Sidewalk Friction

'Then'. Courtesy of Rockford Reminisce.

'Then'. Courtesy of Rockford Reminisce.

Rockford, Main and Cedar Street.  The Chicago & Northwestern Depot was constructed in 1893, and occupied the southwest corner of Main and Cedar for seventy years.  Someone, somewhere, thought it was a good idea to have passenger rail service located in the heart of our city.   I agree.  This station is long gone, however, and romanticism for what once was is an exercise in futility.  Nonetheless, this picture offers a glimpse into life before the Automobile Age, with indicators that this place was characterized by slow, multimodal transportation options.  Consider: 

  • There are no traffic signals, beg buttons, or pedestrian timers.  Cross as you will, when you will. 
  • There is no lane striping in sight.  Striped crosswalks and dedicated turn lanes are absent.
  • The electric poles are awfully close to the street.  Traffic engineers may refer to these as ‘fixed hazardous objects’ today, and recommend relocating the lines or burying them underground.
  • Can you find a traffic sign? Neither can I.  ‘Stop’, ‘Speed Limit 30’, ‘Right Turn Only’…not a single sign to be found. (Note: The date this picture was taken is unknown.  This street was certainly modified over the Depot’s seventy-year stretch.)
Now.  A future parking lot, a transaction in decline.

Now.  A future parking lot, a transaction in decline.

Rockford, Main and Cedar Street.   The Depot was demolished in 1963, and the Warshawsky ‘Muffler Graveyard’ shop occupied this site until earlier this year when it was demolished for–you guessed it–surface parking.  I rode my bike downtown to take some pictures of the main Warshawsky building, a nondescript 1920s-era brick building, before it too was razed for surface parking.  In addition to noting the traffic bling at this intersection, fancy lights and all, I noticed this sign: 

“Sidewalk closed”.  Someone, somewhere, thought it was a good idea to close a sidewalk when adjacent construction is pending or underway.  At face value, I agree.  So what’s the problem here?  Ignore the obvious absence of a barricade or the remaining presence of the sidewalk.  Never mind the likelihood that people continued to walk this stretch of sidewalk without the slightest pangs of guilt.  There is a bigger question to ask: What if this stretch was a roadway instead of a sidewalk? Or, put another way:  What if I was a motorist instead of a pedestrian?   

I’m sure it's anathema for walkability advocates to think like a motorist, but indulge me for a second.  As a driver, would you expect a sign placed in the middle of the roadway that reads “ROAD CLOSED: YOU FIGURE IT OUT”? No: You expect a detour, an alternate route, one that does not stray too far from the roadway you started on, and includes signage directing you back to the original route once the construction zone has been passed.  It’s completely reasonable for you to expect these solutions, as this is standard practice across the entire country for one mode of transport: Your vehicle.  So why, then, do we not expect the same solutions contextualized for pedestrians?  Because pedestrians are not prioritized.  

Image via the Copenhagenize Facebook page.  Best bicycle planning organization on the planet.

Image via the Copenhagenize Facebook page.  Best bicycle planning organization on the planet.

Over the last several months, my coursework has required me to dive into strategic documents intended to guide planning and development throughout our city: The 2020 Comp Plan, our planning agency’s Regional Sustainability Plan, and more.  We say traditional, walkable places are becoming more desirable, and that we should recognize our grid-based development pattern as an asset; we recognize the positive outcomes that come from reducing auto dependency; we even understand that a significant amount of residents in zip codes west of the river do not own or have access to a vehicle.  We ‘value’ walkability.  But if our values cannot even modify the slightest city ordinance requiring us to close a sidewalk and not offer any alternatives, I sincerely question if we truly value walkability, much more prioritize pedestrians as a normative form of transportation.

Same intersection.  Taken one month after demolition.  No sidewalk left...but, lest you forget: That sidewalk is still closed.

Same intersection.  Taken one month after demolition.  No sidewalk left...but, lest you forget: That sidewalk is still closed.