Sunday, December 27, 2015

How wide was my sidewalk

The Cemar Trail along K Avenue NE, approaching Prairie Drive: 7.5 feet
Cedar Rapids is introducing wide sidewalks into areas of the city. The standard sidewalk, such as the one that runs in front of my house, is five feet wide.
Sidewalk on Blake Blvd SE widens from 4 feet in the 1700 block
to 5 feet above 18th St
In some older areas of town, they're only three feet wide. A wide sidewalk can be several times that.

Urban designers commend wide sidewalks for areas of heavy pedestrian traffic. David Sucher (2003: 97) notes: The twelve-foot-wide sidewalk allows two couples to pass each other easily and with only minimal and unconscious maneuvering and no interruption of the conversation. He includes a picture taken in Alexandria, Virginia, showing two women walking side-by-side in one direction, a third woman walking closer to the street, and a man in a wheelchair coming the other direction. They’ll clearly pass each other without needing to squeeze through or be at all awkward. Andres Duany et al. (2010: 9.1) add, On active retail streets, a 15- to 25-foot width from building to curb is not excessive, particularly if outdoor dining is a possibility.

Reid Ewing and his students at the University of Utah (“Pedestrian Friendly,” cited below) note the problem that narrow sidewalks can force pedestrians to walk into the street to get around obstacles and other people…. Ideally, sidewalks should also be wide enough to allow benches for older adults and families to stop and rest or relax. Generally, two couples or two wheelchairs should be able to pass each other comfortably on a sidewalk, which requires about 10 to 12 feet across.

Ewing et al. cite Seattle’s municipal code as requiring sidewalks to be at least 12 feet wide; Knoxville, Tennessee, requires 10 foot sidewalks in the South Waterfront District, but that includes a five-foot planting zone. In Washington, DC, advocates note that Connecticut Avenue used to have 12 foot sidewalks on both sides of the street, but in 1962 the sidewalk on one side was narrowed to make room for a parking lot. At the time of the post they were trying to get the original width restored (Caudill… if you click on the link, be sure to watch the 1 ½ minute video trip down the sidewalk).

Wide sidewalks are commended in the “Best Practices and Design Guide” on the Federal Highway Administration website’s Bicycle and Pedestrian Program: The width of the sidewalk corridor is one of the most significant factors in determining the type of pedestrian experience that the sidewalk provides…. Narrow sidewalk corridors are unsatisfactory because they limit the number of pedestrians that can use the area, require pedestrians to travel single file, and force pedestrians to travel uncomfortably close to buildings and/or automobile traffic…. Sometimes, narrow sidewalks do not provide enough clear space for people who use walking aids or wheelchairs to travel down the length of the sidewalk.

Wide sidewalks can already be found around Cedar Rapids. In fact, the sidewalk along 1st Avenue in front of Coe College is about 7.5 feet wide. Much of downtown features sidewalks of this width. Interestingly, some of the newer wide sidewalks are intended for both bicycles and pedestrians--for example, on K Avenue NE where the sidewalk was completed out to Prairie Drive as part of the CEMAR Trail. The wide sidewalk planned for Lindale Drive NE as part of the Collins Road project has a similar mix in mind.

Cedar Rapids's recent sidewalk construction initiative is welcome enhancement to our pedestrian infrastructure. Most are, of course, traditional five foot sidewalks. Are there places where foot traffic merits wider sidewalks? Along and around the high schools and middle schools, perhaps? Or, are there places where businesses as well as the general vibe would be helped by using wide sidewalks to invite walking?

3rd St SE entering New Bohemia:
7.5 foot walking area with additional space for benches
7th Av SE in front of the new federal courthouse: 10 feet (?)
400 block of 1st St SE: 10 foot walking space, additional paved space for signs and lampposts 
200 block of 3rd Av SE: 12 foot walking space (!)
Sidewalk along 3rd Av SE is 10 feet by Greene Square,
narrows to 5 feet above 5th St
7.5 foot sidewalk through Greene Square as you approach the public library
Herb Caudill, “Bring Back Cleveland Park’s Historic Wide Sidewalks,” Greater Greater Washington, 16 July 2013,
Andrew Duany and Jeff Speck with Mike Lydon, The Smart Growth Manual (McGraw Hill, 2010)
Federal Highway Administration, “Designing Sidewalks and Trails for Access” (2001),
 “Pedestrian Friendly Code Directory: Wide and Continuous Sidewalks,” ChangeLab Solutions, n.d.,
David Sucher, City Comforts: How to Build an Urban Village (City Comforts Inc, 2003)

SEE ALSO: Priscila Pacheco and Lara Caccia, "How Public Spaces Make Cities More People-Oriented," The City Fix, 27 May 2015, [not about sidewalks specifically, but about how spaces for public interaction make cities safer and more pleasant... not to mention more productive]

Peanuts cartoon from 1951. Used without permission.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Dan Burden on sidewalks and the future

Dan Burden at CSPS Hall
 I would never walk. I would take a car.

