Ask anyone where they want to live, and what they want their community to look like, and statistically you’re bound to hear a resounding force of YES for creating communities that are walkable and accessible by design. For those in Raleigh that are committed to seeing the city grow in an equitable and sustainable way, infrastructure that enables car-free mobility is a critical component of our growth. Whether it’s connecting our parkspace, our schools, or our grocery run, having a safe and comfortable path to traverse is vital if we want to get folks thinking outside their cars for their mobility options.
Let’s back up and talk about sidewalks in general. The most common-version sidewalk raised 6 inches from a road, is 48 inches wide, and often set back from the street usually with a grass buffer between the sidewalk and the road. There are lots of variations, but let’s talk about that standard one for now. What does a sidewalk like that add to a community, and why would we want them? According to the US Department of Transportation, sidewalks increase safety and could “prevent up to 88% of ‘walking along roadside crashes’” (where someone is hit by a car while walking next to a road).
The USDOT also found that when people have good sidewalks to walk on, they perceive their needs as being better met and are more likely to actually walk somewhere. They even found a direct correlation between having more sidewalks and having citizens walk for recreation. For an elderly person with limited mobility, a sidewalk may be their only, safe way to get outside and visit a neighbour. AARP says, “People who live in neighborhoods with sidewalks are 47 percent more likely to be active at least 39 minutes a day.”
There are three ways in which sidewalks get built in Raleigh. First, sidewalks are required by ordinance through the City’s Street Design Manual. The ordinance requires that sidewalks are installed on both sides of any new street inside the city which is connected to city water and sewer. Second, sidewalks on non-residential roads and thoroughfares are prioritized and built through City Initiated Projects (CIP). The trend has been that bigger roads that are being widened or are between areas without much going on make the CIP list. A great example is Lake Wheeler Rd. getting a sidewalk to connect Maywood and Centennial Campus. This will be a great, needed connection. Smaller neighborhood projects don’t make it onto this list typically.
Finally, neighbors can go through a petition process which, if successful, will result in the retrofit of a sidewalk on a street in a residential area. The petition process has been in the news recently with a project that had been in the planning phases for 5 years, hitting a roadblock with city council opting to not fund the project. Many have heard about the result and thought how did that happen? Doesn’t Raleigh want sidewalks? And, how did that all take 5 years?
A sidewalk petition process is unique in that it is the only transportation project that the city undertakes which requires resident’s time, energy and a vote of property owners that are affected. If a project is initiated and voted down, it does not make the sidewalk any less important from a safety or connectivity perspective. It does not mean that the collective neighborhood wouldn’t use it or doesn’t want it. It just means that over 50% of the immediate neighbors did not desire the changes and voted against it. Certainly if our roadways, bikeways and greenways were built in this manner, we may never see any improvements.
Notably, the city has recently changed the petition process so that over 50% of ballots cast must be in favor of the project, whereas, previously the process had a statute that was in place where 50% of all homeowners (regardless of if they responded to the ballot inquiry) had to be in favor. This ensures that if no ballot is cast (ie the resident did not care enough about the outcome to respond by casting a ballot) that these indifferent home owners are not weighting the outcome toward a failed project.
To date, it’s frustrating that many of these neighborhood-lead petitions have failed and we’re hopeful that the amended ballot process will ensure more successful projects in the future. With these petitions, neighbors often have to campaign their block for the improvements they would like to see which makes this a very real and personal endeavor. For some projects, people pour a lot of effort and energy into their cause. The neighbors surrounding the project can get quite excited and want the project to succeed but if their street is not directly affected, they have no vote. If a petition project is not successful, neighbors see that a real opportunity for people to safely walk their kids to the park or greenway is lost.
There are a few things to recognize that could help Raleigh increase its success for sidewalk retrofits in neighborhoods that could truly benefit. A sidewalk, just like a roadway, is important to more individuals than just the property owners who are affected. Treating it this way makes it seem like it is a benefit to only a few. There are many neighborhoods that developed during a time in Raleigh’s history where sidewalks would without question be built today on both sides of the street. Why are our current standards for neighborhood livability, connectivity and safety not applicable just because the sidewalk is a retrofit?
City staff have sought to incorporate neighborhood concerns for preserving tree canopies and other neighborhood features, and it’s critical that they continue to listen in to ensure neighbors feel their voice is heard in the design process. However the answer can never be the complete blocking of a sidewalk project, which was the unfortunate outcome with Oxford Rd when the choices of a few dictated the shared outcomes for all. We must be an accessible and sustainable city be design and sidewalks are a critical need to move us away from car dependency and toward a more equitable transportation system.