Sidewalks more than amenities: Protecting pedestrians

Published 12:00 am Saturday, February 25, 2012

Charlotte’s tragedy on West Tyvola Road last week should serve as a cautionary tale to cities across the state. Sidewalks are more than a nicety — they are a matter of public safety.
On Wednesday morning, a 5-year-old boy and his 1-year-old brother died after a truck hit them on the shoulder of West Tyvola. They were walking to daycare with their father and another sibling, a daily ritual for the young family.
Nothing could underscore the need for sidewalks more urgently. The driver may be at fault for veering toward the shoulder of the road, but curbing and a sidewalk could have put the children at a safe distance from his speeding truck.
When the word “transportation” comes up, people often envision cars, trucks and trains. But for a good many citizens, transportation also means “feet.” Some walk by choice for fitness and environmental reasons. But necessity compels people like the father and his four children to walk, people for whom a car trip is a luxury. With gas prices high, residents need sidewalks now more than ever.
But tell that to Congress.
As divided lawmakers try to come together on a multi-billion-dollar transportation plan for the next four-and-a-half years, the House’s proposal eliminates dedicated funding for public transportation, including sidewalks and bike lanes. Sidewalks may seem like a minor point in a huge bill, but they matter a great deal.
Salisbury has leaned heavily on grants to expand its sidewalk network. According to City Engineer Dan Mikkelson, the city has obtained and used federal grants over the past 15 years to fund $1.6 million worth of sidewalks, $1.1 million of greenway and $1.4 million for downtown sidewalks.
Another $1.1 million in federal funding has been recommended for approval, Mikkelson says, for sidewalks near Salisbury Mall and on Old Wilkesboro Road, as well as other locations. The city hopes a separate grant will fund bike lanes on West Innes north of Catawba College, a popular route for walkers and runners.
Cities stopped building sidewalks after World War II as auto use increased and subdivisions popped up away from city streets. The job of filling the gap between that time and today’s need for pedestrian safety is a costly and sometimes unpopular one. Sidewalks included in road projects like the widening of U.S. 70 can appear to be sidewalks to nowhere. Developers complain that requiring sidewalks in new developments makes building cost prohibitive.
But people need sidewalks, as the Charlotte incident proves, and cities must continue to build with safety in mind. Meanwhile, drivers should take particular care on city streets and roads that lack sidewalks. Where pedestrians have worn a path, more walkers are sure to follow — and some may be too small to see you coming.