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Slow steps in the growth of sidewalks in Durham

Above, Jose Gomez has to walk in the grass beside a busy highway for his morning commute to work because there are no sidewalks. Photo by Daniela Flamini

Jose Gomez commutes by bus from his home in northeast Durham to State Road 54 and Carpenter Fletcher Road. He then must trudge a quarter-mile to his job at Jimmy’s Famous Hotdogs. There are no sidewalks, so he has to walk on a patch of grass beside the busy highway.

“It gets really dangerous when I have to walk home at night, around 11, 11:30 p.m., when I can’t see my surroundings well,” said Gomez, 47, a fry cook. “It would make a huge difference to have some space for pedestrians.”

The area along State Road 54, from east of State Road 55 to the western limit of Research Triangle Park, is typical of many Durham neighborhoods and commercial areas. It’s not a friendly place for pedestrians. According to Bryan Poole, a city transportation planner, his department has identified 500 miles of sidewalk needs evenly spread around the city, and existing projects address only about 20 percent of that.

In late November, Durham’s Public Works Department presented designs for new sidewalks in the area around Highway 54, including the patch of grass Gomez and his coworkers use on their way to work. But these designs are still six years away from completion, and there are already significant complications due to obstacles like retaining walls, driveways and bike lanes.

Poole helps the city decide which areas of Durham most urgently need sidewalks. He explained that the process of actually getting them constructed can be a slow, heavily bureaucratic endeavor. “It’s hard for the public to understand how long it takes for sidewalks to be built,” he said.

Dale McKeel, a bicycle and pedestrian coordinator, said that “residents have shown a strong demand for the last thirty years.” The crux of the problem lies in the fact that Durham was largely built and developed before the 1990s, when cars were the primary mode of transportation and sidewalks weren’t a major concern for city planners.

“It doesn’t seem like it’d be that complicated [to install sidewalks], but there are lots of details that need to be worked through,” McKeel said.

A local push for sidewalks in cities

City planners have long cared more about cars than bicycles or pedestrians, said Dan Gelinne, a program manager at the Pedestrian and Bicycle Information Center, a state-funded resource housed at the University of North Carolina Highway Safety Research Center. “Places like Durham, Atlanta, and Phoenix were pretty much developed when people were driving, so the sidewalk was an afterthought.”

And yet, cities that boast comprehensive sidewalk coverage like New York and Boston flourished much earlier, when most people were getting around on foot.

Recent decades have seen a push from local efforts to enforce and encourage sidewalks in cities across the United States. Not only do sidewalks decrease the likelihood of pedestrians getting struck in vehicle crashes by 80 percent, but they also raise property value, make shops and businesses more economically viable, and signal a more physically active neighborhood, according to Gelinne.

In 2006, the Durham City Council adopted the DurhamWalks! Pedestrian Plan, which was meant to check up on existing sidewalk networks and recommend improvements for better safety and accessibility.

Of the 300 projects that were born after its adoption, only 35 were actually completed, Poole said.

The projects that have been most successful are the ones that address pedestrian safety in particularly risky areas, such as Fayetteville Street, where pedestrians often have to walk alongside cars due to gaps in the sidewalk network.

Poole said that while the city has its own methodology for deciding which sidewalk projects should be prioritized, the North Carolina Department of Transportation does too. Because most sidewalks get federal funding through the state DOT, the city often must wait for the state to decide what it will approve.

It’s common for the city and the state not to see eye-to-eye on prioritizing sidewalks, because the state is much more conservative about small-scale projects. State level funding tends to go towards highway projects.

The cost of sidewalk installation varies greatly depending on what obstacles the landscape comes with. In Durham, materials and labor for 500 square feet of sidewalk can cost on average between $1,500 and $3,000.

A long-term approach to planning

City officials want to make sure that sidewalks help everyone in Durham, from the rich to the poor. But officials are aware that the need isn’t spread so evenly. “Certainly sidewalks are needed everywhere, but in some places, (people are) more reliant on being able to walk, like poorer neighborhoods,” Gelline said.

“This can come across in the public’s view that the city isn’t responding to what [its residents] are asking for, but a lot of times it’s the wealthier people in the community who are better at effectively communicating with the local government, so they know how to make a loud public argument for more sidewalks.”

Durham’s sidewalks are mostly concentrated downtown, which Poole says is great since it covers some poorer areas, but gentrification poses a threat to this. Otherwise, they’re spread fairly unevenly around the county and don’t follow any demographically-related pattern. McKeel noted that “in a lot of the neighborhoods around Duke’s East Campus (an affluent area), there are no sidewalks. That’s not usually what you’d expect in a city, but there’s just no correlation.”

Poole did say that most the emails and comments that the city gets about sidewalks come from wealthier neighborhoods, but that he “tries to be mindful” of this by making equity a primary concern.

Gelinne said that “sidewalks are pretty expensive to build… it can be very expensive, and generally cannot be done quickly. Durham probably struggles with the fact that, at the end of the day, the budget allotted is not enough for what is required, so they’re still catching up.”


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