Where the Sidewalk Ends
by Shelley McMullen
Where does the sidewalk end? On many of Denver’s streets.
Nearly every morning near downtown, a man in an electric wheelchair takes his grandson to school. The boy sits in his grandfather’s lap as they ride in the street just feet from by rapid passing vehicles. This is dangerous but so are the sidewalks. Denver’s sidewalks are cracking, uneven and often missing. In many neighborhoods, the sidewalks are in such disrepair that they are inaccessible to wheelchairs, strollers and the elderly, forcing our most vulnerable populations to the street. In neighborhoods that lack sidewalks, children walk to school through streets and alleyways.
Yes, our city is becoming more bicycle and transit friendly but we are still a city which prioritizes vehicles. We have freshly paved roads and new bike lanes but we neglect the pavement just a few feet to the right. According to a sidewalk inventory by the City and County of Denver, there are 3,395 miles of street frontage in Denver that could have sidewalks on either side of the street and 250 miles of them lack sidewalks. Approximately 7% of Denver’s streets are unacceptable for pedestrian safety and such a significant amount of sidewalks are in disrepair that the city does not even keep an inventory of them. Nearly one third of Americans do not drive and the majority are the elderly and those too young to drive. Both of these populations are our most vulnerable and deserve the ability to commute safely through any part of the city.
Why can’t Denver provide sidewalks? Denver’s sidewalk policy, which has not been altered since the 1950s, requires property owners to install and maintain public sidewalks. New sidewalks are only built when a property is developed. Inadequate sidewalks are only inspected by the city if there is a complaint and repaired at the cost of the property owner.
There are some simple fixes to this policy problem that don’t require the city to take legal or fiscal responsibility. Because the sidewalks in disrepair are generally located in the same proximity, the city could order work for the entire neighborhood and save construction costs for all the property owners who choose to opt in, rather than having to schedule repairs individually. Another successful example is as nearby as the City of Englewood, Denver’s neighbor to the south. Property owners may opt in to a small monthly fee tacked onto their water bill to cover sidewalk maintenance. Residents can call to have a sidewalk evaluated and if a repair is needed, the city hires contractors to fix it.
After recently rolling out the Vision Zero Action Plan to end traffic deaths by 2030, it is apparent that City Council and the Mayor of Denver have pedestrians on their minds. Traffic deaths have been increasing in Denver over the past few years and in 2016, 38% of the deaths were pedestrians, while only 5% of Denverites commute by foot. Sidewalk maintenance is not specified in this plan but plays a major role in the safety for our streets. In 2016, a 14-year-old boy was killed after being hit by a car while riding his skateboard in the bike lane just a few blocks from his house. Better sidewalks may have saved his life.
It’s time to talk to our neighbors and time to contact our representatives at City Council about changing this outdated policy. The brand new, protected bicycle lanes that are popping up all over town are wonderful, publicly funded amenities but they are only built for the small percentage of commuters who travel by bicycle. It is the responsibility of a city to provide safe infrastructure for all, especially for our most vulnerable. These are the elderly, disabled and young populations who all happen to travel by foot. Tell your councilperson that we are all pedestrians and everyone deserves safe sidewalks.