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The case against sidewalks

And how cities can create new avenues for pedestrians

On a fall Saturday at Panorama High School, deep in Los Angeles’s San Fernando Valley, an arborist fields questions about which street trees produce the most shade with the least amount of water. A rep from a local street furniture vendor explains the difference between a bus bench and more protective transit shelter. Just outside the school’s gates, a group moves slowly along busy Van Nuys Boulevard performing a walk audit, noting details like missing curb cuts, sign poles planted in a way that a wheelchair can’t pass, and signals that aren’t long enough to allow everyone to cross the daunting six-lane roadway.

For the past year, the nonprofit Investing in Place has been holding these summits all over Los Angeles as part of an effort to train an army of sidewalk advocates, teaching neighborhood and community groups how to petition the city to fix broken pavement, improve bus stops, and plant more trees. Attendees range from environmental scientists to housing activists, from high school students to new moms.

“Someone in City Hall told me there’s no constituency for sidewalks and that’s why it wasn’t a priority for them,” says Investing in Place’s director, Jessica Meaney, who wears a magenta shirt that says “Stop Trippin’.” “They said no one is knocking on their door asking to fix sidewalks.”

Meaney points to a report commissioned by LA’s Chief Administrative Officer which specifically cites sidewalk repair as one of the most important quality-of-life issues for community members. The problem was that the repair process is so complicated—Meaney counted 11 agencies with overlapping responsibilities—Angelenos don’t know how or where to get help: “They don’t know who is trimming trees or making the curb cut or power-washing the bus shelter.” What’s more, the decisions about the repair and maintenance of sidewalks are made in a completely different department from the transportation planning that guides buses, cars, and even bikes.

The City of Los Angeles maintains the largest sidewalk network in the country, but using the word “maintains” might garner an eye roll with this crowd. Historically, Los Angeles County has invested less than 1 percent of all its transportation funds for sidewalks, including crosswalks and signals, although a ballot measure passed in 2016 bumped that up to 8 percent for the next 50 years. Investing in Place estimates that half of the city’s 11,000 sidewalk miles are insufficient for basic navigation. In 2016, after almost a half-century of deferred maintenance, LA put up a billion-dollar plan to fix just the pavement, but now it can’t keep up with the repairs—the city receives more requests in a week than it can address in a month.

Meaney created a curriculum to turn everyday citizens into activists for all aspects of the sidewalk experience—which, she says, is the city’s only truly public, truly multimodal right-of-way.

“We all have friends who use wheelchairs and friends with babies in strollers, and we love this city and we just want everyone to enjoy it,” she says. “Prioritizing the mobility needs for one mode while being silent on all other modes, it’s messed up.”

In many cities, a navigable right-of-way is no longer a right. Maybe sidewalks are no longer the solution.

A century ago, sidewalks were the centers of American cities—public places for business transactions and social interactions. “Sidewalks” is actually a misnomer, because before cars existed, all modes of transportation mixed freely in the street: streetcars, carriages, horses, pushcarts, and, most of all, people walking in every direction.

With the advent of the car, these public spaces were pushed to the margins, squeezed to the fringe of roadways widened and reinvented for speed. The invention of jaywalking shamed and blamed those who dared to leave the sliver of space demarcated for pedestrians.

Although every American city surrendered its soul to the automobile in some way, some have managed to build and maintain decent sidewalks, says Angie Schmitt, who covers walkability issues for Streetsblog: “It depends if you live in a city that was growing at a time when paying for sidewalks was in vogue. If the city was booming in an auto-centric time, it’s been treated as second-class infrastructure.” So Boston’s handsome historic sidewalks are maintained by street services, while Nashville is trying to fill in the gaps of a sidewalk network that covers less than a third of the sprawling city.

From a fiscal standpoint, it’s surprising that sidewalks would be swept so completely off city budgets. Especially because not making cities walkable is actually costing them a great deal of money.

The giant asterisk appended to Los Angeles’s big plan to fix its sidewalks is that it was only put into action as the result of a lawsuit. Willits v. City of Los Angeles was the largest disability-access class-action suit in U.S. history, and requires the city to make a $1.4 billion investment in its sidewalks over the next 30 years.

Suing the city is often the only way to bring about change, both for Americans with disabilities who have no other method of navigating the streets, and for others who rely on walking as a primary mode of transportation but find themselves at odds with poor elements of standardized sidewalk design.

