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Assuring sidewalks vs. assuring good sidewalks

At the beginning of 2007, Mary Cheh introduced a bill (cosponsored by Barry, Brown, Wells and even, yes, Schwartz) to require sidewalks be installed on at least one side of a street when it's being reconstructed or resurfaced.

11th and M, SE. Photo by David Alpert.

Yes, there are streets in DC without sidewalks, and sometimes it's even controversial. For example, Ordway Street in Cleveland Park lacked a sidewalk on one side, a particularly glaring omission given that the NCRC nursery school is on the sidewalk-free side. When, recently, the school fought with neighbors over plans to increase enrollment, some opposed adding that sidewalk in the hope that by keeping the area unsafe for kids, it would make it easier to oppose more kids.

Fortunately for the kids, DDOT believes in sidewalks, and put the second one in on Ordway. That might be an argument why we don't really need the Sidewalk Assurance Act of 2007. (Besides, since Ordway already had one sidewalk, this bill wouldn't have applied.) The bill would be really useful, however, if it required not just sidewalks, but pedestrian-friendly ones.

Remember the 17th Street reconstruction, where the intersections with Q and R Streets widen (and the sidewalks narrow) near the corner? If we want a real sidewalk law, it could require DDOT to remove any of those anti-bulb-outs (bulb-ins?) when redoing a street, or provide a written explanation as to why that's impractical. Likewise, we could even require bulb-outs on any corner where the curb lane is used for parking 24-7, or a written explanation why not.

We could have a minimum sidewalk width, with justification needed to build or keep anything narrower. We could require a minimum number of street tree boxes. Really, what we need is a comprehensive set of road standards that contain pedestrian improvements by default, instead of having to push each time to add suitable pedestrian facilities after engineering designs are already partially complete.

Ideally, DDOT would develop a good set of standards themselves, and follow transparent decisionmaking practices to give communities clear explanations when they're not feasible (if the turning radius might have to be larger for emergency vehicles, for example). But we don't have that, and unless we get a visionary leader to run DDOT, perhaps legislation is the only way to fix what ails our street designs.

If you're interested in bringing up this or other sidewalk issues at the hearing, it would be great for Jim Graham to hear from residents. (I'll be in Charleston, South Carolina.) It's at 10 am tomorrow (October 31) in the Wilson Building (1350 Pennsylvania Ave NW), Room 500.

David Alpert is the founder of Greater Greater Washington and its board president. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He now lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. 


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(Haven't read it yet - I will!), but I saw the headline and was like "YES!" then I saw the bike - well not exactly ON the sidewalk, but....Aaargh!!!! Almost!

(Yes, yes, Yes, yes, Yes, yes, Yes, yes, Yes, yes -- in DC bikes are legally allowed on sidewalks.)

by Jazzy on Oct 30, 2008 3:28 pm • linkreport

And by the "almost" I mean you almost got it (a good focus on pedestrian safety).

by Jazzy on Oct 30, 2008 3:29 pm • linkreport

Sidewalks sound like a good idea ... but the "one size fits all" aspect has me a little worried. So ... if a neighborhood doesn't want sidewalks because they don't want to urbanize, what's wrong with that? It's their neighborhood. Shouldn't their input count? I like sidewalks, and I have no problem with being in a place where people are walking right by my front windows. But if a neighborhood doesn't want that, why should we shove it down their throats? I think it'd be better if the District made sidewalks an option they'd support if sufficient people in a neighborhood requested them.

by Lance on Oct 30, 2008 3:50 pm • linkreport

DC should be investing in sidewalk safety not only for the obvious prevention of car-pedestrian collisions but also for the physical activity and thus chronic disease prevention access to safe sidewalks promotes. Access to safe places to walk has been shown to increase by 24% the proportion of residents in the vicinity who achieve the minimum reccommedned amount of physical activity needed to prevent costly chronic diseases.

by Bianchi on Oct 30, 2008 3:52 pm • linkreport

Hell yeah, I can name lots of streets that are like this because of construction or because of just lack of planning

Due to construction most are in Noma; due to no planning Deanwood, around Mt. Rannier on along the DC side of Eastern Ave, Southern Ave near Marshall Hgts, Wheeler Creek, Ridge Rd.

You either have no sidewalks or sidewalks close on both sides of the street like M Street near the NY Ave metro was a couple of months ago due to construction on one side and sidewalk construction on the area so people were walking in the street.

