One of my pet pieves is sidewalks that don’t connect anything — they just take up space because some county ordinance required some developer to build one. It turns out that sidewalks to nowhere bother other people, too. In fact, there is a website entitled Sidewalks to Nowhere with illustrations from around the country. (That’s where this image, from Fletcher, N.C., came from).

Cortney Langley, a staff writer with the Virginia Gazette in Williamsburg, sees the nonsensical nature of disconnected sidewalks as well. “Along Mooretown Road [in James City County],” she writes, “you can take a stroll along a freshly poured sidewalk. For about 200 feet. … Throughout the county there are signs of the seemingly absurd: small patches of disconnected sidewalks that begin or end randomly, often with no connecting path in sight.”

County ordinance requires that new development, even commercial, provide sidewalks out front, no matter where they’re built. The idea is that someday they will link up. Bill Porter, development manager for the county, said that for the most part, it works pretty well. Especially for the county, which gets the sidewalk expense covered by the builder.

Maybe the sidewalks will link up one day. But even if they do, the question remains: Will anyone use them?

To be useful, sidewalks must connect multiple destinations in close geographic proximity. You can use them to walk to your next-door neighbor or to a friend’s house down the street. You can walk two or three blocks to the corner store to pick up some tomato sauce. You can walk to a pocket park, to a restaurant or a neighborhood video store. Sidewalks don’t work in low-density environments that translate a 10-minute walk into a 40-minute trek.

In Henrico County where I live, the problem isn’t so much sidewalks that go nowhere — although there are some that do — it’s sidewalks that are utterly uninviting. More than a few are located just a few feet away from cars whizzing by at 45 miles per hour. Henrico sidewalks are uninviting also because of the vast distances that must be covered. In my observation, the few people who use them are joggers and strollers looking for exercise. Almost no one uses the sidewalks to actually get somewhere. For the most part, sidewalks are a recreational amenity, not a tool to promote mobility and access.

In scattered, low-density areas where houses, offices and stores are rigidly separated, sidewalks are more useless than teats on a boar hog. Building them simply creates a commitment for someone to maintain them. Frankly, I see no point in requiring developers to build the darn things.

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  1. Anonymous Avatar

    Jim Bacon,

    I can believe even people as educated as you don’t understand certain transportation issues. This isn’t the first time you’ve marginalized bicycle and pedestrian issues on this blog.

    OK, here’s why your wrong. YOU don’t see the people who use the sidewalks.

    People always use the sidewalks. When did you ever go out and observe all day?

    I guarantee you’d be amazed at how many people walk. (even at sprawl density’s)

    Sidewalks are almost never useless if in urban areas. (James city county is urban)

    In this state, and I think according the uniform vehicle code, pedestrians are allowed on every road (except limited access) whether you like it or not.

    More effort should be made to accommodate them.

    – OGS

  2. Anonymous Avatar

    The sidewalks DO connect with somethng. You just can’t see it.

    Peter Galuszka

  3. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    I was looking at a BRT graphic.. that shows folks walking along sidewalks to get to the BRT station…

    and the irony is that BRT is being suggested for areas that are not dense enough to support light or heavy rail…

    We have a local run-of-the-mill transit in Fredericksburg. I’ve used it twice – both times.. once I got off of it.. I had no way to get to where I wanted to go – unless I wanted to walk on the shoulder of the highway.

    Jim.. I think you stepped in it on this…one… EMR has probably broken out in hives…

    might as well start scraping it off… 🙂 (the stuff.. not the hives).

  4. Anonymous Avatar

    OK fine. but why does it have to be a four inch thick concrete – and probably curb built to some godforsaken standards?

    For some places, isn’t a hard packed gravel path just as useful, less expensive, and more permeable?

    When you get to a certain density, then you can upgrade.

  5. Anonymous Avatar

    And they must be 5′ wide, with no side slope greater than 2%. Or, you may see some older plans with 4′ wide sidewalks with landing areas spaced no greater than 200′ apart.

