Why Do Sidewalks End? Examining Charlotte's Sidewalks To Nowhere
Editor's note: This episode was originally published Dec. 17, 2019.
If you do a lot of walking in the Charlotte area, maybe you've had this experience: You're strolling along the side of the road and suddenly, the pavement beneath your feet comes to an abrupt stop. Where did the sidewalk go?
Incomplete sidewalks have been spotted across the region, including in Shannon Park and on Colony Road. Sometimes they stop abruptly, like one that resident Eric Orozco pointed out 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. The unfinished sidewalks can create dangerous conditions for pedestrians, especially disabled people or parents with strollers, who might be forced into the road.
Why are the sidewalks built this way? Who approves them? And is anyone working to get them fixed?
Why The Sidewalk Ends
According to Scott Curry, active transportation manager for Charlotte's Department of Transportation, to understand these "sidewalks to nowhere," you have to go back to post-World War II-era Charlotte, when the city was rapidly expanding into surrounding suburbs.
"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. A developer could 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.
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 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," Curry said.
The town of Harrisburg 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." It wants 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."
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, it's still about 1,800 miles short. So at the current rate, 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 is relatively cheap, but the city also has to purchase the real estate, move utilities, and put in storm drains.
Advocates have been pushing the city to speed up its sidewalk construction and roll out other bike and pedestrian-friendly features. Of the 50 largest cities rated by WalkScore.com, Charlotte is ranked 49th in walkability. The city estimates there are at least 250,000 Charlotteans who do not drive.
Eric Zaverl with Sustain Charlotte said he'd like the city to put together a more comprehensive capital plan that makes sidewalks, bike paths and greenways more of a priority.
"We have to change the culture, though," Zaverl 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."
He added: "Funding is key. It's the only way these things are going to get built."
Since this episode originally aired in late 2019, the Charlotte City Council voted 6-5 to approve the city's 2040 Comprehensive Plan, an aspirational documented aimed at growing housing supply and creating a more walkable city where people live near where they work.