Like power lines or the sewer system or water mains, sidewalks are used by virtually every single person in a city on a daily basis—even if you drive somewhere, you must get out of your car and walk to your destination. But most walking networks don’t even function as well as our basic utilities.

The decline of sidewalks wasn’t inevitable. In fact, it followed a national wave of walking advocacy.

In 2010, several studies were published by the American Cancer Society and other researchers linking sitting with early mortality. The prescribed antidote for “sitting to death” was almost unbelievably simple: Walking could not only prolong life, it could also help prevent a wide range of health problems, from heart disease to diabetes to depression.

Meanwhile, devices like the Fitbit and Nike’s FuelBand surged in popularity. A 2014 study concluded that one in five Americans wore a wearable fitness tracker, as users challenged each other to achieve the daily recommended 10,000 steps. Americans logged millions of miles on their high-tech pedometers, often by making simple behavioral changes to everyday activities, like choosing to take the stairs instead of an elevator.

In 2012, the healthcare company Kaiser Permanente, where doctors were writing “walking prescriptions” as preventative treatment, crystallized the momentum into a movement, gathering 100 health and pedestrian advocacy groups to create the Every Body Walk! collaborative. The effort launched an annual walking summit, a 30-minute documentary, and the publication of the book America’s Walking Renaissance: How Cities, Suburbs & Towns Are Getting Back on Their Feet.

A startup named WalkScore, which rates an address’s walkability, became so popular that it was eventually acquired in 2014 by the real estate listing site Redfin.

America wanted to walk. But where?

In a four-part series on walking in Slate in 2012, Tom Vanderbilt isolated the U.S.’s biggest hurdle in creating true walkable communities. The vast majority of trips that Americans take are not their daily commutes. Rather, they’re additional errands and outings unrelated to work or school—short trips which are almost exclusively taken by car. Better, safer, and more plentiful sidewalks, it would follow, could allow more Americans to walk those handful of miles every day.

Vanderbilt ended the series on a hopeful note—“How America got walking again”—nodding to coming infrastructural changes that would give pedestrians more options on U.S. streets. Cities were planning to build “complete streets” to balance the needs of pedestrians, bike riders, and transit users with those of people in cars.

Many cities made some physical concessions to pedestrians by turning parking spaces into parklets, or wide swaths of pavement into urban plazas, or abandoned railways into walking paths. Cities grew denser with more people moving into older downtowns originally designed to be walkable urban cores. Other changes, like reprogramming signals to give walkers a head start or all-directional crosswalks or limiting residential speeds to 20 mph, were tested as low-cost, high-impact transformations to make streets safer and more pleasant.

There are a few success stories from this movement. New York and San Francisco, two U.S. cities with complete streets programs that included redesigning some streets for pedestrian safety, saw the lowest number of traffic deaths last year since the introduction of the automobile.

Yet the dramatic shift in mode share—people swapping car trips for walking trips in large numbers—didn’t happen. Americans are driving more than they were before the supposed walking revolution. In 2016, Americans drove more miles than they have in any other year in history. (Compare that to Paris, where a combination of pedestrianization projects and vehicular regulations has meant 45 percent fewer car trips since 1990.) In U.S. cities, most of the talk about walking remains just talk.

“I don’t want to be negative—it is positive that different municipalities understand walking is not only viable, it is also desirable and necessary,” says Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris, an urban planning professor at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs who wrote the book Sidewalks: Conflict and Negotiation over Public Space with Renia Ehrenfeucht. “But it’s not going to happen with the infrastructure we have. We have to do much better.”

The federal government has encouraged cities to do more for walkers—including a 2010 recommendation to consider walking equal to other transportation modes when building new infrastructure. But these recommendations do not have major funding incentives attached, nor are they prioritized.

The Department of Transportation’s Safer People, Safer Streets initiative in 2015 conducted road safety assessments in 50 states and got mayors from 230 cities to commit to building walking and biking infrastructure. But there was no money specifically allocated for new sidewalks. In comparison, in 2016, USDOT awarded $40 million to Columbus, Ohio, and smaller grants to six other finalist cities for the development of infrastructure to support autonomous vehicles, a technology which, at that time, had only seen limited testing in a handful of the 78 cities that applied.

While it’s unlikely that the country will see Interstate Highway System-level investment for walking—particularly not under the Trump administration’s supposed infrastructure plan, which calls for the kinds of public-private partnership deals that usually don’t focus on pedestrian improvements—many U.S. cities have passed their own infrastructure bills or sales-tax increases to fund walking improvements, notes Henry Cisneros, former secretary of Housing and Urban Development, now principal of Siebert Cisneros Shank & Co., LLC, a public finance firm that facilitates infrastructure investment.

