The Austin Chronicle

Where the Sidewalks End

Austin's patchwork sidewalk system has a history – and just maybe a better future

By Richard Whittaker, July 11, 2014, News

If you're in Austin, and you're trying to get from point A to point B, and you feel like walking, there's one big question.

Are you insane?

Austin talks a good game about "walkability," and the city does have some big projects. Downtown's Great Streets Development Pro­gram. The scenic hike-and-bike trails. The Urban Trails program, linking major arteries. The Child Safety Program, encouraging walking to school. There are almost a dozen different pedestrian-centric initiatives. Yet even with all those complementary efforts, if you get out beyond the central core and into the neighborhoods, finding an easy route on foot anywhere becomes a snipe hunt.

Dead ends. Orphan sidewalks, with a walkway in front of one house, but not its neighbor's. Dirt tracks by major roads. Nothing at all in many central neighborhoods, forcing walkers, commuters, runners, families with small kids and strollers, and people with disabilities out into the road, hoping that oncoming traffic sees them and steers clear.

Council Member Chris Riley knows all about those risks. He grew up in Tarrytown, "in an era when it was expected that everyone would drive everywhere." Now he is City Hall's most prominent advocate for public spaces and public transit, and sidewalks are no different. He represents a change in thinking, as Austinites have begun expecting to walk to the end of the street in safety. "It's not anything that's happened overnight," he said, nor is it specific to Austin. He described "an evolution of thought that's been happening around the country, as we move away from a model of suburban development. The pendulum has been swinging to urbanism and a place that's more walkable."

The Master Plan

Yet Austin has much further to go than most major cities. How did it end up with this hodgepodge network? For Mark Cole, project coordinator at the city's Neigh­bor­hood Connectivity Division, it's a historical problem that all starts in the late Nineties. Actually, it started before then, but that's when the city took responsibility for the sidewalks. Prior to that, sidewalks – which typically lie in a public easement on private property – were solely the responsibility of the property owner, and there was no duty or ordinance requiring landowners to install them. Cole said, "There were years where the city didn't build sidewalks or maintain sidewalks."

Neighborhood Connectivity Project Manager John Eastman notes that, before World War II, being a pedestrian was the norm. That's why the 19th century core of Down­town has a good system, and why older planned communities like Hyde Park have a connected grid. If they didn't, then nobody would have been able to get anywhere. However, Eastman said, "Then there was a period where we were all enamored of The Jetsons and we were pretty sure we'd never need [sidewalks] anymore, so they just stopped being built. That went on for decades, and it's only been in the last 10, 15 years that they've been required."

That's why the city adopted its sidewalk ordinance. It sounds simple enough: Build a new mixed-use facility, apartment complex, or house, and a new stretch of pavement goes in. But therein lies the rub. Just because you have a new sidewalk, it doesn't mean your neighbors have one. That's why paths suddenly terminate midblock, or there's a lone house with paving on a whole street – a situation staff quickly realized was ludicrous. So now, individual homeowners can skip sidewalk construction, and pay instead a "fee-in-lieu" dedicated to arterial sidewalks.

There's a different problem in large-scale developments like the Triangle or the Domain: Residents and visitors may walk around easily within their confines, but doing something as simple as crossing neighboring streets may still be impossible. Austin becomes a chain of islands of walkability, with oceans of dirt trails and dangerous multi-lane asphalt between them. Eastman described that as a "legacy" of the old system, and it explains why "there is a substantial part of our built environment where there are no sidewalks, or there are only sidewalks on one side of the street."

The end result is a patchwork system that's not easy to fix. In 2009, the city adopted the Sidewalk Master Plan, its cited goal being to build "policies that will encourage walking as a viable mode of transportation, improve pedestrian safety, and enable people to walk to and from transit stops." It included an analysis of Austin's sidewalk system – what it has, what it needs, and how much it would cost to bridge that gap. The statistics were stunning. At the time, Austin had a deficit of roughly 3,500 miles of paving to create a complete system. At an average of $5.50 per square foot of sidewalk, plus around $1,000 for each wheelchair accessible sidewalk cut, that came to roughly $824 million for new sidewalks, and another $120 million for upgrades to existing sidewalks. Cole said, "The scope of the problem was truly daunting, because it truly was decades in the making."

Slight problem: Cole's department has an annual budget of roughly $5 million to $10 million – and that also has to cover maintenance of existing sidewalks. When the city started requiring developers to install pedestrian access on new projects, there was a trade-off. The developer paid to build it, but from that point the city owns it, and the city's street and bridge division has to look after it. "That's the trick of it," said Cole. "As long as it's in the public right of way, the taxpayers are on the hook to maintain it all." And no new funding mechanism was introduced to cover that extra responsibility. "I know that in other places that are more 'sidewalk-centric,' people are assessed a certain amount of taxes that relate to sidewalks," Cole said, but not in Austin. That means relying on state and federal transportation and development grants, as well as money allocated in city bonds.

