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Sidewalks can enhance communities

From the Ground Up

Most towns would be better off with more sidewalks and less billboards.

Having said that, I will point out in that there are times when sidewalks are not necessary and that billboards do serve a purpose. More about that later.

When I was 12 years old I lived on a busy, four-lane, arterial street. Every school day I would climb on my green, 24-inch Schwinn bicycle, place my books in the wire basket on the front handlebars and pedal my way to Galloway Elementary School. After school I retraced my route and headed home where I would pick up my bundle of afternoon newspapers, fold them and deliver them to the subscribers in my neighborhood. I could ride my bike to school safely because there was a sidewalk all the way from my house to the front door of the school. Without those sidewalks it would have been a terrifying event to get to school in the traffic lanes.

I know that there are those among us who are now muttering, “Bicycles aren’t supposed to be ridden on the sidewalk.” You would rightly point out that bicyclists have as much right to a traffic lane as an automobile. I agree that’s what the law says, but I don’t understand why a bicyclist wants to impede automobile traffic and suffer the obscene gestures of motorists who ride by and yell out places where he can shove his bicycle. These same bicyclists become passionate when they talk about their bicyclists’ rights.

You’ve seen the bumper sticker: “Same road, same rules.” The rules seem to go by the wayside at intersections when all the vehicles stop, but the bicyclist keeps going. I apologize for offending the bicyclists with my diatribe, but — whew! — it felt good to get it off my chest.

Sidewalks add value to a neighborhood. Take a tour of the most expensive subdivisions in a city and most likely you will see that the developer installed sidewalks. Most residents in higher density communities want sidewalks and will pay more in neighborhoods that have them. On the other hand, if the lots are large (over one acre) and traffic is light it does not add very much to a subdivision to install sidewalks. Developers who oppose sidewalks argue that requiring sidewalks is a double loss for homeowners because property owners would have to pay for the sidewalks while having their lots reduced in size. This argument is valid only if there is a reduction in property values caused by the installation of sidewalks.

Sidewalks are generally paid for by an additional assessment on the owner over whose property the sidewalk runs. Many cities place the responsibility on the owner to maintain the sidewalk. Tree roots and drainage problems are the biggest maintenance problems.

These days, sidewalks are usually made of concrete or asphalt. In early American village life sidewalks were most often made of wooden planks. They were there to keep from walking in the muddy streets when it rained. Some communities even have laws still on the books making it illegal for an owner or tender to allow livestock to walk on the sidewalk.

Sidewalks create a sense of community. They invite residents to walk and get to see each other. Sidewalks also provide a safe way to get exercise by walking. The latest walking tracks are winding, asphalt ribbons in public parks where walkers with headphones pace about without even noticing others except to get out of the way. Neighborhood sidewalks are more communal.

So why don’t more subdivisions have sidewalks? It’s simple. They cost money, which adds to the total cost of the housing. Buyers often want more house and less neighborhood. Developers are simply responding to the market.

So, even though I like sidewalks, I don’t think that every neighborhood needs sidewalks. As previously mentioned, if the traffic is light and the lots are far apart, sidewalks don’t make much sense. Some planners don’t think that way. A county in Florida is installing sidewalks in a subdivision that doesn’t want them. At a public hearing, 100% of those in attendance testified that sidewalks were an unnecessary expense and that traffic had gone down in the past 10 years.

Finally, a word about billboards. In many cases billboards serve a useful purpose to travelers. Who among us has not found food or lodging at an interstate highway exit because of a big sign? On the other hand, if you want to see what life can be like without the clutter of billboards take a trip to Vermont and see how beautiful a state can be without billboards. If you can’t make it to the Green Mountain State then a Sunday drive on the Natchez Trace will give you the same flavor.

Phil Hardwick’s column appears regularly in the Mississippi Business Journal. His e-mail address is hardwickp@aol.com.

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