“Make no mistake about it, sidewalks are critical in the new way that we think about cities and how they function as these urban villages—they require walkability,” he says. “But sidewalks tend to be more local and those are generally funded on local bonds or local capital budgets.”

Many of these local efforts specifically focus on equity, says Cisneros, allocating sidewalk money to give communities better access to schools or transit; the first-mile/last-mile solution. But this becomes a challenge when the improvements are unevenly distributed across cities. When property owners are generally the ones responsible for maintaining the sidewalks that front their real estate, most major improvements are usually only made as part of new development.

In wealthy neighborhoods, business owners might end up improving these connections, but also privatizing their sidewalks—maintaining the pavement but preventing it from functioning as a true public space. In Kansas City, for example, the city is handing over the sidewalks in a popular entertainment district to a real estate developer, meaning people who want to enter at night must pass through metal detectors and show identification.

Underserved neighborhoods, where there are higher rates of pedestrian deaths and injuries, face even greater equity challenges around sidewalks.

“Street safety is an environmental justice and racial justice issue,” says Emilia Crotty, executive director of the pedestrian advocacy group Los Angeles Walks. Across the country, she notes, African Americans and Latino Americans are 60 percent and 43 percent more likely to be killed while walking than white Americans. “The traffic deaths and injuries that are so common in these neighborhoods are a result of historical neglect and disinvestment in the streets, crosswalks, sidewalks, traffic signals, medians, and curb extensions that other communities have enjoyed for years.”

Yet clean, safe, unbroken sidewalks have become such a rarity in this country that designing an area where people can get around primarily by walking—the one mode of transportation that is available and accessible to everyone—is now seen as a harbinger of displacement. In 2016, an Urban Land Institute report noted that walkability had become so desirable that it was something “many households will not be able to afford.”

American society has so normalized our inferior sidewalk system that we don’t believe we deserve a place to walk.

For years, the country’s power plants were responsible for generating the majority of greenhouse gases that cause the planet to warm. But as the country has shifted to more renewable sources like solar and wind, that changed. Now transportation is the largest contributor to climate change in the U.S.—and the recent increase in driving is to blame.

Remember that a majority of trips that Americans take—in some communities, as many as three-fourths of all trips—are not commutes. If Americans could flip some of those short car trips to walking, it could have a dramatic decrease in the country’s greenhouse gas emissions, says Carter Rubin, a mobility and climate advocate at the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC).

“Transportation is the leading source of carbon pollution in California—yet a third of all trips in LA County are under three miles,” he says. “The choice between hopping in a car to pick up milk and getting there on foot can hinge on something as simple as access to a safe walkway. Improving our sidewalks will help drive down transportation emissions—something that is urgently needed.”

Walk21, a U.K.-based advocacy group, announced its Global Sidewalk Challenge at the United Nations’ annual climate summit in Bonn, Germany, last year. The target of constructing or repairing 100,000 kilometers of sidewalks globally was made with the goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. As part of this initiative, Walk21 is calling on cities to include walking in their climate action plans. A recent survey by the U.N. noted that only 4 percent of its member countries made specific mention of walking improvements.

Last June, 391 mayors pledged to uphold climate commitments the U.S. made to reduce greenhouse gas emissions even as the country withdrew from the Paris accord. Some of those mayors worked together to create a separate agreement to specifically address transportation’s role in the crisis, pledging to create “fossil fuel-free streets” that promote walking and biking.

Other leaders are calling on cities to go even further. Jemilah Magnusson of the Institute for Transportation Development and Policy (ITDP) thinks the limited promises to reduce the impact of vehicles are not enough. At the World Urban Forum this week, ITDP is presenting a Pedestrians First toolkit for cities working to prioritize walkers over cars. “The vast majority of city streets, even in more walk-friendly places like New York and San Francisco, are designed to move cars as fast as possible, and that’s about it,” she says. “The street design, infrastructure, and, most of all, regulation of driving and parking, have not kept pace with these changes. There is a simple reason for this: It’s politically difficult to take space away from cars, so progress on that front is often slow.”

