There are parts of DC and other cities with no sidewalks. As pedestrian safety has become a higher priority in road design, DC and other cities have been adding them, though sometimes residents oppose the idea. Is there any good reason not to put one in? Do we have statistics?

Reader Phil L. asks: “Do sidewalks measurably improve pedestrian safety even in low traffic density areas, like residential neighborhoods? What would be a compelling reason to have a residential street without a sidewalk?”

Photo by thisisbossi on Flickr.

Erin McAuliff says:

According to the National Complete Streets Coalition, “Pedestrian crashes are more than twice as likely to occur in places without sidewalks; streets with sidewalks on both sides have the fewest crashes.” I think the reference for this is from the Federal Highway Administration.

From another angle, and with a particular focus on the aging, sidewalks may increase residents’ perception of safety. Falling or tripping on poorly maintained sidewalks is a serious concern for the elderly, especially the frail, for whom one accident could be devastating. Falls are the leading cause of death from injuries for persons over the age of 65.

Ben Ross gives some historical perspective on why neighborhoods might not have them:

The original reason for not building sidewalks in suburban neighborhoods was to give the development a “high-class” non-urban image by discouraging walking.  See Dead End, page 16.

Sean Emerson lives in one such area:

A reason I’ve heard people in my neighborhood (Woodmoor in Four Corners) use for opposing sidewalks was the preservation of the “rural” feel of the neighborhood.  My neighborhood and several others nearby were once anchored by Indian Springs Country Club, so you can imagine that the clientele originally buying homes around here were doing so to escape the city and its associated “urban” infrastructure like curbs and sidewalks.

The streets in my neighborhood close to University Boulevard and Colesville Road were built in the mid-1930’s with no sidewalks or curbs (these streets comprised the original development anchored by the country club).  When the county installed curbs about 10 years ago, sone people complained that the curbs changed the “character” of those streets, and several think that sidewalks would make it worse.  There are many 1930’s era neighborhoods in and around Silver Spring which still lack curbs of any kind, much less sidewalks (Hillandale, North Hills of Sligo, and parts of Woodside come to mind).

Retaining a “country” or “rural” feel might not sound like a compelling reason to prevent the installation of sidewalks to most, but it is for some.

So does Nick Keenan:

My neighborhood, Palisades, had a protracted debate about adding sidewalks on a neighborhood street, University Terrace. Ultimately they were not put in.

Some of the arguments were expected: there are people who never walk, who don’t see any utility to sidewalks. Landowners who would lose part of their front yard were predictably opposed. What surprised me was how many people expressed the viewpoint that sidewalks actually detract from a neighborhood. People even used the adjective “rural” to describe our neighborhood. I’m not sure they really knew what rural meant — Palisades certainly isn’t rural —  I think they were looking for a word that meant non-urban and that was the best they could come up with.

Like so many personal preferences, there’s no right or wrong, but there’s also very little room for persuasion.

Not all neighborhoods of that era lack sidewalks. David Rotenstein writes:

It’s a mistake to generalize that all 20th century residential subdivisions omitted sidewalks or that the failure to install them was part of some larger, mysterious anti-pedestrian agenda. One Silver Spring subdivision (outside the Beltway) originally was developed between 1936 and 1940 and the subdividers/developers intentionally constructed sidewalks and used their existence as a marketing point in sales literature.

Coming back to the issue of statistics, Jonathan Krall writes:

The “safety in numbers” effect, often discussed in relation to cycling, also applies to pedestrians. Briefly, injuries per pedestrian fall as the number of pedestrians increase. This implies that adding sidewalks to an area would encourage walking and make that area safer.

However, it is difficult to square that result with the nationwide increases in pedestrian fatalities, happening during a decrease in driving and (I presume; I don’t have data on this) an increase in walking

My hypothesis is that the shift towards transit (and presumably walking) that is so clear in data for millennials is leading to more walking in suburban environments along dangerous arterial roads. But that is just a hypothesis.

But Ben Ross challenges the premise that statistics can explain the sidewalk debates:

“Safety” is not the main issue here.  It’s equal treatment.  Lack of sidewalk discourages walking by denying pedestrians the right of way.  They must get out of way whenever a car comes by.

David Edmondson explains how just slowing cars down can improve safety:

It’s likely not simply an issue of traffic volume but of traffic speed. Take, say, this random street in California. It’s narrow but two-way and so traffic is very, very slow (roughly jogging speed). Despite its lack of sidewalks, it is a pedestrian-friendly street — I see unaccompanied kids on such streets all the time. Yet I would not feel comfortable walking down other sidewalk-free streets (like this one in Silver Spring) where calm traffic is not invited by the street’s design.

I don’t know of any studies regarding sidewalks and pedestrian safety on low-volume streets, but I don’t think that’s the right way to look at it anyway given all the factors that go into a street’s safety. Risk is a quality positively correlated with increased volume and speed and sight-lines, each of which are themselves correlated with certain street design choices. A pedestrian is shielded from some of that risk by a sidewalk, but sometimes the risk is so low that the shielding is unnecessary.

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Malcolm Kenton lives in the DC’s NoMa neighborhood. Hailing from Greensboro, NC and a graduate of Guilford College (BA) and George Mason University (MA, Transportation Policy), he is a consultant and writer on transportation, travel, and sustainability topics and a passionate advocate for world-class passenger rail and other forms of sustainable mobility and for incorporating nature and low-impact design into the urban fabric. The views he expresses on GGWash are his own.