Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Sad Sidewalks in Salem

Salem's sidewalks average almost 10 defects requiring repair per 300 foot block. Many neighborhoods don't have any at all. Salem sidewalks are inadequate in many ways.

Jane Jacobs has lots to say about sidewalks, but it's not always clear how much of it might relate to Salem. On the one hand, she talks about the sidewalks in densely populated urban environments, full of mid-rises, brownstones, or other essentially yardless adjoined housing. Against this is the super-block, high-rise "project." Neither of these exist here. Moreover, she cautioned against applying her urban analysis to towns and suburbs.

Even so, surely parts of her analysis do apply to Salem. In many ways, it is difficult to walk in Salem. Though the differences between downtown core, commercial strip development, and residential neighborhoods may make applying Jacobs' insights sometimes difficult or indirect, still, the greatest fact about Salem sidewalks is that too many neighborhoods don't have any.

At a very basic level, Salem has a huge sidewalk deficit.

This map is from the Pedestrian Element (16pp pdf) of the Salem Transportation System Plan. In purple it shows the extensive mid-century neighborhoods that lack sidewalks in Salem.
Generally, the older, inner areas of Salem have good sidewalk availability. The newer, outermost areas of Salem also have good sidewalk availability. In between these areas there are neighborhoods that were built in the 1940s and 1950s before sidewalks were required by Marion County. These areas came into the City through annexation and have not been improved to full urban standards. For this reason, large areas of Southeast and Northeast Salem are lacking sidewalks.[emphasis added]

In some areas, neighbors oppose sidewalks because the increase in property values will increase property taxes. These residents do not always consider the increase in transportation costs and aggregate medical costs they incur when they substitute motor trips for short walking trips.

Many of the Keep Salem Moving road bond projects are widening of roads to include sidewalks where previously none were built, like this on Hawthorne & Hyacinth:
Construct Hawthorne Avenue NE and Hyacinth Avenue NE to Minor Arterial street standards with center turn lanes, proper travel lane widths, bicycle lanes, curbs, gutters, sidewalks, drainage, streetlights, and landscaping, as needed.
These projects involve arterials, however, and not the network of local streets that also lack sidewalks. They also typically involve enlarging a two-lane unimproved cross-section into a three-lane roadway conforming to "urban arterial standards." Because busy roads aren't fun to walk, even improving them with sidewalks doesn't encourage walking enough. Additionally, there's no network of residential streets would feed walkers to the arterial sidewalks - so since the new arterial sidewalks will remain hard to reach by walking, the sidewalks will remain underused.

Another kind of deficit is sidewalk size.

Salem City Code (chapter 78) requires 5 foot sidewalks most of the time, except near schools, which earn an extra 3 feet for an 8 feet total width. Compared to Jacob's ideal of 30 or more feet, this is paltry indeed. Downtown sidewalks are considerably wider, but still far short of Jacobs' ideal.

A third kind deficit is sidewalk condition and funding for repair.

The city's Sidewalk Repair Program pushes responsibility for public walks onto the property owner:
[O]wners of property within the city limits and adjacent to sidewalks built since September 1, 1992, will be responsible for repairing or replacing damaged sidewalks, unless the damage has been caused by a City street tree....Owners of property within the city limits and adjacent to sidewalks built prior to September 1, 1992, will be assigned responsibility for repairing or replacing damaged sidewalks after the City of Salem first repairs the existing sidewalks and brings them up to an acceptable standard.
According to the May 2009 annual Sidewalk Repair Report, "A total of 93,387 defects have been inventoried as of May 12, 2009." Further, "Of those, 81,597 of the defects, or 87 percent, are non-compliant defects and need to be repaired." In the most recent November 2009 update, the city has "somewhere between 800 to 900 miles of sidewalk" and "between 65 and 73 percent" of Salem sidewalks have been inspected." Many of the defects violate ADA compliance, and Council recently instructed the City to focus on remedying these violations.

All in all, that's a lot of bad sidewalk. And it matters.

This is a bike blog, of course, but at the start and end of every trip, no matter what transportation choices we make, we're all pedestrians. That is the foundational experience in mobility.

This green transportation pyramid puts the pedestrian experience at the base of the pyramid, but at the top of the hierarchy. That's a clever way to show the importance of walking and sidewalks.

Fortunately, Salem won a grant to update the Pedestrian Element of the Transportation System Plan. Part of the grant application specified that it would fund completion of Salem's sidewalk inventory and recommend changes to development and design standards for sidewalks.

Unfortunately, it won't change the funding mechanism. Today, sidewalk repair is funded essentially the same way road repair was funded in the 19th and very early 20th centuries. Back then, property owners were responsible for directly repairing or paying an assessment to fund repair of the roads that fronted their property. Needless to say, many property owners found ways to avoid repair. Finally, in order to "get Oregon out of the mud" state and local governments took over road repair and road building. They realized that roads were common goods and should be funded publicly.

Sidewalks are also public goods, but we fund them as private property. Since those who enjoy them are usually passers-by rather than the property owners themselves, property owners have little incentive to build or repair them to high standards.

So Salem has a large and systemic sidewalk deficit.

In another note, we'll return to the rich complexity of sidewalk life, the ways sidewalk life leads trust and public safety, the ways sidewalk life helps to socialize children, and the relation between cars and sidewalks.

2 comments:

Melina Tomson, MS said...

I live in Sunnyridge which has many runners, dog walkers, walking groups, seniors and kids. 70% of the time people walk in the street and not on the sidewalk. Our sidewalks are not in bad condition either. My mom uses a power wheelchair and prefers the street to sidewalks when possible. The dips in the driveways tip her chair and make it uncomfortable to be on the sidewalk.

Runners and walkers tend to be in groups and the sidewalks aren't even close to being wide enough for groups to walk or run together, so they go in the street. Kids are on bikes, scooters or skateboards and they are in the street.

It's hard to convince people to pay for something, when people use the street anyway.

MWVBTA said...

Hi, Melina! Thanks for stopping by. You're lucky your streets are calm enough they can be used by everyone!

Still, your neighborhood walkscore is 46, "car-dependent." (The average Salem walkscore is 56 and 70% of Salem residents have a higher walkscore.)

Skyline, Liberty, Keubler, and Croisan Creek enclose the neighborhood and are difficult to cross or to walk and bike down. There's not a connected network of lower-traffic streets that get a bicyclist or walker out of the neighborhood pleasantly, and few essential services exist near the neighborhood. The Sunnyslope shopping center appears to be the only cluster, and as I recall Allan Bros recently left it. Since a coffee shop is a terrific example of a walking destination, its demise might suggest that it is not so easy to walk in the neighborhood.

On the related question of bicycling, when we surveyed bicyclists in the summer of '08, we identified the stretch of Liberty between Browning and Commercial as the biggest structural problem for your neighborhood: It totally lacks bike lanes, and traffic speeds and restricted visibility make it impossible for all but the most experienced and confident bicyclists. In general, it's very difficult to get downtown from Sunnyridge or to other important commercial districts. Even biking Browning to Commercial wouldn't rate, I think, as a very attractive option for most people. Even with the bike lanes, Commercial is often a forbidding place to bike.

How often, do you think, do residents walk or bike to the store instead of driving a car? Based on the walkscore, I would think that doesn't happen very often - but perhaps you know otherwise.

Anyway, as you suggest, sidewalks alone do not guarantee a good pedestrian experience. We'll be visiting other parts of the equation, and I hope you'll check in on other parts. As a realtor, the perspective you offer is an important one, and it'd be great to have an on-going conversation!

Thanks!