Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Where Have all the Sidewalks Gone?

Having lived in New York City most of my life, I never gave much thought to sidewalks.

They were almost always there--at least in Manhattan--and one could always find a relatively safe place to walk, with the minor exception of pigeon waste droppings, occasional suicide landings, and the infrequent though often devastating car-curb-hopping, pedestrian-pinning and killing.

All of those events happen at such low rates, one begins to feel that sidewalks are a God Given Right to the Safety of Pedestrians.

And so they are: except for everywhere else.

Once you leave the city, you learn that many communities only expect people to walk--well, if not on the street, then maybe on peoples' lawns in order to get where they are going. Mostly they only expect people without cars--read--"poor people"--to walk. This is true even in Fort Lee, right over the George Washington Bridge, not even a mile from New York City.

It's a prejudice successfully engrained in every little car owner's brain by the years of automobile industry marketing that a person is not whole without 3 tons of steel, to the point where a walker is not only lower class, but a loser. And indeed, because of the danger of car drivers and the lack of sidewalks, they actually are.

Last week I was visiting Bethesda, MD, a small semi-suburb of Washington, DC. You might expect with $650K plus homes, this would be the place where pedestrian safety, especially for children walking to school, would be king. But sidewalks in the community called Westgate suddenly begin and end as if there was no logic to the universe. And there definitely is no logic there.

Children walk to school in the streets, with motorists, however driving slowly on the back streets, barely come by the children's little feet, or their dogs who are in tow.

Hit hard by the recession, the town of Upper Freehold, NJ, a community in southern New Jersey is now considering alternatives to busing their students to school in order to save money.

Upper Freehold children who live less than 2 miles from their local school but do not have a safe way to get to school--read--no sidewalks--are bused to school every day at the cost of $100,000 a year, reported the Examiner on January 7.

Only 412 students are bused those less than 2 miles, which means it costs the municipality about $242.72 per student to send them to school by bus. Some students actually cost more than others, either because of the type of bus, the number of students being serviced per bus, or the actual school they are going to and its total trip distance.

Upper Freehold's Mayor Steve Alexander said the town would consider building sidewalks, but would not do so if they thought the "children might not use them."  

At least one school, the high school which was recently rebuilt, will not be accessible by sidewalk because none are available to it, and none will be built. 

Board of Education member Patricia Hogan who is quoted in the Examiner said, “Chances are elementary school parents will not let their children walk to school.”

The question is, how can anyone build a town without sidewalks?  It's like building a house without a roof, a second floor without a staircase, a nest without a tree, or a school without children. In the photo left, a house owner has spent thousands of dollars to build a sidewalk to their house. But you can bet they wouldn't want to spend a penny for their local town to build sidewalks for children to walk to school. 

And like a throwback to the days when we rode in covered wagons and carried guns, parents expressed concerns that their children might have to walk to school and "be subjected to places for bullying, sexual harassment, and criminal activities."

Superintendent of schools Dick Fitzpatrick said that sidewalks from the adjacent developments to the campus "could be lit and attended by a paraprofessional with a walkie-talkie." If there had been children--and parents--walking in the first place, they wouldn't need para-professionals or walkie-talkies, because the sidewalk would be in constant use and therefore safe as a community-based walk-through.

Outside of big, old cities like New York, the world is composed of steel wagons traversing one another's paths at great speed, never having the opportunity to say "Good day," never reading the expression on the other's face, never for once having a chance to glance down at what color one another is wearing, nor for a moment the chance to smell their perfume. 

Thanks to the New Jersey Bicycle and Pedestrian News Digest sent by email from the Bicycle and Pedestrian Resource Center, of the Voorhees Transportation Center at the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy, for alerting me to this subject matter. To receive a once daily digest of listserv messages or to unsubscribe, go to: https://email.rutgers.edu/mailman/listinfo/nj_bikeped


Changing Seats On The Titanic said...

you are equally as funny as I but a far more eloquent reporter! Monica

Andy B from Jersey said...

So did you write this after reading my opinion on the Upper Freehold issue in WalkBikeJersey?


I'm just glad you were as outraged by this issue as I and wrote about it.

My best as always.

Andy B.

Brenda F. Bell said...

I'm in North Plainfield, and agree with your observations about walking (at least in the noncommercial areas of town) and perceived socioeconomic level.

One issue that is missing from the argument is the child-safety argument -- not from the position of collisions with vehicles, but because of the media frenzy regarding missing children. The perception is that if you do not personally accompany your child to the school bus or the school grounds, you are setting the child up to be abducted. Add to this the distance of many homes from the local convenience store (or supermarket) and store policies which often discriminate against unaccompanied minors, and you have an environment that all but forces children off the streets and sidewalks.

Anonymous said...

I'm a resident of Winchester Estates and understand if they were to connect our development with the school they would go through part of Byron Johnson Park and/or the high school ball fields. If that is correct I hope they consider installing lights for safety. In the fall it is dark when most high school kids would be walking to school and again at 4:30PM. Most existing sidewalks in town are lit by street lights and provide a safe walkway for children using them. Unlike Heritage Green and other developments in Upper Freehold, Winchester Estates was designed without any road lights. Does anybody have any insight around this plan? Thanks

Anonymous said...

Maybe the people in Upper Freehold, NJ who drive their kids to the bus stop which is between 50-300 yards away from their homes and then sit there in their large SUV's and minivans idling, should just drive their kids the rest of the way to school! Or heaven forbid they walk on the established path's to school and get some excersise.