Then you have signs in the middle of a block that tell you the sidewalk is closed when they should be at the start so that you know to cross the street before you get to the middle of the block.just comain sense

We should have a minimum sidewalk width also wide enough so that two Wheelchairs can move along a sidewalk without one stopping for the other.

by kk on Oct 30, 2008 3:53 pm • linkreport

Lance, we live in a city. When you have individual blocks which do not have sidewalks, you create a situation where people are either walking in streets or are having to traverse streets to stay in a safe walking area.

If people want don't want to urbanize, there is plenty of cheap housing available in suburban neighborhoods.

by Andrew on Oct 30, 2008 4:19 pm • linkreport

Andrew, we have plenty of suburban neighborhoods ... right in DC! (i.e., you don't need to leave the District to find them ... and yes, while we all live in a city, not the entire city is urban, nor 'must' it be.)

by Lance on Oct 30, 2008 4:25 pm • linkreport

Technically that isn't a sidewalk pictured - it's part of the Anacostia Riverwalk Trail (a MUT).

by David C on Oct 30, 2008 4:54 pm • linkreport

Many purely car dependent places have sidewalks. Where's the harm?

by Cavan on Oct 30, 2008 4:56 pm • linkreport

And if a neighborhood were to get together and oppose fire hydrants because they think they look funny? It's their neighborhood right? Matters that concern safety need to be taken care of by the city, period...

by Justin on Oct 30, 2008 10:54 pm • linkreport

Justin, Bad analogy. First off, just like one can argue that building more roads begets more traffic, one can argue that constructing sidewalks begets more foot-traffic and thus increases the odds of someone getting hit by traffic … because they’d otherwise be in a car. Likewise, it could be argued (using David’s own street-calming suggestions) that having people using the streets for foot traffic will calm the motorist traffic … as they know to be on the lookout for ‘people in the road’. Hydrants are there to help fight a fire which is always a possibility regardless of whether there are hydrants there … or not! Like I said, sorry Justin … but bad analogy.

by Lance on Oct 30, 2008 11:13 pm • linkreport

So Lance, you are saying the potential selfishness of certain homeowners should take priority over others in a community who wish to safely have their kids walk to school, or to be able to jog without being in the street?


by Andrew on Oct 30, 2008 11:19 pm • linkreport

Andrew, Please re-read my last post. Just like David's argument that building more roads (and wider/straigher lanes) generates more and faster traffic, it can be argued that building sidewalks off a non-urban street (think streets for example in neighborhoods adjacent to Rock Creek Park) will generate the urban conditions that make it difficult to safely "share" streets as is the case in non-urban areas. Bottom line is that the neighbors have the right to choose for themselves if they want to urbanize their streets or have them retain their non-urban character with the resulting slower traffic and more walkability aspects ... Or if they DO want to urbanize their streets, push pedestrian traffics off them (and on to sidewalks) and allow for faster traffic on their streets. The city should not be 'mandating' this significant change on them.

by Lance on Oct 31, 2008 6:20 am • linkreport

Or, as practically happens, vehicles drive fast on the 'suburban' urban streets while pedestrians have no alternative but to either criss-cross streets with non-continuous sidewalks, or are in the street because there is no alternative.

As I stated before, selfish residents of a single block ought not be able to act as an obstacle to continuous sidewalks in a city.

By the way, one of the favorite reasons I have seen for such opposition in Cleveland Park, Forest Hills and Chevy Chase is "but then I will have to shovel and maintain it in the winter".

Again, I see no reason, pending city funds, why there should not be sidewalks in the District of Columbia.

by Andrew on Oct 31, 2008 7:30 am • linkreport


Sure neighborhoods have a say in "urbanizing" where they live. We aren't talking skyscrapers here. What you're saying about more roads creating more traffic and sidewalks creating more foot traffic makes NO sense. Roads are everywhere. There is always at least a one-lane, one-way street in this city (or suburbs in the city of DC).

Foot traffic will not create congestion. Foot traffic will not create traffic fatalities. I still stick with my analogy of fire hydrants. Isn't the safety of a human being worth more than that of a house?

But in regards to increasing foot traffic: If you are lucky enough to be able to walk, walking is a RIGHT. Those that are handicapped have the RIGHT to be able to get around safely by wheelchair, etc.

What is the first thing they tell you in Driver's Ed? Driving is a privilege, NOT a right. We treat it very much so like a right in this country (You can't blame people too much, in most of this country there is no other way to get around).

So if I'm walking in a neighborhood without sidewalks, with a group of friends, do we have the right to walk down the middle of the street, as traffic collects behind us (since it is the only place to travel)?

by Justin on Oct 31, 2008 9:58 am • linkreport

There's a reason they don't issue a walking license, because the government doesn't get to decide if you can walk or not.

by David C on Oct 31, 2008 10:15 am • linkreport

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