A first-ever Sidewalk Summit was held in the City Council Chambers yesterday as an interactive public forum to discuss Spokane’s pedestrian infrastructure. Unfortunately, I was unable to attend, but I had two staff in the City Council office provide me with these excellent notes. Many thanks to Councilman Jon Snyder and his legislative aide, Blaine Stum, for organizing the event!
Fifty or so participants — including citizens, members of advocacy groups, city officials, and elected representatives –voiced their concerns about sidewalk conditions, reported on the status of different citywide pedestrian initiatives, and brainstormed some possible solutions to common problems.
There were testimonials from people who require mobility assistance such as scooters, crutches, or walkers. They brought anecdotal and photo evidence of sidewalks where American Disability Act (ADA) ramps aren’t working as they should, where crumbling or uprooted sidewalks hinder access, or places where sidewalks are sorely lacking. Visibility and driver awareness were persistent issues, even in areas with adequate sidewalks.
Interim City Planning Director Louis Mueler gave a short presentation on the city’s draft Pedestrian Master Plan. This plan shows “heat maps” for pedestrian demand, indicates where deficiencies exist, and identifies areas such as business corridors or school routes that require extra pedestrian consideration. By compiling known shortcomings, statistical data, best practices, and citizen input, the plan is intended to guide Spokane in its efforts to repair or construct a solid and accessible long term transportation infrastructure.
Participants also highlighted the links between sidewalks and commerce, health, public transit and fiscal responsibility. One speaker noted that, “Everything begins with a pedestrian trip” — even if that’s simply walking to your car in the morning. That led to repeated calls to think of sidewalks holistically, which means considering all the areas in which they intersect with everyday life. They’re our path to the bus stop, school, store, a friend’s house. They can affect (or be affected by) car parking, snow removal and garbage collection. When streets are being repaired or reconfigured, it usually makes financial and practical sense to address any sidewalk deficiencies at the same time.
Other questions included:
- What are other cities doing to address some of these same issues?
- If the Spokane Municipal Code states that sidewalk repairs are the homeowner’s responsibility (SMC 12.01.010), what can be done in a city that has a 40% rental rate? And what cost-sharing methods might help mitigate some of the financial burden on the homeowner?
- Can sidewalk tiles heaved by tree roots be ground rather than replaced outright?
- Should Spokane prioritize repairing substandard sidewalks or installing new sidewalks?
- What can the City or neighborhoods do when homeowners don’t want sidewalks in front of their homes?
Speakers also proposed some interesting methods of dealing with these historical issues. Kerry Brooks, an associate professor in EWU’s Urban & Regional Planning Program, presented a prototype smartphone app that could be used to instantly report a deficient sidewalk to the City.
Councilman Jon Snyder identified the key issues and ideas that he felt emerged from the summit:
- Better coordination of current funding sources and efforts related to sidewalk repair and installation. This includes Transportation Benefit District funding, Photo Red funding and Community Development Block grant funding for sidewalks and ADA ramps.
- A program or form that allows citizens to notify the city of temporary or permanent obstacles or barriers on sidewalks so impediments to access can be resolved. Two examples discussed at the meeting included a website and an application for smart phones.
- Ensuring the recommendations and strategies in the draft Pedestrian Plan are utilized to prioritize areas of need.
- A look in to the feasibility of alternative funding mechanisms for the repair and installation of sidewalks. Two examples of “shared cost” programs from Chicago, IL and Boulder, CO were discussed at the meeting.
- Establishing a “Snow Angel” volunteer program to link people with limited mobility with volunteers who can help shovel sidewalks.
Shel Silverstein’s famous poem “Where the Sidewalk Ends” marked that place as the point where imagination and possibility begin. In Spokane, we need to examine where our own sidewalks end and see all the amazing possibilities that lie in imaginative solutions to decades-old issues of access, funding, disrepair, and a transportation infrastructure befitting a modern city. The Sidewalk Summit was a promising start to that process, and I’m eager to see where it goes from here!