  6. Anonymous Avatar

    Jim, one thing you’ll notice in many of the pictures on that website you linked to, as well as on West Broad in Henrico, is that where the sidewalk ends (or where there is no sidewalk) “goat” paths show up. So obviously someone is walking.

    Would you rather localities like Henrico go to through the cost of acquiring additional ROW or easements to provide the sidewalk, or just make it a policy that it be provided when a site is developed? Seems like an easy choice to me because even if it takes 5 years for an adjacent property to develop, the sidewalk you previously required will still be there to connect to, thus closing that link.

    FYI, I believe Henrico policy only requires sidewalk be provided within 1 mile of a public facility such as a school, etc…unless otherwise agreed to through proffers as a part of rezoning.

  7. Jim Bacon Avatar

    Anonymous 8:05, Interesting point about the goat paths… I’ll keep my eye open to see how often they occur. I don’t recall seeing many, but maybe that’s because I haven’t been looking for them.

    Wouldn’t it make more sense for developers to proffer sidewalk easements, and then the county can come in and build the sidewalks when they make sense? Rather than squeezing developers for built sidewalks, they could extract proffers of some other kind, I would think.

  8. Anonymous Avatar

    One of my own pet peeves is the lack of connectivity in some sidewalks here in Fairfax County. You can be walking on a nice sidewalk in development A and suddenly it just stops. After bushwacking for a 100 yards or so through a “goat path” over a culvert and bushes – voilà – back on a nice sidewalk of development B. These are late 80’s/early 90’s developments so one would think it would have been stipulated that the sidewalks would connect. If I took photos it would be quite amusing… Tobias Jodter

  9. Anonymous Avatar


    This isn’t about sidewalks per se and you may have already seen it. It’s an article in March “The Atlantic” magazine – “The Next Slum?”. It is about the predicted coming movement to urban centers or what you would call human settlement patterns.

    Deena Flinchum

  10. Anonymous Avatar

    Interesting article.

    Except it makes the same erroneous argument that EMR makes: The high price of urban housing shows that it is what people wants.

    Actually, it cuts both ways.

    Anything that makes it easier for consumers will decrease the supply , while increasing the demand for it; anything that makes it more difficult for consumers will increase the supply, but depress the demand.

    If the article is correct then high urban prices will decrease the demand while increasing the supply, and as prices fall in the more suburban areas, supply will decrease and demand will increase.

    Unless you think that the other attributes of more urban living (convenience, walkable neighborhoods, shorter commutes, rats, crime, poor schools, no grocery stores) have an infinite value, then (at least the end result of) the scenario painted in the article is unlikely.

    the other thing to notice in the article is how much of it requires or will require changes in zoning.


  11. Not Ed Risse Avatar
    Not Ed Risse

    Mandated sidewalks are just another expensive subsidy to Gaia worshippers who refuse to use carbon consuming transport.

    Actually the calories they consume are part of the carbon economy.

    What really drives me crazy are the bicyclists on the Fairfax County Parkway who refuse to use the parallel bike path.

    Why spend all that money on paved bike paths, only to have them snubbed by the cycling elite?

  12. Anonymous Avatar

    Now you are starting to sound like the counterpoint to the eco-crazies.

    We need less one-sided dogma and more reasoned thinking, of the kind that moves both sides forward.


  13. Anonymous Avatar


    Pass a law mandating use of a paved bicycle path if there is one.

    $100 fine for violators.

    Watch the elite eco-crazies go crazy over that one!

  14. Anonymous Avatar

    Yup. They hate it when you suggest disincentivising THEIR bad behaviors.


  15. Anonymous Avatar

    I spoke to someone from my old neighborhood recently, the one that turned down sidewalks a few years ago – to keep the rural appearance.

    She says nw that she is riding the bus/subway, she wishes they had sidewalks.

    Why are you riding the bus?

    Well, it’s a pain in the rear, slow, exposes me to the weather, and it costs as much as driving, but my employer subsidizes my bus pass more than he does the parking.


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