The Simple, Lovable Sidewalk

sidewalk By Peter Galuszka

Forever humble, the simple sidewalk is becoming an issue in land planning and transportation.

In densely-populated populated urban areas, sidewalks have been a staple of living since the time of the Ancient Greeks. They were classics in the familiar grid plans that marked most American towns in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

It all changed after World War II when thousands of veterans came home with access to cars and cheap mortgages and builders started constructing car-centric neighborhoods. The cookie-cutter plan included big subdivisions with only one or two access points, lots of cul de sacs and long streets and wound around until they emptied into the few access roads.

You couldn’t walk anywhere. The feeling was, with the complicity of such car-centric bodies as the Virginia Department of Transportation, that you didn’t need sidewalks because the kids could play in the cul de sacs and anyone could drive.

This started to change a decade or so ago as pe0ple wanted to walk more to the library, the store or to visit a neighbor. Suburban planners are taking this into consideration and are “encouraging” developers to put in sidewalks.

A couple problems here:

First, although the Tim Kaine administration changed VDOT policy to advocate more intersecting streets in new developments along with sidewalks, the policy has been watered down under pressure from the development industry.

The other problem is that while it is a simple matter to put sidewalks in new projects, retrofitting them in older ones is tough. It is expensive, there are rights of way issues and sometimes the terrain doesn’t lend itself to them. And, when sidewalks are put in, they merely connect with gigantic feeder roads where one might have to walk a half a mile to a stoplight just cross safely, as is the case in one instance in Chesterfield County.

For more, read my recent pieces in the Chesterfield Monthly and Henrico Monthly.

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10 responses to “The Simple, Lovable Sidewalk

  1. There has been a strong push in the McLean, Vienna & Falls Church (Fairfax County portions of the latter) areas for sidewalks. Some has been associated with a desire to be connected to the McLean and Spring Hill rail stations. Others have been associated with simply connecting parts of neighborhoods.

    As Peter notes, this is often a challenging process. It is often difficult to obtain RoW, unless VDOT RoW is already sufficient. Any landowner can simply refuse to allow an easement, which, in turn, can leave major gaps in the sidewalk/trail construction process. But that’s a property right – the right to refuse to grant an easement.

    I’ve seen a couple of projects where only a fool would consent to an easement, where a combination of road twists and turns and topography would require construction of a sidewalk within 10 – 15 feet of the owner’s front door. In some areas, several neighbors or an entire neighborhood doesn’t want the access to their neighborhood that a sidewalk or trail would bring.

    Another major barrier is cost. Constructing even small sections of sidewalks through a neighborhood can be extremely expensive. So only small projects are often affordable. I’ve suggested neighbors request the establishment of a service district that would impose an additional tax to raise more money for sidewalks. So far, I haven’t seen anyone want them bad enough to tax themselves more. So things in Fairfax seem comparable to those in Richmond.

  2. of course if we took that same approach – i.e. “property right easements” with roads where would we be?

    the ying and yang here is that we want auto access to our home and if the right-of-way to was obtained by condemning someone’s property, so be it.

    but taking property for ped/bike is not the same?

    TMT -you tickle me – sometimes

    I think you basically like the status-quo and don’t want it changed and I’d also admit to the same tendencies… but I think we should also recognize disparities and differences.. and in this case – most of us are fine with taking others properties for roads that benefit us… i.e. the greater good, etc

    right?

    but we treat ped/bike as lower value and not deserving of using the same eminent domain we use for roads, schools, fire stations, etc –

    so, basically, we,, some, maybe most consider bike/ped a lower value need.. but also something we don’t want near our homes.

    right? (this commentary coming from someone who does NOT live anywhere near a sidewalk and who walks on roads…..).

    😉

  3. if you happen to be in Chesterfield, go up Old Hundred Road and look at the sidewalk on the east side. It goes along from Genito, then STOPS AT A DARN DRAIN! Now, how can anyone think that makes any sense?

    And I am a huge proponent of sidewalks/bike trails. Depending on the location, they can be retrofitted. But get this, in my New Kent neighborhood, our roads are between 50-60′ wide. A developer offered to install sidewalks with a commercial project. VDOT told him they didn’t want it. Go figure.

  4. Needless to say, I’m a big fan of walkability and sidewalks. I think local governments should invest more in walkability than they do now. But this should not be an indiscriminate process, any more than we should fund roads or mass transit without comparing the costs to the benefits.

    The problem with retrofitting a lot suburban communities is that the cost is high while the benefit is low. ROW acquisition questions aside, costs are higher because sidewalks require more sidewalk length-per-dwelling in low-density, cul-de-sac suburbs than they do, say, on a grid street in a city. Sidewalk usage also is lower. People must traverse greater distances to get anywhere, and there are few destinations within walking distance. In my experience driving around Henrico County on a daily basis, I see very few people on sidewalks.

    Bottom line: Building sidewalks to nowhere makes no more sense than building roads to nowhere. Sidewalks are best seen as an integral part of a “complete streets” solution serving higher-density, mixed-use neighborhoods, preferably on grid streets. The more you move away from that formula, the less the payoff from having sidewalks.