Dan Burden of Blue Zones praised both sidewalks and the City of Cedar Rapids's plans to include them in development in a talk at CSPS Hall last week. Burden, director of innovation and inspiration for Blue Zones, talked up both the social and economic benefits of complete streets, which he said "address all the needs of all the people all the time" instead of focusing exclusively on efficient flow of automobile traffic.

Burden said modifying the streetscape was an essential element of Blue Zones' efforts in Albert Lea, Minnesota, which helped bring about dramatic improvements in health spending and work productivity. Economically, he argued complete streets produce 4-5 times the revenue per square foot than auto-oriented streets; add value to homes at several times the cost of constructing a sidewalk and planting street trees; and, with more compact development provide more efficient use of city services such as the fire department. Socially, walkability addresses a basic human impulse: Walking, he says, is the first thing an infant wants to do on its own, and the last thing an older person wants to give up. It gives everyone a chance to exercise and meet more people, allows elders to age in place independently, and sustains the quality of neighborhoods.

Sidewalks are, of course, not an end in themselves but a means to an end, and should be pursued with an eye towards cost-effectiveness as well as "completing the system." That means intentionally constructing a network of sidewalks in places with the potential of generating "places to go to." He showed a poignant picture of the sidewalk in front of his childhood home, which his father had built himself. Neither their neighbors nor their city took it from there, though, and it remains, seven decades later, a very short stub of cement in front of one house. Effective sidewalks connect people and destinations, with "eyes on the sidewalk" along the way (i.e. windows not garages or fences). They make for a smaller life radius, defined as the area where 90 percent of the things you do are found. (In traditional urban development, this might be a mile or two, so accessible multiple ways including walking; in suburban sprawl, several dozen miles, so accessible only by car.)

Burden, joined by city staff in a question-and-answer session after the talk, stayed positive and general, as befits an inspirational speaker. But we missed an opportunity to engage the crux of the sidewalk construction issue when an audience member questioned plans to extend the sidewalk along the south side of Grande Ave SE. (I live near there and know the speaker, but will leave it to him to identify himself if he chooses.) Grande runs for about a mile, beginning at 16th Street in Wellington Heights, through some quite toney blocks, and terminating in Bever Park. The sidewalk along the north side runs the entire route; on the south side it ends at 21st Street, about halfway along. This year, a city proposal to build the rest of the sidewalk met with near-unanimous opposition from homeowners on both sides of the street. The speaker argued the added sidewalk would be redundant, given the existing sidewalk along the north side of Grande, but mostly that it would be "disruptive."

Residents on Chandler Street SW, which leads to Jefferson High School,
are fighting city plans to build sidewalks (Bing maps)
It's an important reminder that the case for walkable cities, and for sidewalks as a means of walkability, is far from being a slam dunk. Not everyone wants to meet more people, or to live in a connected community, or not to rely on their car(s) to take them everywhere they need to go. Burden is in my view absolutely right when he says "an uncertain future will require more collaboration than we're used to," but not everyone believes that or wants to believe that. This particular speaker is in his 80s, but even people my age and younger believe primarily in the suburban values of beauty, privacy and security (made famous in the Chicagoland of my youth by the Tru-Link Fence Company). There are fiscal. environmental, social and soulful reasons for backing off on those suburban values, but to say the least some people remain unimpressed. How can such mindsets be reached, much less convinced of the desirability of building connected communities? Will developing successful examples, to the extent it's politically feasible, help?

Monday, December 7, 2015

Violence, fear, guns and our common life

"Chi-Raq," Spike Lee's new movie, begins with a map of the United States outlined in guns. Its release poignantly coincides with last week's shootings at a community center in San Bernardino, California. Following so quickly on the Planned Parenthood clinic shootings in Colorado Springs, not to mention the terror attacks in Paris, the latest killings appear to have rekindled anxieties about violence in America. How will we respond? Early indications are that the American political system remains mired in old rhetoric and rigidly defined positions. Can we even respond at all?

President Obama addressed the country Sunday night, in an effort to assuage public fears of terrorism and gun violence. He promised to "destroy ISIL," which is what one might expect him to say despite the elusiveness of the goal, and provided details of military, diplomatic and intelligence efforts to counter terrorism. On guns he called for barring purchases by people on no-fly lists, as well as an assault weapons ban; not unreasonable, but not much impact.

I have never owned a gun, and have no plans to purchase one. So I have at best an outsider's perspective on the role they play in American life and culture. I also don't spend much time worrying about being the victim of an armed assault. At the same time, I recognize the risks that people face are real, and that fear can be as destructive as an actual attack. I'm pained by the high surliness-to-logic ratio of a lot of the discussion. I'm skeptical that the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution addresses individual gun ownership at all, much less protects it to such a degree that precludes regulation (see Spitzer for what details there are on the amendment's murky history).

