“Suburbia Absurdia”

Henrico County thoughtfully puts curb cuts in its sidewalks for the convenience of handicapped people like Buddy Besette. Yet Buddy prefers to ride his wheel chair to the mall on county roads where traffic flies past at 40 miles per hour. Clearly, something is seriously awry. I explore the nonsensical placement of sidewalks in sububurban development in this week’s Bacon’s Rebellion column, “Suburbia Absurdia.”

An important larger point is buried near the end of the story.

Protestations to the contrary, there’s no shortage of paved surface in Virginia’s suburbs. The scandal is that these assets are so poorly arranged, that parkways destroy real estate value rather than enhance it, that so much investment is wasted on sidewalks leading nowhere, and that so much roadway is tucked away in cul de sacs where no one but a handful of families ever touch tire to asphalt.

I plan to explore these themes in future columns and blog posts.

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7 responses to ““Suburbia Absurdia””

  1. Jim Bacon Avatar
    Jim Bacon

    I have copied a comment that Larry Gross made to the previous post to this thread, where it is more likely to be read.

    we actually had this discussion yesterday in a meeting with the county planning director.

    His answer was two-fold:

    1. – legacy development that did not require sidewalks

    2. – new development where the question is asked “why should we, the developer, build sidewalks for our project when they don’t connect to other (legacy) development that lacks them?

    His answer was that the county needs to have a CIP sidewalk fund that is used on a priority rank basis to “connect” the network.

    I have very personal experience with this phenomena when I had my car in the shop and decided to use our local bus service to get back to the repair shop.

    The first part went quite well. Found the bus stop, boarded the bus, and rode to a point one mile from the repair shop at which point I got out to hoof the remaining distance.

    All went well on new development sidewalks until they ran out… in a legacy neighborhood – at which point – like the fellow in the article – I was presented with a no-win dilemma and defeat would mean retracing my steps to the bus stop.. waiting.. then boarding it to return home – without my vehicle – so I pushed on.. walking on the shoulder of a 4-lane road warily eyeing the onrushing cars for ones operated with cell-phone fiddlers or moms checking out their sqalling kids in the back-seat, etc.

    To boot.. it was raining.. so I also was most attentive to the potholes near my walk… fun fun 🙂

  2. Jim Bacon Avatar
    Jim Bacon

    Comments e-mailed to me by e-zine reader John Nicholson:

    As always, your keen eye leads to provocative thoughts. As a city-dweller, I cherish our sidewalks. My daughter continually regrets no sidewalks in her suburbia location and brings her children to our ol’ house in town so they can learn to ride their trikes in safety. My wife and I enjoy strolling five blocks to the ice-cream store [in the] evening now that the sun stays with us later. Every morning at 5:30 a.m. (when I want no-one to see me, and to see no-one, so I can sleepwalk, pray or do other things of lonely desire) I walk my 2.5 miles on city sidewalks like my cardiologist insists. I used to walk to work along the Georgetown streets each morning, punctuating my trips with the prying enjoyment of visually hunting others’ trash as I passed by, discovering what kinds of wine the Bagleys had drunk, etc. Sidewalks are very important!!!

    Maybe that’s why they’re built – the developers/marketers are appealing to nostalgia of good city life.

    But you’re right – why in the suburbs where everyone seeks a home dependant upon the auto? Maybe sidewalks should be banned from all single-family residential zonings, but required for multi-family zoning in hopes (falsely?) of encouraging people to abandon their cars. Oh, well.

    Be assured, you’re read.

  3. Anonymous Avatar

    How are they (both builders and localities)getting around the American’s with Disabilities Act on this issue?

    Also, the town I live in requires homeowners to keep the sidewalks passable. If an ice storm rolls in it’s up to the homeowner to clear the sidewalk – same with snow. If someone falls and gets hurt it’s your homeowners insurance that covers the accident.

    Here’s another kicker – the “green space” between the sidewalk and the road is city property. if there are trees planted on that space you have to call the city to come and trim them – it can take months! Local tree trimming services won’t even consider it because the fine is like $1500 – insane!!

  4. Ray Hyde Avatar
    Ray Hyde

    Contributing to a fund that puts in sidewalks where they are most needed and most useful makes sense. Sort of an infill for sidewalks ampaign. Later, when sidewalks become important where they are not now,they can tap the fund tht exists then. I hesitate to use Social Security as an example, but something like that.

    But just try to get folks downstate to contribute to a fund to support roads whee they are most needed.

    Just because it makes sense doesn’t mean people will support it.

  5. Ray Hyde Avatar
    Ray Hyde

    So we require them to build a sidewalk to nowhere and presmably the county does maintenance on it until it is linked up with neighboring properties when they develop or redevelop. Of course that might take so long that the original sidwalk is decrepit by then abd has been rebuilt at taxpayer expense anyway.

    Realtors tell us that sidewalks and trails actually reduce the value of property, because the rural look and feel is more highly prized. My neighborhood apparently turned down a county offer of sidewalks, for just that reason.

    We could make some progress by putting sidewalks on only one side of the street. If you develop on either side you are required to contribute to the sidewalk in front. Makes more sense than having disjointed sidewalks on both sides.

  6. Toomanytaxes Avatar

    It’s often hard to find good things to say about Fairfax County government, but in those locations where there are sidewalks in suburbia (often only on one side of a street), they are normally connected. I’m sure that the contractors put them where required, so any credit must go to Fairfax County’s planning department.

    I do have to agree that, in many locations, the sidewalks don’t lead to any place in particular. However, in my subdivision, one could walk on the sidewalk to the neighborhood elementary school and two small parks from virtually any house, especially if one allows for a street crossing or two.

  7. Jeremy Hinton Avatar
    Jeremy Hinton

    Anecdotal note:

    I have worked in the same office park for the last 10 or so years. It has lots of busy roads and no sidewalks. Also, landscaping and/or ditches often extend to the curb, which makes the outdoor walk during lunch sometimes an excersize in car dodging (for those days when a couple laps around the building just doesn’t cut it).

    Recently, a large mixed residential/commecial community has sprung up (and continues to do so) in the middle from what i seem to recall was a failed city-hall relocation effort (Oyster Point City Center in Newport News for the curious). Condos, office buildings, upscale shopping/eating and like. All very pedestrian freindly with lots of wide landscaped sidewalks — all of which end abruptly at the boundries of the development. Now, as a mixed use area, this isn’t nearly as bad a suburb, as a resident could easily get much done on foot without leaving the pedestrian friendly zone.

    On an interesting note though, i suddenly saw a new sidwalk being installed outside of the “pod”, in front of a golds gym a couple blocks down. Currently it truly is a “sidewalk to nowhere”, but i’m wagering it will work its way down to tying into the pod.

    Now, what they really need is to get sidewalks between it and the other pod (Port Warwack) a stones throw away across Jefferson Ave (a busy 6-line divided highway).

    Of course, for my own benefit i’m hoping for a continuation of the sidewalk up to my building, providing easy access to the pod’s amenities (for lunch breaks and such). I’m not holding my breath.

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