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Durham needs 500 miles of sidewalks. Here’s why they take so long

Jose Gomez has to walk in the grass beside a busy highway in southern Durham on his morning commute to work because there are no sidewalks.
Jose Gomez has to walk in the grass beside a busy highway in southern Durham on his morning commute to work because there are no sidewalks. The 9th Street Journal

Jose Gomez rides the bus from his home in northeast Durham, then trudges the last quarter-mile on the grass to his job at Jimmy’s Famous Hotdogs on N.C. 55 in south Durham. There are no sidewalks along the busy highway there.

“It gets really dangerous when I have to walk home at night, around 11, 11:30 p.m., when I can’t see my surroundings well,” said Gomez, 47, a fry cook. “It would make a huge difference to have some space for pedestrians.”

The area along the highway is typical of many Durham neighborhoods and commercial areas. It’s not a friendly place for pedestrians.

The city has identified 500 miles of sidewalk needs, and existing projects address only about 20 percent of that, said Bryan Poole, a transportation planner.

In late November, the Public Works Department presented designs for new sidewalks where Gomez and his coworkers walk to work. But these designs are still six years away from completion, with significant complications due to retaining walls, driveways and bike lanes.

“It’s hard for the public to understand how long it takes for sidewalks to be built,” Poole said.

Planning priorities

Dale McKeel, a bicycle and pedestrian coordinator, said Durham was largely built and developed before the 1990s, when sidewalks weren’t a major concern.

“It doesn’t seem like it’d be that complicated [to install them], but there are lots of details that need to be worked through,” McKeel said.

City planners have long prioritized cars over bicycles or pedestrians, said Dan Gelinne, a program manager at the Pedestrian and Bicycle Information Center, part of the UNC Highway Safety Research Center. “Places like Durham, Atlanta, and Phoenix were pretty much developed when people were driving, so the sidewalk was an afterthought,” he said.

And yet cities with comprehensive sidewalk coverage like New York and Boston flourished much earlier, when most people were getting around on foot.

Recent decades have seen more support for sidewalks. Not only do sidewalks decrease the likelihood of pedestrians getting struck by cars by 80 percent, they also raise property values, make shops and businesses more economically viable, and signal a more physically active neighborhood, Gelinne said.

In 2006, the Durham City Council adopted the DurhamWalks! Pedestrian Plan, which was meant to assess existing sidewalk networks and recommend improvements.

While the city has a method for ranking sidewalk projects, Poole said most sidewalks get federal funding through the N.C. Department of Transportation, so the city often must wait for the state to decide what it will approve. The two don’t always see eye-to-eye, because the state is much more conservative about small-scale projects. State-level funding tends to go towards highway projects.

Sidewalk costs vary greatly depending on what obstacles the landscape presents. In Durham, materials and labor for 500 square feet of sidewalk can cost between $1,500 and $3,000.

Balancing needs

City officials want to make sure that sidewalks help everyone in Durham, from the rich to the poor.

“Certainly sidewalks are needed everywhere, but in some places, [people are] more reliant on being able to walk, like poorer neighborhoods,” Gelline said. “This can come across in the public’s view that the city isn’t responding to what [its residents] are asking for, but a lot of times it’s the wealthier people in the community who are better at effectively communicating with the local government, so they know how to make a loud public argument for more sidewalks.”

Durham’s sidewalks are mostly concentrated in and around downtown. Poole said most the requests the city gets come from wealthier neighborhoods but that he tries to make equity a primary concern.

“Sidewalks are pretty expensive to build and generally cannot be done quickly,” said Gelline. “Durham probably struggles with the fact that, at the end of the day, the budget allotted is not enough for what is required, so they’re still catching up.”

Daniela Flamini is a senior studying international relations and Arabic at Duke University. She covers local government for The 9th Street Journal, a class at the Sanford School of Public Policy.

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