Our sidewalk deficiency

Jun. 03, 2014 @ 05:29 PM

During the City Council’s budget hearing Monday night, Councilman Eugene Brown responded to pleas for more action on city sidewalks with a concurring opinion.

“We are sidewalk-poor in Durham,” Brown said. “There’s a deficiency here.”

Brown’s observations are often right on the mark. Seldom could that be truer than in this instance.

Durham is interlaced with streets with no sidewalks – and too often sidewalks that do exist are in disrepair.  A far too frequent sight is a pedestrian inches away from the asphalt on which cars are speeding past.

It is not for lack of a plan. It is, unfortunately, for lack of progress.

The city’s 2006 Durham Walks! Pedestrian Plan outlined ambitious goals, including to “increase the number of pedestrian facilities, including sidewalks, trails, crosswalks, and pedestrian safety improvements at intersections.”

Carrying out that plan has been slow.

The plan listed, for example, 19 top-priority projects for new sidewalk construction. And it set a benchmark to complete six of the 19 by 2010.

As of Tuesday, the city’s online interactive map of the plan’s projects had this to say about 13 of the 19: “No progress.” The others ranged from “funded, no design” to “funded and designed.” 

Sidewalks and other pedestrian improvements are about more that safety -- although that certainly should be an overriding concern. Urban planners and public health experts will readily tell you a city’s “walkability” reduces traffic congestion and improves overall citizen health.

“When streets are designed only for cars, they deny people the opportunity to choose more active ways to get around, such as walking or biking,” notes the National Complete Streets Coalition.

The health impacts of “street designs that favor the automobile over walking and bicycling” are clear, the coalition says. “One study found that, on a daily basis, each additional hour spent driving is associated with a 9 percent increase in the likelihood of obesity, while each additional kilometer walked is associated with a five percent reduction in this likelihood.”

To be fair, Durham is far from alone. America’s love affair with the automobile, which burgeoned after World War II, led to decades of emphasis on highways that saw the pedestrian as an afterthought – or an impediment. New developments and new construction in Durham favor a more complete approach -- projects such as the newest segment of Martin Luther King Boulevard include ample bike paths and wide sidewalks.

But all those decades of neglect have left us with at least 200 miles of streets with no sidewalks, and that’s a challenging gap.

The focus of Monday’s citizen complaints about sidewalks was sidewalk repair. But the debate served as a reminder that it will take considerable will and wallet to make sidewalks and bike lanes measure up to what a city with our ambitions should expect.

Or perhaps we don’t expect it. Absent public clamor for more and better sidewalks, the council and city administration might understandably conclude there are plenty of other places citizens want them to spend tax dollars.