Sidewalks deserve more respect
Walking is an extremely important mode of travel in Washington, DC. Unfortunately, many of the city's sidewalks are unreasonably narrow, too small for more than one or two people to walk along. This forces pedestrians to wait for a chance to pass, or to step into the street. The situation is dangerous, insulting, and above all unnecessary.
Sidewalks don't get the respect they deserve. We bicker over the needs of bikers and drivers, but everyone uses sidewalks. Overly narrow walkways throughout the city discourage walking, and tell pedestrians that they aren't being considered.
Narrow sidewalks have real impacts on travel behavior and ease of access. People are less likely to travel on foot when they have to weave around other people, and those in wheelchairs or other devices must cross the street to get past bottlenecks.
There are many causes for these sidewalk traffic jams.
One major cause is simply poor street design that doesn't consider pedestrians' needs. There are countless examples of this throughout the city. In one instance, the sidewalk on the northwest corner of 16th Street and L Street downtown is about the size of a dining room table, which frequently jams up the busy intersection. Another trouble spot is the sidewalk right outside the Cleveland Park Metro, where frequent floods limit the space even further. Another is the sidewalk on Wisconsin Avenue near Brandywine Avenue, where a parking ramp and electrical pole narrow the usable sidewalk to less than 3 feet wide.
Construction is also frequently a problem. When construction crews in need of working space are faced with the choice of temporarily removing one car lane from a street versus removing the sidewalk, the sidewalk is almost always the loser. For example, DC Water will soon remove the sidewalk for a stretch along M Street, SE, in order to maintain a full complement of 4 through lanes for cars.
Other times construction crews will leave a sidewalk open, but narrow an already tight space. That's what is happening now in Columbia Heights, just a block over from the busy DC USA retail complex. Construction tarps have pushed up against a bus shelter, leaving less than 2 feet for pedestrians.
Then there's neglect. The sidewalk along M Street between South Capitol Street and Half Street, SE, is a prime example. As noted by a GGW contributor: "It's super narrow and uneven, studded with signs, and bordered by vacant lots, which are fenced off. I wish the District would use eminent domain to take 6 feet of the vacant lots and widen the sidewalks. It's especially bad before and after Nats games."
To DC's credit, the city has embarked on fairly ambitious sidewalk expansion projects in several places around the city. There's the seemingly never-ending project along 18th Street in Adams Morgan, as well as recent or ongoing work on 17th Street NW, U Street NW, and H Street NE. These are good projects, but they are just a start. We're far from where we need to be.
While it's true that street space is limited and trade-offs are always necessary, sidewalks have been the loser too often, for too long. Recent improvements are good, but as the DC Water example shows, sidewalks are still often treated poorly.
These problems don't happen by accident, but rather through choices that devalue the pedestrian experience. That needs to change.
What sidewalks do you think are too small? Share your experiences and pictures in the comments.
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