May 20, 2020

Where does the Sidewalk Begin? Rethinking Suburban Streets in the Time of COVID-19

I am one of the lucky people who can still work from a safe home during this crisis. Like many others, I have been spending my free time taking long walks. The time I have had to walk and think has given me a new perspective on the space around me, particularly the roads.

While I currently live in New York City, I came back to my childhood home in suburban Pennsylvania to (safely) visit my parents. In Manhattan, I have been traveling exclusively on foot or on bicycle, and have wonderful parks and all of my needs within a short walking distance along with great walking conditions. Traveling a few hours west to my suburban hometown there is so much more space, but walking isn’t so easy. My observations below are related to my personal experience, but likely echo the experience of the estimated majority of Americans, roughly 175 million, who live in suburbs.

Rather than create any shoulder extension or a sidewalk for children to play on, there is a sign reminding drivers that families, including children, live on this street.

Like the people in my childhood neighborhood, the only respite from my sequestration is my daily constitutional. While in New York, I can walk to a park along the Hudson River (while masked), here I can be mask free but I seem to encounter obstacles just about every 500 feet. Western Pennsylvania has a hilly topography so roads tend to weave up and down along these hills. This makes for a much more rigorous walk, but creates a dangerous lack of visibility for drivers as they round sharp corners over steep hills. I learned years ago which parts of roads are the more dangerous ones and when to listen closely for cars, so I can move out of the way without being hit. During my walks I am in a constant state of self-defense: listening and looking around for a speeding vehicle that might not see me in time to slow down. Why are these seemingly relaxing strolls so treacherous? Because where I am, there is almost a complete lack of sidewalks.

The many beautiful houses and manicured lawns line roads that have only space for two passing vehicles. The rare sidewalks that do exist are often only partially on streets. There is one particular road where, for no apparent reason, a sidewalk abruptly stops and begins on the other side of the busy street, forcing pedestrians to traverse a crosswalk that drivers often ignore. There is another busy road that has a beautiful sidewalk that simply ends. Because of this infrastructure gap, I can either take a very long and circuitous route back to my parents’ house or walk along a very narrow shoulder of a road that cars often pass at high speeds. Not a great choice. With my parents moving at a more moderate pace, crossing roads sometimes requires long waits as drivers do not stop, sometimes ignoring the infrequent pedestrian right-of-way signs. During our walks we are constantly aware of the dangers of passing cars and have to consider them from the second we exit the front door to the moment we return.

With cars passing quickly, this intersection, without a crosswalk, is one of the more perilous to cross. In the years I've been jogging and walking this route, I have had to wait long periods to cross safely.

There is not conversation about sidewalks. American suburban residents have been known to vocally oppose sidewalks for their ability to urbanize a neighborhood. In the post-World War II era with high rates of white flight and suburbanization, developments were built to emphasize their rural or ‘non urban’ qualities. Because sidewalks were commonplace in cities, they were not built in these developments, lest they appear urban. In the US context, “urban” has sometimes carried a racially charged, pejorative meaning particularly as it relates to a built environment. While there are trends showing that younger generations prefer neighborhoods with more walkable options, the sidewalk-less street still remains an almost permanent fixture in suburban US neighborhoods. Looking at my childhood home with new, urban, eyes, I have seen just how much more difficult these streets are, by design.

Another frustrating observation I’ve made is how the lack of sidewalks has determined the time of day I venture outdoors. With no sidewalks or streetlights, a walk at night provides a pedestrian with absolutely no visibility to drivers, who are unaccustomed to seeing people walking at night. Therefore, if I were to walk at an hour without full sunlight, I would have to carry a torch light and wear something bright and be even more vigilant. It doesn’t seem worth it. I just walk during the day when it’s safe. Another frightening feature of my walks are how much larger cars are than they previously were. Prior to the coronavirus crisis, sales of SUVs, crossovers (light weight SUVs), and trucks were quite high in the US. This popularity is no more obvious than when I am walking around. For every mid-sized sedan that passes, I see four large all-wheel-drive vehicles, many of which have such high windshields that I am not sure the drivers could even see me if I were standing next to them. The size and speed of these cars added to my sense of peril while walking.

A reminder to the new pedestrians to remain vigilant while crossing this road. This road divides two large neighborhoods, so is a popular crossing point for many people, but the infrastructure remains entirely car oriented.

On my walk last evening, I saw some of my neighbor’s children riding bicycles on the street, every time a car pulled up, the children had to quickly move over to the side of the road. I remember how many times, while growing up, that my brother and I were told to stay as far away as possible from the street to avoid speeding cars. One year, our street decided to have a block party (an outdoor party where neighbors gather in the center of a building or residential area) and we had to enlist the police department to close of a portion of the street, which turned into a difficult and lengthy process. The message then and now is clear: these roads belong to cars and not to people. In the US, the prominence and unquestioned role of cars is not more present than in sidewalk-less suburbs.

The rare crosswalk (this one to accommodate for the sidewalk that ends on one side of the street and begins on the other side) is accompanied by many signs reminding drivers that people do indeed walk on, and cross, this street.

Still, every day I see so many of my neighbors and their children walking around, gathering at the ends of driveways to talk. Children visit each others houses on bicycles and scooters. It is clear that with pent up energy and improved weather, people are thrilled with a chance to get out and stretch their legs. It took a pandemic, but I realized, anyone can become a pedestrian. As I look around I wonder, could this be a tipping point for suburban America? Surely with so many more people relegated to their suburban houses, and the only outdoor activity reserved to their daily walk, might people begin to recognize how lousy this whole ‘nowhere to walk safely’ set up really is? Are people so accustomed to the perilous plight of the pedestrian that they are blind to the possibilities of a simple sidewalk? Will people start insisting that along with a brand new kitchen, they would like their house to come with decent walking infrastructure? Will the coronavirus challenge enough Americans beliefs to push the country in a new direction of road design and policy?

One of the most perplexing features is the sidewalk that mysteriously ends. This sidewalk is very nice and on an unusually flat street (which are uncommon in this area), I have always wished the sidewalk spanned the whole street.
We had to cross the street to maintain social distancing and were forced onto a narrow shoulder. Not an ideal walking feature.

This post was written by Margaret Van Cleve, Editorial & Content Manager of ITDP, who normally maintains this blog and despite its lack of sidewalks, still loves her hometown.

These suburbs aren’t built for walking, they’re built in an individualized fashion; each individual family has their own fiefdom, a castle with surrounding land, and any public space beyond that is only really accessible by car. Why would a street designed for people to live on exclude the one thing those people need to walk on the street? With pedestrian fatalities on the rise, and a spike in death rates in March, despite fewer cars on the road, it is past time to seriously rethink our roads.

In conversations with my parents, I have learned how aware they are of the perils of walking but had not quite questioned the street design as something that could change. They have shown me the routes they take that include as many sidewalks as possible and have taken to doing circuits of the same routes simply because they are the safest.

My hope is that this global crisis, in which so much destruction has taken place – of livelihoods, of lives cut short, of unnecessary suffering and loss – that we might still be able learn something good. I hope that this moment might open our eyes to many things, among them how much more we should expect of our streets. How much more we can ask of our neighborhoods. I hope that these newfound pedestrians find safe ways to stretch their legs even after this crisis ends.


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