Urban Issues

In the Weeds: On Sidewalks and Salt

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In the Weeds: On Sidewalks and Salt

03/21/18

ISSUE – I’m writing this column because I’m pretty salty. My street doesn’t have a sidewalk, and it’s not going to get one.

Well, it will, but there are about 112 similar sidewalk projects ahead of it. Let me set the scene: my street is a minor collector road that acts as pretty neat shortcut to avoid a nearby thoroughfare. It is frequently used as a cut-through by vehicles, pedestrians, and cyclists. It has no pavement markings, and it is wide. My street is in the urban core of our city. It falls under a city designation known as the Multi-Modal Transportation District. MMTDs are described by the Florida Department of Transportation as places where the “primary priority is placed on assuring a safe, comfortable, and attractive pedestrian environment.” With that, 112 sidewalk projects are ahead of mine and I’ll only whine about it a little bit more. The City of Tallahassee knocks out about 3 of the projects on this list every year. That means I can expect my street to receive a sidewalk somewhere in the ballpark of 2055. Some expected Blueprint dollars will eventually speed the process up, but that’s where we’re at right now. My street’s not all that important, so this isn’t the worst thing in the world. But, you have to wonder, is this incongruency present in other areas of our city’s sidewalk priorities? Sure it is.

Due to the sheer volume of pedestrian infrastructure needs throughout the city, about four years ago we came up with a method to assess who gets what, and when. In 2014, our old Public Works department began applying data-driven criteria to assist in prioritizing our sidewalk construction projects. Their work would eventually culminate in our city’s Sidewalk Prioritization List. Streets are awarded points and ranked based on certain criteria: safety, safe routes to school, new access on specific types of roads, latent demand, connectivity, and existing demand. It’s been a long process to get where we are now in how we dole out infrastructure, but we can see how the process unfolded through the past prioritization lists.

In 2014, the first iteration of the sidewalk prioritization list placed a strong emphasis on sidewalks in dense, urban neighborhoods where folks might not have many transportation options other than walking. Streets like Roberts, Putnam, Kissimmee, Floral, and a majority of the D-Block streets can all be found at the top of the list. Cue the political process. The discussion about the agenda item was difficult to navigate. One particular comment a commissioner made sticks with me, that they didn’t “want to set up a situation where nobody gets a sidewalk except dense neighborhoods.” Where are all of the dense neighborhoods in the City of Tallahassee? They’re within the Multi-Modal Transportation District. The next attempt at a Sidewalk Prioritization List came in January 2015, and some of the most urban and well-trafficked streets fell dramatically in their priority ranking. The very neighborhoods where walkability is not only inspired by design, but often by necessity of socioeconomic conditions, lost their shot at a sidewalk. Kissimmee saw its priority number drop about fifty places. Continental had its priority pushed back fifty places. Dewey went from #11 to #24. Floral St., a historically black commercial corridor with a huge pedestrian presence went from #11 to #56. You get the idea.

In April of 2015, the commission voted in favor of criteria that formed the basis for the prioritization list we use today. Some streets in the urban core made quiet returns to higher priority rankings, but by and by large, many did not. The ebb and flow initially suggested by city staff didn’t stick. Some of the most dense and economically disadvantaged neighborhoods had lost their place in line. Dewey and Dunn were pushed back into the 30s and 40s. Volusia Street, the only road that connects one of our largest public housing developments to Old Bainbridge Road ended up at #83. Melvin Street, a downtown residential area which might be more tightly packed with duplexes and quadplexes than any other street in town, found itself at priority #121. Neighborhoods in the center of the city lost out. The very places where there is a distant possibility that one day, you might be able to walk or bike wherever you need to go. We’re now using a 2016 Sidewalk Prioritization List. I’m sure a few streets mentioned in this column are creeping up to the day that they get a sidewalk, and some may already be done. In the meantime, the urban core is still getting stiffed, and we’re still building sidewalks to nowhere on the outskirts of our urban service area. The prioritization list is being updated this year, and the only thing to really expect is a longer list as more sidewalk needs are identified. Is this a sustainable way to build adequate pedestrian infrastructure where it needs to be? I don’t know. I’m probably just salty about my street’s sidewalk priority number.

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