Bad for Your Health

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Posted September 27, 2006 by DAN MCGRAW in News

When I talked to Fort Worth City Council member Kathleen Hicks a few weeks ago, she was ticking off a list of problems in her southeast Fort Worth district.

“We don’t even have sidewalks over here,” she said. “It is pathetic.”

“Gee,” I responded, “we don’t have sidewalks where I live either.”

She was surprised to find out that even in my Monticello neighborhood over near the Cultural District, which has lots of expensive houses and seemingly longtime political clout, basics like sidewalks are still a problem.

This is one of those issues on which Fort Worth likes to hide its head in the sand. And there’s been plenty to hide from – the stretch of Keller-Hicks Road in far north Fort Worth, for example, where the city never figured out that intense development means you might want sidewalks along main streets. It might even be more important when an elementary school gets built on the main drag.

City planners never seem to consider that some folks like to get out of their cars and walk around. Or that some kids, to put it bluntly, might be a little safer if they could walk home from school on a sidewalk and not in the street. But this is Texas, and pedestrians are an afterthought in a most uncaring way.

If I want to mosey over to the 7-Eleven three blocks from my house, I have to walk in the street with the cars. I watch almost daily as two neighbors in motorized wheelchairs narrowly escape getting run over as they try to get to The T bus stop on Camp Bowie Boulevard. Parents with baby strollers have to use the streets, as do kids on bicycles – even tricycles. The Fort Worth school district buses run past my house, and every morning and afternoon I see the kids get off and walk in the streets to get home. These are side streets, but the traffic is getting heavier all the time, especially with big trucks cutting through the neighborhood.

Fort Worth has adopted the mantra of “pedestrian-friendly” development in the inner city. This is laudable, but their idea of being pedestrian-friendly is that people will drive to a destination in their cars, and then they can get out and walk around while they shop.

Even though many of the houses in my neighborhood were built decades ago, when fewer people probably had cars, they also apparently were built when there were fewer rules about sidewalks. Just to get to a store, you walk down a section of sidewalk, then step into the street where there is no sidewalk, and so back and forth.

In many ways, Fort Worth seems not to have progressed since then in its thinking about people-moving and related issues. The mass transit system here is among the worst in the country, and the city has spent six years – and counting – trying to figure out how to use federal money to paint bike lanes on some major streets. According to figures from the 2000 U.S. Census, Fort Worth ranked 46th out of 48 big cities in the country in the number of citizens (3.37 percent) who either walked, biked, or took mass transit to work. In Dallas, Houston, and Austin the percentage was more than twice that. Even El Paso had almost twice as high a rate of workers who didn’t use a car to get to work.

There are a number of solutions, none of them simple. In the 2004 city bond election, Fort Worth set aside about $150,000 a year to build new sidewalks and fix old ones. That’s only enough for a few blocks’ worth of sidewalks. There’s always a long waiting list of areas needing them – and first priority always goes to streets near schools.

The other solution is much more severe: Make sidewalks a priority over the next decade and make property owners – business and residential – put them in, with the city paying half the cost. If owners fail to do it, the city would put in the sidewalk and then file a lien on the property, meaning that the sidewalk charges would have to be paid before the land could be sold. No one knows how much this would cost, since city officials said they have no information on which areas have sidewalks and which don’t.

This may a seem a little ambitious for a city that seems to have no interest in getting its residents on their feet. But the facts are simple: Someone in one of these old no-sidewalk neighborhoods is going to get run over because he or she had to walk or bike or drive a wheelchair in the street. Lawsuits will follow.

Being pedestrian-friendly is a good little sound bite for some new condo development. But if this city wants to move – to hike safely – down the right path on this issue, leaders need to get their butts up off the curb. And they might want to consider another term: public-safety-friendly.

 


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