  5. Larry, if VDOT wants to build a road and doesn’t have sufficient RoW, it too must purchase or condemn the land or obtain an easement.

    Most bike projects in Fairfax County require only restriping the roadway. Sidewalks and trails (often asphalt) require RoW. Sometimes VDOT or Fairfax County has RoW, but a lot of times it doesn’t. I’ve seen quite a few sidewalk/trail projects go through as all neighbors want the mobility. But in quite a few instances, one or two people say they don’t want a sidewalk in front of their house. So either the project has a gap or VDOT or the County needs to condemn the RoW. I don’t know much about VDOT and eminent domain, but the Fairfax County BoS is generally very reluctant to condemn property, most especially for a trail or sidewalk. I think they fear political backlash. I don’t see the connection with how I feel. We have a case where elected officials don’t want to exercise their statutory power of eminent domain.

    • re: ” Bottom line: Building sidewalks to nowhere makes no more sense than building roads to nowhere. ”

      if you are trying to go from a ‘no-sidewalk” settlement pattern to a sidewalk settlement pattern – you put in sidewalks that stop at the older development.

      what is the alternative? just continue development with no sidewalks?

      how do you get to where you want to go on this?

      • At least in Fairfax County, the process to get sidewalks/trails installed or extended begins in a neighborhood. Neighbors must circulate a petition and demonstrate strong support such that there won’t be holes in the project. This petition works through FC DOT and VDOT and generally gets funded over time. But if there are residents opposed such that the project would have significant gaps, it is not likely to be approved. Funding will be reserved for other projects without opposition.

        There is a strong push for a significant expansion of sidewalks on Kirby Road in McLean to make it safer for kids to walk to Chesterbrook Elementary and Longfellow Middle schools. Kirby Road is narrow and winds and twists for much of its length. In some sections, the walks could be placed next to the roadbed and many neighbors are on board. Sidewalks will be constructed over time.

        But there are many areas, especially near turns and elevation changes, where sidewalks cannot be constructed near the roadbed, but would need to be built in the “middle of a resident’s front yard.” Yards would be cut in half by sidewalks. In most of these situations, the landowners won’t agree to the sidewalk. And the County is reluctant to condemn RoW. Even helicopter moms lack the clout to get the Supervisor t0 condemn RoW. There may never be sidewalks in these areas.

    • re: ” Larry, if VDOT wants to build a road and doesn’t have sufficient RoW, it too must purchase or condemn the land or obtain an easement.”

      correct.. and we support that -right? do we support that same process for sidewalks?

      “Most bike projects in Fairfax County require only restriping the roadway. Sidewalks and trails (often asphalt) require RoW. Sometimes VDOT or Fairfax County has RoW, but a lot of times it doesn’t. I’ve seen quite a few sidewalk/trail projects go through as all neighbors want the mobility. But in quite a few instances, one or two people say they don’t want a sidewalk in front of their house. ”
      the same as if VDOT wants to widen the road – right?

      “So either the project has a gap or VDOT or the County needs to condemn the RoW. I don’t know much about VDOT and eminent domain, but the Fairfax County BoS is generally very reluctant to condemn property, most especially for a trail or sidewalk. I think they fear political backlash. I don’t see the connection with how I feel. We have a case where elected officials don’t want to exercise their statutory power of eminent domain.”

      that is probably typical of most counties in Va but counties in Va do not build or widen their own roads – they let VDOT do it and let VDOT use ED to get it done.

      the point I’m making is that people are pretty much okay with VDOT taking people’s property for roads but not so much for trails/sidewalks.

      In other words – they value the roads and think it’s worthwhile to take others property for them – but they do not value sidwalks/trails as much and therefore don’t support the govt using the very same ED laws to get the r/w for them.

      and yes.. elected officials reflect the politics of voters.

      • Larry, Fairfax County does construct and maintain many sidewalks and trails, in addition to the ones constructed and maintained by VDOT. Which is which is beyond me.

        But I think that, by and large, you are totally correct in that most people tend to view roads as more important than sidewalks, unless the sidewalk project provides immediate, personal benefits.

        Also, there is often opposition to road widening or straightening in Fairfax County for fear that more traffic will show up and at faster speeds.

        • we too have sidewalks that go nowhere and the BOS has repealed the ordinance that requires developers to put them in if there are no others to connect to… so development expands from the core – we have no sidewalks and ..never will I suspect.

          TMT – trails can be built by any number of public and private entities beyond VDOT.

          Rail to trails is a good example … power line and water/sewer rights of ways, etc

          also – many trails (conceptually and in practice) are considered recreational not mobility. Not a way to get to the drugstore that is a 1000 feet from your house but no way to get there except by car if you are not a walker.

          My father in law – who is a retired chemical company executive who moved several times in his career – would buy or rent based on where he could walk to work.

          In New Jersey he paid a pile of money for a really stinky and poorly-built townhouse – just so he could walk!

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