets and to create a list of which stretches of sidewalk would be done each year, from now until project completion. The final schedule of construction would then be publicly distributed, with the understanding that construction will go faster if grant funds are obtained. Getting the grant funds will be a lot easier if there is a solid construction plan.

Now, given that Waterbury is full of pessimists, I'm sure someone will be quick to tell me that my idea is unrealistic or too ambitious. For a significantly more modest proposal, check out the City of Corvallis, Oregon's sidewalk policy, which clearly defines how the city chooses which sidewalks to improve. Among the highlights:

The City will maintain an ongoing annual program to identify hazardous sidewalk conditions and will determine the priority within which repairs for these hazardous sidewalk condition may be completed....

The City will prioritize repairs on the basis of highest risk to public heath and safety. The City may elect to mitigate sidewalk hazards until repairs can be made. Sidewalk repairs will be performed within the available funds generated by the Sidewalk Maintenance Fee....

As far as I can tell (from the 2013 Code of Ordinances), Waterbury does not have any sidewalk policy, other than to hold property owners responsible for snow and ice removal in the winter, and other usage policies. This is why, term after term, our Mayors are left floundering at neighborhood meetings when residents demand sidewalk improvements. This is why new sidewalks are a perennial campaign promise that is rarely kept. This is why so many Waterbury residents are frustrated over sidewalks.

Believe it or not, the City of Waterbury has a Sidewalk Construction Fund. No, really! It was established in 1945 and is still in the Charter. According to the Charter, it's a revolving working capital fund for the construction and repair of sidewalks. Whether or not it still exists, or how much money is in the fund, is unknown to me.

While I'd like to see my sidewalk budget proposal implemented, I'd be happy if we could just adopt a formal sidewalk policy to eliminate the chaos that currently exists.

For more information about urban sidewalks, visit the Walk Friendly Communities website.

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