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FAQ City: Why Do Sidewalks End? Examining Charlotte's Sidewalks To Nowhere

Nick de la Canal
Stopped short: a sidewalk on Luther Street in Charlotte's Cherry neighborhood abruptly ends in a pile of leaves.

If you do a lot of walking in Charlotte, perhaps you've had this experience before: You're strolling along the side of the road, the kids are in the stroller or perhaps Fido is tugging on the leash, and suddenly, the pavement beneath your feet comes to an abrupt stop. Where did the sidewalk go?

I encountered one of these "sidewalks to nowhere" after grabbing a cup of coffee at the grocery store the other day and trying to walk back to the WFAE studios. Halfway down University City Boulevard, the sidewalk I was strolling on ended, without apparent reason, about 200 feet from the intersection.

Maybe it shouldn't have come as a surprise — Charlotte has never been especially friendly to pedestrians. Of the 50 largest cities rated by WalkScore.com, Charlotte is ranked 50th in walkability. Still, you have to wonder how something like this happens — and with such frequency — in the Charlotte area.

Consider the incomplete sidewalks residents have pointed to elsewhere in the city. You can find them in Shannon Park or ending halfway down Colony Road. Sometimes they stop abruptly, like one resident Eric Orozco showed me on Luther Street in the Cherry neighborhood, and sometimes they taper off into the shoulder of the road before disappearing entirely, like one a listener named Yusuf encountered on Caldwell Road in Harrisburg.

Credit Nick de la Canal / WFAE
Yusuf, a WFAE listener, wrote to FAQ City asking about sidewalks that seem to end without any reason. He showed us a sidewalk in Harrisburg that tapers into the shoulder of Caldwell Road before disappearing entirely.

Sometimes they create dangerous conditions for pedestrians, especially parents with strollers or disabled people, who might be forced into the road by a missing sidewalk.

In this installment of "FAQ City," we set out to answer our listeners' questions about this phenomenon, in particular, why do the sidewalks get built that way? Who is approving them? And is anyone working to get them fixed?

Why The Sidewalk Ends

My first step to getting answers was to reach out to the city of Charlotte. They put me in touch with Scott Curry, the active transportation manager for the city's department of transportation.

He said he's seen many of these "sidewalks to nowhere" himself and doesn't blame people for wondering about them. They're all over the city, although some areas might have more unfinished sidewalks than others, and the reason has a lot to do with Charlotte's historic development and our local sidewalk requirements.

To understand this, he says we have to go back to post-World War II-era Charlotte, when the city was rapidly expanding into surrounding suburbs.

Credit Nick de la Canal / WFAE
Scott Curry, a transportation manager for Charlotte's department of transportation.

"Between about 1950 and 1990," Curry said, "there was a huge segment of the city that was built under a policy framework that was all about spreading people out and moving as many cars as quickly as we could."

Sidewalks were optional back then. Maybe a developer would install one, but they didn't have to. So a lot of Charlotte neighborhoods and thoroughfares weren't built with sidewalks to begin with. People cared more about cars than pedestrians.

Then, in 1998, the city adopted stricter rules, making sidewalks mandatory in almost all cases.

Under the updated rules, sidewalks must be built on both sides of all new roads and subdivisions, and developers who want to put new developments on existing roads - even ones that didn't have sidewalks to begin with — must also build sidewalks along the front of their property.

"So what folks are probably seeing," Curry said, "is if a new development comes in to some of those areas, they're now required to put sidewalks along the front of their development, but the parcel to their left or to their right — if those parcels haven't developed recently, then it's likely that sidewalks won't be there."

Think back to the incomplete sidewalk I encountered on the side of University City Boulevard. A credit union occupies that side of the street, and it's next to an undeveloped patch of woods. The sidewalk ends at the property line between the two, and that's why it doesn't continue to the intersection.

I also checked with the town of Harrisburg. They said that's essentially how things are in their town too. Developers have to install sidewalks when they build new developments, but only to the edge of their properties.

Filling In The Gaps

The city of Charlotte is hoping to one day eliminate all of its so-called sidewalk gaps. They want continuous sidewalks on both sides of every thoroughfare and at least one side of every residential street.

"That's our aspiration," Curry said. "We know it's a big goal, and we're not going to get there soon."

Credit City of Charlotte's 2017 Charlotte WALKS study

The city is building about 10 to 12 miles of new sidewalk every year, and developers are filling in gaps here and there too, but by the city's estimate, we're still about 1,800 miles short.

So at the current pace, it could take Charlotte around 150 years to get full sidewalk coverage.

Part of the sluggish pace can be attributed to the high cost of installing new sidewalks. A typical mile can cost anywhere between $1 million to $2 million to install. The concrete itself is relatively cheap, but the city also has to purchase the real estate, move utilities, and put in storm drains.

So again, it's going to take some time, but filling those sidewalk gaps needs to happen, because the city estimates there are more than 250,000 Charlotteans, or about a third of our population, who do not drive. They either don't own a car, perhaps they're disabled, or they're just too young.

Advocacy groups have been pushing the city to speed up its sidewalk construction and roll out other bike and pedestrian-friendly features. Eric Zaverl, with Sustain Charlotte, says he'd like the city to put together a more comprehensive capital plan that makes sidewalks, bike paths and greenways more of a priority. He thinks it can happen.

"We have to change the culture, though," he said. "We have to change the culture of the city, for all of us that live in it. We also have to change the culture inside the city too, to make sure that they really, truly realize that this is a priority."

And perhaps most important of all, we have to be willing to pay for it.

"Funding is key," Zaverl said. "It's the only way these things are going to get built."

Until then, we'll just be stuck crossing the road.

Do you have a question about the Charlotte region you'd like us to look into? Send it our way! Submit your question in the box below, and we may be in touch.

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Nick de la Canal is an on air host and reporter covering breaking news, arts and culture, and general assignment stories. His work frequently appears on air and online. Periodically, he tweets: @nickdelacanal