But some big cities are shifting to “walk-first” policies. Mexico City made a dramatic transformation to turn its car-filled city center into a bustling pedestrian zone. The fast-growing Indian city of Chennai now allocates a staggering 60 percent of its transportation budget to walking. In London, which implemented aggressive congestion charges over a decade ago, the number of cars entering its city center daily has dropped by almost half, while the number of people coming downtown each day has increased 23 percent.

Sidewalks also play another important role when it comes to climate: You can’t plant trees on land exclusively devoted to moving cars. Street trees not only provide shade to walkers, they also clean the air, filter rainwater back into the ground, and help lower a city’s temperature by several degrees. An urban canopy makes a city more resistant to the effects of extreme heat waves, which may end up killing more Americans every year than other climate change-related risks.

More recently, studies have made connections between trees and mental health, demonstrating that even brief encounters with urban nature can help prevent depression and dementia. Planting trees might be the single best thing a city can do for its residents, both for short-term public health and long-term climate resiliency.

In most cities, those efforts to plant more urban trees focus on the narrow strip of land between the sidewalk and the roadway. But “modern two-foot parkways are fatal traps for large trees, allowing them to grow to the point where the needed root-room for their growth is just not there and causing a huge amount of stress on them—as well as the stress caused by heat from the roadways,” says Frank McDonough, botanical information consultant at the Los Angeles County Arboretum & Botanic Garden.

To shade sidewalks and reap the full public health benefits of planting those trees, cities need to allocate at least a 10-foot parkway—the equivalent of a vehicular lane—that gives them room to grow.

This is why Seattle is experimenting with low-cost, permeable sidewalks which can quickly be laid down to protect growing trees and provide additional space for walkers. The old traditional sidewalk is sacrificed to save the tree, and a new corridor made of the material Flexipave allows the sidewalk to become part of the street—more like a wide, painted bike lane, just for walkers. “The tree can be healthy and it remains a walkable surface,” says Dongho Chang, chief traffic engineer for the City of Seattle. “The sidewalks provide a better solution for both the trees and the people who are walking on them.”

Over the last year, tech leaders have rolled out idea after idea to supposedly address the negative impacts of cars in cities. These invariably promise change without disrupting the status quo—digging tunnels or tubes beneath roads or introducing new vehicles that simply fly over them. But the more effective way to “fix traffic” might be much simpler.

The idea of the sidewalk as solution is one reason why the world’s largest tech company named its urban think tank after the original building block of cities. “Sidewalk Labs is a nod to both the rich mix of personal intersections that give great city streets their vitality and also the incredible ability throughout the history of cities to solve local challenges through innovation,” says Sidewalk Labs’ CEO Dan Doctoroff.

The Google-incubated Alphabet spinoff is busy building Sidewalk Toronto, a $50 million, 800-acre neighborhood-from-scratch in the Quayside district of Toronto.

Sidewalk Toronto will attempt to engineer a completely walkable neighborhood by placing goods and services closer to where residents live. This kind of baked-in walkability is the next-generation way of thinking about sidewalks, according to Jeff Speck, author of Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time. “In creating new truly mixed-use places, or striving to achieve a better balance of activities in existing places, we can provide more people the chance to live in places where most of their daily needs can be satisfied on foot.”

At the same time, Sidewalk Toronto will deliver a slew of tech solutions to eliminate the need for private cars: autonomous taxi bots, electric vehicle-sharing, delivery pallets traveling in subterranean caverns, and sleek high-speed ferries.

With pedestrians prioritized and fewer, slower, smarter cars, streets can start to shed the protective infrastructure like curbs that are designed to separate people from vehicles. This can give way to an entirely new type of street.

“As we move toward cities with quiet, clean, safe, shared vehicles, all those factors together will allow for a much more seamless connection between sidewalks and buildings,” says Mark Prommel, design director at Pensa, who has been envisioning how cities can reclaim their sidewalks once electric autonomous vehicles are widespread. “That buffer between pedestrians and the dangerous space of the street starts to disappear. So a road doesn’t have to be this big wide expanse that cuts through the city; it’s integrated with retail, cafes, office space, park space.”

Dutch cities have already been able to achieve this without the advent of autonomous vehicles; the term woonerf means “shared street,” where pedestrians mix freely with users of other transportation modes on roads with no lanes, paint, signage, or curbs. Similar streets are found throughout Europe and in cities in Japan, and it’s an idea that’s finally gaining momentum in North America, where they’re also called “home zones.” The idea is that each user analyzes and negotiates the street at a speed that’s deemed safe without any one mode dominating, making it the ideal environment for walkers.

