I’ve spent 45 years involved in politics in one way or another going back to when I was a junior in high school working on Hubert Humphrey’s last campaign for the Senate. After I was elected to public office there were many highs, lows, achievements and frustrations.
One of the most frustrating experiences occurred annually on the Mitchell City Council over the issue of sidewalks.
I live on a corner. I have acres of sidewalk on both sides of my house, on the corner and on the approaches from the street to the sidewalk and up to the house not to mention the driveway. In the 1990s I had to replace nearly all of it.
My neighbor at that time, who is a contractor, my in-laws and myself, did the work. Regularly like clockwork, irate citizens who are informed by the city that they have to install sidewalk on their property come to personally and publicly berate the city council stating that the council has no idea of the expense, bother and damage to landscaping that sidewalk installation entails.
I usually held my temper when being taken to task by citizens throughout my political career but never on the sidewalk issue because I deeply resented the false implication; I did know and, living on a corner, I continue to know the pain of sidewalk better than most.
The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 requires a number of things. On sidewalks specifically the Act requires access to public buildings first and then generally to public services (i.e. parks and retail spaces) and then all residential areas. The federal government in a rare display of common sense recognizes that older cities without sidewalks don’t have the resources to convert their entire municipality overnight so as long as a city is making progress toward the goal of universal accessibility then that city avoids penalties, orders to immediately comply, loss of federal aid and grant funds etc.
Hence, the annual sidewalk resolution and continued eventual progress toward the day when every home in every neighborhood everywhere in Mitchell will have sidewalk.
It would incense me when some citizen, trying to avoid sidewalk installation, would state that people “prefer” walking in the street where there was no sidewalk as if it were a choice rather than the only alternative, especially in the winter. I find it equally infuriating when I’m driving to encounter pedestrians in the street where there is perfectly good (and initially expensive to the property owner) sidewalk available for their use. I’ve often thought that people should be ticketed for walking in the street instead of using the sidewalk. One of the reasons stated for requiring sidewalk in the ADA, besides handicapped accessibility, is for the safety of pedestrians.
I love using sidewalks. I enjoy walking. I appreciate the sloped approaches to the street as required by the ADA. When my children were small those approaches allowed for smooth walks in strollers. Sidewalks provide a safe place for small children to play on their tricycles or to learn to ride their bikes without the additional anxiety and danger of traffic. Sidewalks are a good thing if they can actually be utilized, which brings me to winter.
The city does an abysmal job of policing sidewalks in the winter. Some homeowners don’t shovel walks at all or leave impassable mountains of snow on the corners. Others who do shovel merely clear a single goat track instead of the complete entirety of the sidewalk, as they should. Those practices make it impossible for people to use the sidewalk especially if they are walking together, taking their dogs for a stroll or trying to use an assistive device like a cane. Exercise and fresh air are important, even in the winter. If property owners shirk their responsibility, then the city should make them pay the price. If not, then why did the city require sidewalks in the first place?