in Cheap Thoughts, Futurist, Green, Raleigh

Cheap Thoughts: Rethinking sidewalks

An unusable sidewalk

On my way back from dropping the kids off from school last week, I waited at a Hargett Street intersection while a man in a motorized wheelchair passed by me, riding in the street. I wondered why this man chose not to ride on the sidewalk, which seemed much safer. He had no lights nor reflectors and seemed an easy target for an inattentive driver.

I’ve also seen several disabled people in wheelchairs riding in Johnson Street between Glenwood and Boylan Avenues, probably residents of Glenwood Towers. Why do they choose to ride in the road when there’s a perfectly good sidewalk right there?

Then I realized it’s probably the same reasons runners don’t run on sidewalks: sidewalks are horrible for actually getting around. Why? Not only are Raleigh’s sidewalks frustratingly incomplete, the sidewalks Raleigh does have offer their users a chance to trip every four feet.

The problem with sidewalks is that we make them out of concrete. In a perfect world of straight, level roads and vegetation that stays within its lines, a sidewalk once installed would offer a smooth respite from traffic. Instead, roots intrude, cracks develop, ground shifts, and soon you have a jumble of concrete slabs that present a navigation challenge to even the fittest of us. Who wants to be constantly watching their feet instead of seeing the world around us? No wonder runners don’t abide sidewalks and our disabled population eschews them.

So, do we stop putting in sidewalks? We still need some way of getting people around safely. Raleigh has over 110 miles of asphalt-covered greenways that present a smooth, predictable surface for exercise. Some of these run alongside Raleigh roads (Falls of Neuse, for instance) and are very popular. Unfortunately, asphalt pavers tend to be big and paving people’s front yards with asphalt would be extremely disruptive. There’s gotta be a middle ground of some sort: something that isn’t step-trip-step-trip concrete slabs but also not a giant engineering hassle like front-yard asphalt. A smooth, pebble-filled path comes to mind but that’s not practical, either.

What is a good material that offers a seamless path and yet is easy to install and maintain? Perhaps something that could be stitched together on site? What does the ultimate sidewalk look like?

  1. Asphalt isn’t a panacea. I know several asphalt paths in the RTP area where roots under the path have created large cracked bumps that would make it impossible for a wheelchair to traverse. Concrete is much stronger and lasts longer than asphalt does.

  2. I’ve tried reporting some sidewalk issues via SeeClickFix and for the most part the City of Raleigh doesn’t seem to be very responsive to these reports. With the disabled in mind, I’ve made a point of reporting things like someone planting landscaping that grows into the sidewalk passage itself. Having a clear, flat surface is important. But it’s also important that we protect the three dimensional space that pedestrians of all abilities levels can safely and easily pass through.

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