In a presentation on Sidewalk Toronto as part of a smart cities showcase at January’s CES in Las Vegas, Sidewalk Labs’ chief policy officer Rohit Aggarwala showed the first colorful illustrations of the development’s shared, multimodal boulevards—“streets that put people first.” What was remarkable was how low-tech these streets felt.

In fact, it looked a lot like a photo of an American city before the automobile. Swap the awnings for engineered shade canopies, carriages for cute Google driverless cars, horses for bikes. People walking everywhere. There was not a sidewalk in sight.

One-third of Americans don’t drive. Some can’t. Some don’t have access to or can’t afford a car. Others are too young. And some don’t want to—teens and young adults have been opting out of getting drivers’ licenses in significant numbers, according to a 2016 University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute study.

Increasingly, however, Americans are getting too old to drive. By 2030, when all the baby boomers have hit retirement age, almost one-fifth of the nation’s population will be 65 or older, according to the Pew Research Center. That’s almost double the number of 65-plus Americans now.

Americans are, in general, living five to 10 years longer than they should physically be behind the wheel, says Jay Walljasper, author of America’s Walking Renaissance and a walkability consultant for AARP, which has become one of the biggest advocates for walkable cities. “We are outliving our ability to drive safely and comfortably,” he says, yet seniors keep driving because their independence relies on it. “If you stop driving, you cease to exist as a viable human being.”

A car-centric society could leave aging boomers with fewer transportation options. But what’s more likely is that we’ll see a transportation revolution.

Even with the country’s record-breaking driving habits over the last few years, thanks to changing demographics and the looming onslaught of autonomy, automakers are preparing for a precipitous drop in car ownership, with some estimates suggesting that “peak car” could come as soon as 2020.

At CES this year, the new CEO of Ford, Jim Hackett, revealed that the automaker is planning for a future of fewer cars. “Now is our opportunity to reclaim the streets for living ,” he said. “To take major leaps in the direction of building a true City of Tomorrow and reimagine how our streets and cities function much more efficiently.”

Yes, the CEO of Ford, the company that essentially put automobiles on U.S. streets, is calling for a “complete disruption and redesign of the surface transportation system.”

What Ford is preparing for—and championing through its bike share and microtransit shuttle services—is the fact that streets will no longer be planned around this binary use of cars versus everyone else. And the place for new modes to mix is not a narrow broken sidewalk: It’s the safe, shared, slow, well-maintained street that has walking at its core.

Instead of a one-size-fits-all equation of lane widths calculated to move cars quickly, with pedestrians pushed off to the side, the definition of a city street will change based on what people need, neighborhood by neighborhood, says Greg Lindsay, director of strategy for the urban mobility festival LACoMotion.

“Streets will become this panoply of different uses,” he says. “What happens when AV sensors get cheap enough that you can put them on tricycles or quadricycles and make the ultimate first-mile/last-mile solution? Maybe you have electric autonomous bicycles that allow seniors to move around the neighborhood. Maybe you’ll hang out in the street of the future.”

Last week, a coalition of 15 transit tech companies, including Zipcar, Uber, and Lyft, announced their unified vision for the future of urban transportation. The giants of car-sharing, bike-sharing, and ride-hailing, which claim to inform the travel decisions of 10 million people each day, are vowing to work together toward streets of the future that are “shared, multimodal, and zero-emission.”

Whether it’s dockless bike share, an autonomous minivan, a foldable electric scooter, or a trip-planning app that helps us seamlessly transfer to fixed routes like subways, light-rail, and buses, the future is supplying more options for transportation, not fewer. So we shouldn’t be planning our cities for any single technology the way Americans so eagerly sculpted their cities around cars. The most radical transformation we could make right now is to re-engineer our public right-of-way to serve the most people. And walking is the connective tissue that will allow us to move between any new options with ease.

Repairing sidewalks is an expensive and antiquated solution that perpetuates a driver-first mentality. And it can no longer be part of the discussion for any serious effort toward shifting transportation habits, meeting climate commitments, or improving quality of life. We have a remarkable opportunity to transform our cities by shifting to one surface that serves all the mobility needs of its citizens. To maintain a future-proof path forward for a country that has already demonstrated it wants to change.

One hundred years from now, we’ll find fragments of sidewalks in our cities as a reminder of the time we ceded our cities to cars and pushed people onto narrow slabs of cracked cement. And we’ll wonder how we had it so backwards.

Editor: Sara Polsky


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