Friday, January 27, 2006

Sidewalks to Nowhere

One of the bizarre phenomena I've observed about life in suburban Henrico County is the episodic nature of the sidewalks. You see short lengths of sidewalk -- the equivalent of two or three city blocks -- running along roads with high-speed traffic. These sidewalks proceed for a distance, then end. They don't connect to anything. Naturally, with all the fast traffic whizzing by, and the fact that they don't go anywhere, and the fact that the distances between destinations are so far apart, no one actually uses them.

Aggregate all of Virginia's suburban sidealks to nowhere, link them end to end, and they'd probably stretch from the Fairfax County Courthouse to the Mississippi and back. (I made up that factoid, but you get the idea.) Yet, to borrow a rustic metaphor, all that sidewalk is more useless than teats on a boar hog.

It appears that the residents of Fairfax County have made much the same observation. The Washington Examiner runs a brief story about a report filed by the Fairfax County Pedestrian Task Force. The report recommends some $60 million in pedestrian improvements over the next decade. Says the Examiner:

"Included in the report are recommendations to repair specific areas, such as a 2.5-mile stretch of walkway along Route 1 between Alexandria and Fort Belvoir and a 2.5-mile trail along Route 7 between Alexandria and Falls Church. Other improvements include a countywide plan to complete walkways that now end abruptly and improve bus stop safety and access." (My emphasis.)

That's why I keep hammering home the importance of pedesrian-friendly urban design. If you wonder why suburbanites seem to addicted to driving their cars everywhere, just read this anecdote the Examiner tells fo Fairfax Supervisor Sharon Bulova:

"I remember a time when my car was in the shop and I thought, 'Well, I'm just a mile away from the government center, I can just walk up the road,' " Bulova ... said of her short journey along Lee Highway.

"It was quite a walk, and you go through brush and brambles and down into a gully, and you can see where people have tried to make their way," she said. "This is a main road ... and we shouldn't have difficulty for pedestrians getting back and forth."


At 11:10 AM, Blogger Ray Hyde said...

Jim, this is great. It ranks right up there with the story of your odyssey to the store.

Those disjointed sidewalks are there because disjointed development took place. The sidewalks are part of the requirements for development or part of the in kind proffers.

Eventually, as the land is developed or re-developed the sidewalks will link up. It is an example of why I have said that fixing our communities planning deficiencies is going to take a long time.

Or a lot of money.

But thee is a big difference between pedestrian friendly urban design and pedestrian friendly suburban design.

Planners work on the basis that people are not willing to walk more than 15 minutes, or about a mile. Building trails for recreation or amenities is different from building urban sidewalks which are a necessity.

Those suburban trails will get some people some exercise, but it will reduce the dependence on cars by zero.

Then there are other problems. Realtors have found that having a sidewalk reduces the value of your home by 6%. Sidewalks are public places and having a public place in front of your home reduces its perceived level of privacy, and its value.

The county offered sidewalks to my Alexandria neighborhood, which I thought weree both necessary and a good idea. The neighborhood voted the idea down, overwhelmingly.

By the time those disjointed sidewalks get connected naturally, some of them will have deteriorated. We can plan better to encourage fewer breaks in the sidewalks, but we may have a problem with the owners. There are real and substantial financial reasons why an owner may not develop on our schedule or may not re-develop.

I don't think that force is an option. You can no more force inner landowners to develop disadvantageously than you can force rural landowners not to develop disadvantageously. Severe disincentives that are sometimes proposed are tantamount to force.

That leaves us with incentives, and incentives cost money. There is a benefit to developing in a more orderly fashion, but that benefit comes at the cost of readily apparent inequities in cost absorption and transfer of, or access to the money associated with development of assets.

Logically, you would want to limit the incentives you pay to some value that is slightly lower than the benefits received.

Now all we have to do is quantify them.

That amount of money might or might not be enough to get all the benefits you want at the time and location you want them, so you still might have some disjointedness.

It takes time to fix these things.

Incidentally, the money that is "wasted" or spent prematurely on disjointed sidewalks also applies to what I call turn lanes to nowhere. It would be nice if we could redirect money spent on sidewalks in noplace to filling some of that $60 million dollar gap.

At 8:23 AM, Blogger Jim Bacon said...

Actually, I agree that sidewalks in low-density neighborhoods make no sense. As you rightly observe, people will walk to a destination if they can get there in 10 to 15 minutes, otherwise they will drive. In most low-density neighborhoods, can you barely walk to the end of your driveway in 10 to 15 minutes, much less to a meaningful destination.

At 11:15 AM, Blogger Ray Hyde said...

Right, so we have a meaningless requirement, mindlessly aplied, that provides some small benefit, that is far exceeded by its cost.


At 9:33 PM, Blogger Ray Hyde said...

There may be some who think I am off base, but check out this comment (edited) in response to someone's pedestrian friendly initiative.

"Land-use incentives would help communities design walking into people's daily lives.
Communities without sidewalks, parks, neighborhood stores or transit options are not healthy communities."

What a crock of SXXX this one is. Who makes this crap up? This group of elitist snobs actually advocates that government “design walking into people’s daily lives?” How do we do that? Let’s start by confiscating all the drivers’ licenses."

At 10:50 AM, Blogger Toomanytaxes said...

The latest from Fairfax County on sidewalks.

Fairfax County May Require More Sidewalks
Jan 30th - 8:07am

FAIRFAX, Va. (AP) - Fairfax County is looking to sidewalks to make things safer for pedestrians.

A report by the county's Pedestrian Task Force calls for a 10-year program of improvements at a costs of $60 million. Among the improvements would be the completion of walkways that now end abruptly.

The Examiner also says the county is rethinking its practice of granting waivers for buildings sidewalks to developers. Board of Supervisors Chairman Gerald Connolly says it's much more expensive for the county to build a sidewalk than a private developer.

At 5:26 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


Communities are designed around the use of the automobile... how is it elitist to point out that communities can also be designed with the pedestrian in mind????

At 3:14 PM, Blogger Ray Hyde said...

I didn't say I thought it was elitist, that's a qoute from someone else.

All I'm saying is that there is a place for sidewalks and places where they don't make sense and cost money to no avail.

If the county's new sidewalk plan works the way it was proposed in my neighborhood, then the abutting property owners will be billed for the costs of providing an amenity that some say will reduce the value of their home.


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