Feb 072024
No Thanks for No Sidewalks!

You know what people who drive can take for granted 100% of the time? Having a system of roads connected all the way from starting point to destination. I can start from my driveway in Olympia and go all the way to my former hometown of Spokane with zero breaks in the network. Oh, sure, I may hit a detour, but will it take me off-road into dirt and gravel? No, it will take me to another paved segment designed for the passage of my vehicle. I will have signage to guide me through.

You know what people who walk can never take for granted? Having connections all the way from starting point to destination. Times infinity if they use a wheelchair or other mobility device that needs a ramp, or if they’re blind and need truncated domes on the ground and accessible pedestrian signals that tell them when they can cross.

My experience the other day on my way to and from a meeting:

I checked the transit connection to my destination and there it was. Looked great: one well-timed transfer connection, with a 19-minute walk at the end from the bus stop. When I got off the bus just short of a landscaped roundabout with a nice brick paver edging, I went to the crosswalk and started down a long stretch of beautiful new sidewalk next to the newish-looking street. I glanced across to the other side of the roundabout and saw sidewalk there as well, but it was obviously easier to continue on the side I was already on.

And then, several blocks later, what I think of as the Shel Silverstein moment: Where the Sidewalk Ends.

Photo of a sidewalk in excellent condition that comes to an end in grass where a barrier blocks it. To the right of the sidewalk, a path worn through grass to dirt leads into a stretch of gravel. Blue and gray apartment buildings stand just past the gravel path.
Photo of a sidewalk in excellent condition that comes to an end in grass where a barrier blocks it. To the right of the sidewalk, a path worn through grass to dirt leads into a stretch of gravel. The curb to the right of the grass also stops. Blue and gray apartment buildings stand just past the gravel path.

The book’s subtitle in my world? It’s “With no Advance Warning Far Enough Ahead that You Could Have Crossed at the Roundabout by the Bus Stop to Use the Other Side.”

The sidewalk came to an abrupt end with a barrier at a point where I was looking straight ahead at a bunch of newish multi-family housing. The desire lane in the grass led into some gravel because clearly anyone living there who wants to ride transit needs to get back to the service on the main road I’d been on. Across the street, a complete sidewalk.

But this point sat at a sweeping turn, and an oncoming driver executing a left turn wouldn’t necessarily expect someone to be crossing there since it wasn’t an intersection with another street. Most drivers in my experience seem to be looking for other drivers; if the design doesn’t suggest the presence of a vehicle they’re less likely to look for anyone else.

No crosswalk markings, no signage, so surprise, Driver! This serves as an example of how pedestrian infrastructure serves drivers too. Things like crosswalk markings, signage, and street designs that slow a driver for a turn are all design cues that help them see and stop in time. Fortunately no one came along as I limped across. (Sprained knee, remember?)

If I’d been in a wheelchair? Hold that thought.

Photo looking across a sweeping left turn curve in a street. In the foreground, a sidewalk with a curb ramp and yellow truncated dome indicators. Across the street, red and white striped barriers and yellow left arrow sign for drivers. At the left, a bit of sidewalk comes to an end at a barrier before a gravel stretch. At the right, what appears to be a driveway for the apartment buildings that stretch away into the distance.

Coming out of my meeting at the end of the day I thought, “I’ll show that incomplete sidewalk! I’ll just stay on this side of the street back to the stop.”

At the corner straight across from the morning’s abruptly ended sidewalk, a curb ramp with yellow truncated dome? But you’re only supposed to install a curb ramp where you have a receiving ramp, so putting in the first ramp should trigger construction of a second ramp. The one shown in the photo above points straight into a receiving gravel patch. There’s a second ramp around the corner from this one that does point to a receiving ramp on the other side and there’s even a sidewalk attached to the ramp.

I took this sidewalk and then… What the actual bloody what?! My proposed subtitle for Mr. Silverstein’s book of poetry proved to be untrue because it wouldn’t have helped to use the other side in the morning. The sidewalk on this side also ended abruptly in gravel and bushes, this time with a ledge, and no ramp to anywhere. No sign that would have warned me that that sidewalk was going to run out long before the roundabout.

Once again, I made an impromptu mid-block crossing at a location that wasn’t ADA-accessible to reach a usable sidewalk on the other side. And by “not ADA-accessible” I mean that in a wheelchair even if I’d been willing and able to take the four-inch drop at the end to reach the road surface and cross mid-block (with no treatments to tell a driver to expect me to be there) I’d have no way on the other side to get up on the curb, across the planting strip, and onto the sidewalk. There’s a bike lane that accompanies the sidewalk on this side (with an equally abrupt appearance/disappearance problem) but no bike lane on the other side; a bike lane would at least provide a space not intended for use by drivers.

Photo of a beautiful new looking sidewalk at the left hand side of a street that comes to an end at some bushes and gravel. Nice low Landscaping bushes in a buffer strip between sidewalk and streets. Bike lane painted in the street starts up out of a patch of gravel.
Photo of the edge of a newly constructed sidewalk. A person's foot in a gray shoe is propped up against the end of the sidewalk to show that there's about a 4-in edge with no ramp down to the gravel and weeds below.

A bit more context on this location: The streets look fairly new, in an area with a bunch of high density housing and some single family. In fact, the area is so new that Google Maps hasn’t driven down the street I was walking along. The land with no sidewalk on my return to the bus stop also has no development. I’m guessing this is a case study of funding sidewalks with development impact fees. Oddly enough, the street was paved for drivers all the way through; it didn’t stop at the undeveloped land and pick up again on the other end.

Remember the person in a wheelchair who might need to use this route? They’re going to have to be in the street for the entire length whether they’re going to the bus stop or coming back from it—not that they would have any way of knowing that if they set off either from the roundabout or from my destination building.

The Americans with Disabilities Act became federal law in 1990.

Aerial view of an area with dense development to the left of a street, a patch of forest and bare land to the right. A blue dotted line indicates the path of travel along the street and around a corner.
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