This much I do understand:
  • Fear, of the other, or of random violence, is a natural human reaction. Fear is also political currency, and can be exploited if people are willing to have their buttons pushed (as too many are, alas). But the physical and fiscal realities of the 21st century continue to thrust us together. We can't afford to build walls high enough, or roads long enough, to keep us in our respective safe spaces. And while hoping that "a good person with a gun" would pop up and stop a bad guy is understandable, it amounts to nothing more than wishing for a less awful outcome, while overlooking the risks that gun entails at the times when it's not interrupting an assault. (The Cedar Rapids Gazette today reports a rising number of firearm thefts from vehicles.)
  • Some Americans own a lot of guns. There are by some estimates more guns in American than people. But despite occasional reports that gun purchases are increasing, driven by fear (of violent attack, or of governmental gun control), the proportion of gun-owning household holds consistently at about 35-40 percent (Morin, "Gun Ownership"). Most Americans own no guns. All those American guns are in relatively few hands.
  • The level of gun violence in the United States is exceptional, and not in a good way. New York Times analysis of American news databases found over 300 mass shootings--defined as shootings that left four or more people injured or dead--so far in 2015. Some get a lot of attention, like the ones in San Bernardino, Colorado Springs, and Chattanooga, but a lot goes on outside the media spotlight. But here's the thing: 462 killed by mass shootings in 2015 is barely 1.5 percent of our annual total of gun deaths. According to the National Safety Council, there were 31672 deaths in the U.S. from firearms in 2010, a typical year, more than half by suicide, with a substantial minority by homicide. (The enemies aren't all without.) No other developed country, including Switzerland with its high rates of gun ownership, is even close to this level of gun violence (Lemieux). What are we doing wrong?
  • The National Rifle Association isn't helping. Neither are the Republicans, nor for that matter are the Democrats. The NRA is in a fix, albeit one other interest groups can only envy. Since adopting its absolutist interpretation of the Second Amendment in 1977, it has emerged as a political force so powerful it has swept all before it. Like other interest groups, it is in essence a business, which can't sustain itself in a world that has all the gun rights it will ever need (Godwin). Hence the overblown, perpetual crisis rhetoric, with "confiscation" always right around the corner unless we keep up the fight. Because of the political universe the NRA has helped create, the Republicans are offering no helpful policy solutions, while the Democrats offer only tiny incremental policies--barring gun sales to those on terrorist watch lists, for example--that seem mostly oriented to finally getting a victory over the NRA, however small.
  • We can only address this problem in conversation. The solutions aren't going to be easy, and they're likely to be complex. They need to take account of the fact that guns are small and easily transported, making municipal regulations impracticable and even state regulations difficult to enforce. They need to take account of a variety of interests: concerns for self-protection; access to materials for hunting or collection; fears generated by openly armed individuals; the dangers of proliferation. Most of all, to accomplish any of this, we need to learn how to listen, how to exchange ideas, and how to work towards solutions that advance our complimentary interests (Fisher et al). Non-negotiable demands are not conversation. Calling people nuts or ignorant is not conversation.
  • Gun policy needs to evolve. A perfect comprehensive policy is unlikely to emerge all at once. We need to be able to respond to research on approaches to gun violence--which means there needs to be research on gun violence. The federal ban on research by the Centers for Disease Control is absurd, not to mention paranoid, and should be lifted at once. Then, as in any other policy areas, policy needs to change in response to what is and isn't working.
The vast majority of guns in the U.S. are owned by men.
Men are also somewhat less likely to support gun control.
P.S. One reason I so much admire the work and message of Parker J. Palmer is his enduring belief that the conversations we need to have can occur, that obstacles to having them can be overcome with persistence. I aspire to that level of optimism. Given the rut this issue is stuck in, and how well surliness has worked for the N.R.A., it's hard to imagine getting from here to there. But what's the alternative?

EARLIER POSTS: "Rights and Our Common Life," 26 August 2015; "A Gathering of Spirits in Cedar Rapids," 28 July 2013

 Stephen J. Dubner and Steve Levitt, "How to Think about Guns: Full Transcript," Freakonomics, 14 February 2013,
 Roger Fisher, William Ury and Bruce Patton, Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement without Giving In (Penguin, 2nd ed, 1991)
 R. Kenneth Godwin, One Billion Dollars of Influence: The Direct Marketing of Politics (Chatham House, 1988)
 "Gun Ownership in US on Decline,", 11 March 2013, [citing data from 2012 General Social Survey]
 Sharon LaFraniere, Sarah Cohen and Richard J. Oppel Jr., "How Often Do Mass Shootings Occur? On Average, Every Day, Records Show," New York Times, 3 December 2015, A1, A23
 Frederick Lemieux, "Six Things Americans Should Know About Mass Shootings," IFL Science, 5 December 2015, [author is a criminologist at George Washington University]
 Rich Morin, "The Demographics and Politics of Gun-Owning Households," Pew Research Center, 14 July 2015,
 Robert L. Spitzer, The Politics of Gun Control (Chatham House, 1995)

Do bicycle boulevards need a purpose?

I was surprised last weekend to find the place where we were staying was on a bicycle boulevard. A bicycle boulevard is "a street ...