Good sidewalks and crosswalks are at least as important to our goals as transit. Trips are rarely transit door to door, and the rest of the trip is usually on a sidewalk. If the conditions are right, many short trips can be made on foot, leaving more space available on the trains and buses for people shifting from driving. Sidewalks can also facilitate social and economic interactions, in what Jane Jacobs termed "the sidewalk ballet." They can be used for exercise and recreation, as in the flâneurs of Paris and the joggers of New York.
Most of the value of sidewalks and crosswalks - as in how people decide to walk or take transit instead of driving, cycling or taking a taxi - comes from simple transportation effectiveness: how much effort do I have to put into the trip, and how long does it take? But a significant amount comes in terms of dignity. It is stressful and discouraging to be told you are an insignificant minority, a lower class of human, and if that happens more frequently on buses and trains and sidewalks than in cars and taxis and parking lots, it figures into your decision.
In this post I'm going to list some things people do with sidewalks that compromise their value, in terms of both transportation effectiveness and dignity. In future posts I'll look at why they do these things, and how we can get them to stop.
In a visit to another part of the country I came across something that blew my mind. I looked down at someone's lawn and saw the remains of a concrete slab. I knew that some cities stopped building sidewalks, but I had no idea that some of them actually tore them out or let them grow over. Apparently in the seventies some people thought that walking was a thing of the past, and that walking infrastructure was ugly and wasteful, exactly as they thought about elevated trains, and exactly as we think about highways.
The tearing up of sidewalks is also connected to the widespread practice of making sidewalk upkeep the responsibility of the individual property owner, while car lanes were maintained by the city. This responsibility is not something people often think about when buying real estate, which leads to resentment and calls to Greg Mocker. Property owners who don't walk in the area, especially drivers and absentee landlords, thus have an incentive to minimize their spending on sidewalks. In response, many cities allowed owners to abandon their sidewalks. I've talked in the past about snow removal, which is a similar situation.
Another time people abuse the sidewalk is when the sidewalk is unusable due to construction. If it makes sense to have a sidewalk in the first place, it makes sense to have a safe, comfortable, dignified alternate route, but too often construction companies and the property owners that employ them just slap up a "sidewalk closed" sign. As I mentioned earlier, property owners and mangers often walk less than average. But when my own co-op replaced its sidewalk we didn't provide an alternate route. The decision was made by the contractors, who always drive because they're carrying heavy equipment, and not questioned by the building management or the DOT.
People can store commercial goods on the sidewalk. A while ago I wrote about the city's 1908 campaign against sidewalk "encroachment" structures, where a business takes over part of the sidewalk for a shop display or cafe. Independent tables and carts are a frequent source of friction. In the past, Transportation Alternatives has campaigned against news boxes. These can be problematic, especially if the encroachment is enclosed and offers value only to a small minority of walkers, but in the general I think they're more likely to add to than take away from street life. If they are really constricting traffic, I would rather see if space for them can be reallocated from the parking lane.
The most egregious abuse of sidewalks is car squatting, and it comes in several flavors. On residential properties, residents and guests often use the sidewalk for overflow parking if the driveway and curb are full. In many residential driveways, especially ones designed for smaller cars, today's SUVs nose out into the sidewalk. Delivery truck drivers, contractors and movers are often persuaded that their "need" to minimize their walk to the truck is more important than another person's safety.
Commercial car squatting is very common in my neighborhood. Car dealers and repair shops use the sidewalk as extra space to store their wares. Delivery trucks can completely block the sidewalk and sometimes even the parking lane. Garages, car rental agencies, gas stations and car washes encourage their customers to queue their cars on the sidewalk. Many businesses encourage their customers and employees to park on the sidewalk or in the crosswalk, sometimes "just to run in for a minute."
Sidewalk abuse is an expression of entitlement, the idea that by virtue of a particular status (driver, property owner, delivery driver) the normal rules don't apply to you. The decision to break the rules can come out of frustration and resentment. I once had a car dealer tell me, "I pay taxes! Do you know how much I pay in taxes?" As if I didn't pay taxes.
Bureaucracies and unionized workers are some of the worst when it comes to entitlement, which is why some of the worst sidewalk squatting you'll see is around schools and police and fire stations. The administrators made a promise of employee parking they couldn't legally deliver on, but because the NYPD controls enforcement, it turns a blind eye to its employees' abuse and those of other civil servants like the Amtrak police (pictured above).
Sidewalk abuse is one of the many factors that contributes to driving, and to all the problems that come with it. The next question is what we can do about it - and what we can't.