The good news is, at that funding level, his office should have the job done in a century or two, as long as nobody builds any new roads or the city doesn't annex any extra land with lousy walking routes. With such a small budget, Cole said, "We're counting on [developers] taking a lot of those missing and in-need sidewalks." But even with Austin's rapid growth, the developer requirement barely dents the total need. Cole's office prioritizes filling gaps where there is need, and ends up making tough choices. The needle swings to areas with high need, especially those with an attractor like a store or housing. He used Riley's native Tarrytown, with its relatively small population, low density, and lack of attractors, as an example. "There's not a lot of sidewalks, and there's not likely to be a lot of sidewalk to come."

Sidewalk Triage

It's a cyclical problem. Austinites don't walk, because the sidewalks aren't there, and so there aren't sidewalks because there aren't people using them. That's fine for people who can choose to drive, but many people have no choice. For the disabled community, sidewalks aren't just a nice alternative, but essential infrastructure. That's where advocacy group ADAPT of Texas comes into play. Jennifer McPhail works with the city on sidewalk issues and Americans with Disabilities Act compliance, while her colleague David Wittie works with Capital Metro. Wittie explained, "It's a civil right to have access to the community that you live in, whether you're disabled or not." He added, "If you don't need sidewalks now, you will eventually."

Yet too many people – drivers, developers, and policy-makers – regard walking as something that only poor people, people with disabilities, or those with a lot of spare time do. "There's a caste system," said McPhail. "If you have a car, you're top of the totem pole. If you have anything else, you're somewhere underneath." That thinking starts at the top, specifically at Congress, she said: "It's those big checks that they want to get, but they call 'pork' later on." Congressional bickering leads to budget impasse, which leads to a severe shortage in federal cash. When those small amounts finally get down to the municipalities, McPhail said, "The big thing that we try to focus on is to get the city to do a mix of arterial and smaller projects, so no area gets all the wealth and nowhere gets no pain." She sighed. "It's unfortunate that we have to triage, but that's what we've had to do."

At the state level, Wittie voices frustration with the Texas Department of Trans­port­ation. This time it's not about money, but a question of culture. TxDOT is highway-centric, so they design roads like highways, with sidewalks only an afterthought. In fact, they often don't provide them, even on major arteries in the urban core. Go to Sixth and I-35 on a Saturday night and see the streams of pedestrians risking life and limb on the underpass. Or ride Research between Burnet and Lamar, where low-income housing apartments sit within view of the local Target and a stack of restaurants, but with only dirt tracks and unreliable crossing lights for access. TxDOT spokesman Chris Bishop said, "We are dedicated to providing safe and efficient transportation options." The agency will consider adding sidewalks to new projects, making the final decision based on current use and planned development. For example, he said, "If we are placing curb and gutter along a highway, we will usually add sidewalks if there are signs that people walk along the roadway." The city can also ask the department to put a new sidewalk in along an existing road but, as Bishop explained, it becomes the city's problem. Wittie noted in disbelief, "The city has to pay the state for the privilege to build sidewalks for them."

However, Wittie is optimistic that there is a more responsive attitude from TxDOT's regional planners on stretches like I-35 Down­town. Administrative attitudes can change, and ADAPT has been key in that evolution. When the city wrote the Sidewalk Master Plan, it used an ADAPT survey of the Downtown grid, he said, "Specifically to identify where there was a need for a sidewalk, a sidewalk improvement, or a curb cut." More recently, there was a follow-up survey for Cap Metro, recommending upgrades to and from the new bus routes on the Guadalupe-Lavaca corridor (see "Cap Metro: Riding the Shuffle Bus," June 20). "Some of those improvements still have to be done," Wittie said, "but we know that they'll happen."

That learning curve is the same at the community level. Wittie said, "I understand when people say, 'I don't want a sidewalk; but when they have one in their neighborhood, and they see the pleasure people derive when they can use it, I've never heard anyone say, 'That sidewalk needs to come out.'"

Safe and Interesting

Undeniably, Austinites' demand for sidewalks has changed over time. As the city gets more densely populated, and more people move here from cities with more integrated networks, public expectation for a good system rises. Cole argues there's even a geographic element to this: Most western cities have just as patchy a system, so residents moving from elsewhere in Texas or the West Coast are used to it. But anyone relocating from the more developed cityscapes of the Midwest and the Eastern seaboard are in for a rude awakening. For example, Dan Keshet, board member of new transit/land use advocacy group AURA, commented, "I moved here from Boston, and I just couldn't believe that I was walking in the street." When asked how he would grade the city's sidewalk system, "it depends on where in Austin you are," he said. "Some places go as high as seven or eight, but most of Austin is a three or a four."

It's that reliability that's at question. Imagine if a driver, heading down a major Downtown thoroughfare, suddenly found herself at a dead end, or on a dirt track. That's what Austin's pedestrians face every day. Keshet said, "With that variability, you lose a lot of confidence in your ability to walk somewhere or take public transit." There's a real public safety issue too, with pedestrian fatalities in auto accidents rising steeply over the last few years. For Keshet, that's just another symptom of Austin struggling to keep up with its growth. He said, "The more pedestrians there are, the more there are likely to be conflicts between cars and pedestrians."

