Joe Urban | Sam Newberg, Urbanist

So You Say You Want a Sidewalk?

Dateline: 1:54 pm August 15, 2012 Filed under:

“You’d think with all the taxes we pay that they could have put in a sidewalk.” That is the exasperated comment from my mother-in-law as she and I were driving past the local playground near their house in the Milwaukee suburbs with my kids in the back seat.

She has a very good point. The previous day she walked the half-mile or so from her house to the playground (adjacent to an elementary school) with my two-year-old son Shaw in the stroller. The walk begins in their subdivision, developed in the 1990s, which has no sidewalks but relatively wide streets (30 feet curb to curb), so at least walking along the side of the street allows plenty of room for cars to comfortably pass (not to excuse the lack of sidewalks!) and thus is a somewhat tolerable place to walk.

However, once you cross in to the next subdivision, developed in the 1960s, with just two-lane streets and no storm sewers. As a result, there are shallow ditches lining these streets, leaving no room to move to the side to allow two cars to pass; far from an ideal place to walk. The worst part of the walk, and the portion of the walk that most raised my mother-in-law’s ire, is the last 1,000-foot leg of the journey along, for lack of a better term, a “little arterial.” This roadway is also two-lanes like a rural highway, but has a 35 mile-per-hour speed limit and is without shoulders and has even deeper storm ditches; a hostile place in which to walk indeed!

This part of Menomonee Falls, and nearly all of neighboring Brookfield, are lined with these pastoral two-lane roadways, one every mile on the grid. I don’t know their classification; I call them little arterials because they are somewhere between a collector and an arterial. They roll along the edges of bucolic subdivisions with mature trees and really are pleasant, if not wonderful roads to drive. A stately 35 miles-per-hour is comfortable, and there is very little of that roadside schlock from which to avert your eyes. In fact, I actually look forward to driving there. Walking, on the other hand….

So to the crux of the matter – of course they should have put in sidewalks or walking trails in the first place, particularly since there is a playground and elementary school. But here we are without them, so let’s consider the options. To paraphrase, with all the taxes my in-laws pay, couldn’t a sidewalk be added, even if just for the portion along the little arterial? Sure, but at this point in time it would require more money any way you cut it.

So who should pay for it? Under typical circumstances, each individual homeowner would be assessed for the portion of new sidewalk in front of their respective homes. The assessment for a new sidewalk along the 100-plus feet of frontage for each lot would cost thousands of dollars for each of the 10 or so homeowners along that section of little arterial. I doubt that would go over well. Of course, state or federal grants for safe routes to school or other sources of money could offset some of that cost. Nonetheless the dollars aren’t presently in place (earmarked, if you will) and would have to come from somewhere.

And that is just the dollars. In my neighborhood, the city is replacing aged sections of sidewalk in front of our homes this summer and assessing us for the cost. Those assessments are far less than the cost of starting from scratch and adding sidewalks where they didn’t exist. But at least the very existence of those sidewalks isn’t in question. What is the political appetite for retrofitting suburbia and adding sidewalks where they don’t exist? Maybe every single homeowner has the righteous anger and demands a choice of transportation options from their house, but I doubt that. Thus, getting many or all to agree on the principle of a sidewalk in the first place isn’t likely, much less adding significant assessments so that others can walk in front of their homes. I don’t see this as happening, and I don’t see my in-laws getting sidewalks any time soon. I believe in local action and placemaking in our communities, but even if they managed to get a groundswell of support and found a funding solution for sidewalks, replicating that across all of suburbia is not a practical solution.

Furthermore, simply adding a sidewalk won’t create walkable urbanism. Certainly adding a pedestrian route to an elementary school deserves a hearing, but retrofitting suburbia and sprawl repair are more than that; they involve mixing uses, increasing density and creating whole neighborhoods where one can meet at least a reasonable amount of daily needs on foot, by car or by transit. In practical terms, it is far easier to focus on core cities where the bones of walkable urbanism already exist.

When my in-laws chose a lot and built their home more than a decade ago, I’m sure walking to the nearest playground with their grandson in a stroller, and the quality of that walk, didn’t enter their minds. Why would it? But maybe it will if they move again. And it is something that crosses the mind of an increasing number of people when choosing where to live. And that is my hope for the future of urban places – that people vote with their feet and choose walkable urbanism in ever-larger numbers.

This piece is crossposted at

1 Comment »

  1. Nice one, Sam. I just tried explaining on Sunday to my son why there wasn’t a sidewalk in Roseville, where we were visiting. He was mighty perplexed.

    Comment by Vince Tuss — August 15, 2012 @ 3:29 pm

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