Sara LeVine, founder of ATX Safer Streets, echoes Keshet's frustrations, describing Austin as "a patched-together city. It wasn't designed smartly to grow into the size of metropolitan area that it is." She knows the frustration of being within walking distance of an attractor, but not having a decent sidewalk; she lives near the Domain, less than half a mile from the nearby H-E-B, but there is no paved way for her to get there. "I have to walk along the access road in the dirt." But it's not just about getting people from point A to point B; it's about getting them there alive. She uses East Sixth as an example, arguing that, for an area packed on weekends, there are simply not enough safe places for pedestrians to cross. "Even cars take a gamble pulling out there," she said.

As areas like East Sixth and Rainey Street see increasing foot traffic, there is more discussion about how to keep them safe. Tragically, much of that concern has been sparked by tragic deaths, like that of Kelly Wayne Noel, the man behind the popular @ATXhipsters Twitter account (see "Elegy for an Invisible Hipster: Kelly Wayne Noel," April 28.) He was simply trying to walk a few blocks home, but was hit while navigating the limited sidewalks along I-35's service road. LeVine said, "Everyone in Austin's just accustomed to having these less than spectacular walkways, and it takes high-profile deaths to get people talking." Unfortunately, she added, "A lot of those deaths have been alcohol-related, so the message gets lost."

Robert Anderson doesn't see those arguments as a distraction. He sees them as different approaches to the same problem. Anderson is part of the city's Planning and Develop­ment Review Department, as well as a co-founder of advocacy group WalkAus­tin. Last year he worked with CM Riley to found the Pedestrian Advisory Council, "a set of community members who have a vested interest in or expertise in walking." That includes design experts, delegates from the neighborhood associations, ADAPT, and Texas AARP, as well as representatives of a panoply of city departments, from Watershed Protection to APD and Cap Metro. The group's role is simple: Move beyond looking at walking as just about sidewalks, and start thinking about how it fits into daily routines – not just of pedestrians, but of developers, drivers, law enforcement, and policy makers.

Anderson said, "The sidewalk system is not ideal, and we get that." But it's not just sidewalks. There's something deeper at play. "Over the last few years we've seen a significant uptick in the number of fatalities. Even though walkers only account for about one percent of transportation, we account for about a third of fatalities." The city passed laws like the distracted driving ordinance to change how people act on roads, but Anderson sees more work to be done. "I'm definitely not happy with where we are, because the things we're doing are not achieving what we want in terms of reducing fatalities." That's why his group is finalizing work on a document it calls "Vision Zero." Inspired by a similar project in New York, he explained, "It speaks to the idea that no fatality within the transportation network is acceptable." The aim is to bring all issues – design, development, drunk driving, distracted driving, bicyclist citations – and all the groups working on them together to come up with holistic solutions, "rather than having a lot of disparate conversations," he said.

There's a consensus among pedestrian advocates that, even if that billion dollars' worth of sidewalk suddenly appears, Austin will have to do more than just pour concrete on existing streets. Anderson said, "The greater challenge is driver culture, and we as a community are going to have to a hard discussion about it." Some of those conversations may challenge basic street operations: For example, "right on red" – when crossing pedestrians and turning drivers often end up on the same part of an intersection at the same time. That's the kind of inherently risky behavior that makes the eyes of traffic planners and safety experts twitch, but it's something that Austinites have become used to. Some changes may be simpler, and Anderson noted that APD is interested in changes to the distracted driving ordinance, because the current language is tough to enforce. He also sees less resistance to the Imagine Aus­tin plan, which puts added development emphasis on density and walkable development, rather than old-style sprawling neighborhoods.

Similarly, LeVine backs mixed-use developments, "so that people have more reason to walk," while Keshet argues that smart development can even provide "a short cut" to covering the massive funding gap. He explained, "There are two ways to bring people and walkability together. One is to bring walkability to where people are and to new places; but the other way is to bring people to places that are walkable." That ties in with how Cole's office prioritizes sidewalk construction – build where there is need. However, Keshet argues for concentrating that need by increasing density around existing sidewalks, like Downtown and the neighborhoods of the inner core. That doesn't just mean more large apartment complexes like those springing up along Lamar and Burnet, he said, but "letting people build more duplexes, triplexes, fourplexes."

That's where a more nebulous and hard-to-define problem comes in. Developers may put sidewalks in even the most densely populated areas, but if it's a long trek past acres of surface parking or blank concrete walls, it's just boring, and it makes the walk feel longer. "Aside from a walk being safe, it also has to be interesting," says Riley, "and there are a number of studies that say that's no small feat." Unfor­tun­ately, he said, Aus­tin's existing sidewalk ordinance has inadvertently encouraged dull development, and so becomes self-defeating. He said, "You can stroll down several blocks of South Congress, and it doesn't seem that far. Try walking that same difference down Burnet or Anderson. You just won't do it."

For LeVine, it's all going to have to come back to policy-makers. There are enough people in Austin who want to walk – but it must become a political issue. Her group is already working on a candidate survey for the November Council elections, so that voters can shift the needle on the priority placed on real walkability. "The more that grassroots organizations can put candidates to the fire," she said, "the more chance we have of bigger and better sidewalks."

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