Sunday, October 25, 2009

With friends like the DPW, who needs enemies?

Other bloggers and I have routinely pointed out barriers to good pedestrianism in our respective cities across the country. Sometimes it requires a sea change in collective thinking on infrastructural priorities, land use, building design, and building regulations. But all too often it’s far simpler than that. It amazes me how mundane some of these gestures are, but the fact that they are routine, omnipresent, and overlooked by all but a few demonstrates how systematic this practice is. Take, for example, the sidewalks just south of the Wholesale District in Indianapolis, barely outside of the Mile Square and just seven blocks south of the dead center of town:

And, just a hundred feet further down this weathered, crumbling sidewalk:

In both cases, signs announcing restrictions to automobile traffic flow are simultaneously restricting the passage of walkers. Granted, this area offers little more to pedestrians than a conduit from Point A to Point B, where Point A in all likelihood is a parking lot. Within a 300 foot radius of the first photograph are cheap surface lots, a drive-thru fast-food restaurant, low-rise logistical staging areas, and one converted old brick warehouse building with a puppet theatre at the street level. But does undesirability of the pedestrian argument justify its current inaccessibility? These caution signs are designated these precise locations by the Department of Public Works—the same city agency that maintains both roads and sidewalks.

Is the DPW cutting off its nose to spite its face? Such a trope may seem hyperbolic, but clearly the Department is inhibiting part of its own right-of-way for the sake of informing about the conditions on another ROW. I honestly don’t think that this derives from a genuine hostility toward pedestrians, since the DPW needs to have engineers who must be fluent in basic sidewalk design standards. They know how to build and maintain a good sidewalk, and will do what their budget allows. The Department’s placement of the sign does not purely reflect the act of sacrificing pedestrian access for the sake of cars, since most able-bodied persons could easily simply walk around these signs.

Truthfully, this sort of action falls in the same category as individuals who block the sidewalks in front of their home with garbage cans for trash pick-up, or who park cars along the street that straddle the curb, so half of the vehicles’ bodies encroach upon the sidewalk. For that matter, it also resembles the sign advertising parking that is blocking the right-of-way to the Cultural Trail which I blogged about in the past. In short, it reflects a complete negligence toward pedestrians, made all the more egregious when embedded in the operations of a bureaucracy such as the Department of Public Works; the negligence then becomes systematized. Many a Dostoyevsky novel has alluded to indifference as the most toxic psychological state because it involves an absence of emotion; at least both hatred and love share a certain common intensity of experience. This absence of emotion—this bureaucratic indifference—explains why a road sign blocking a sidewalk fails to arouse concern about how persons in wheelchairs would negotiate around it. Or, for that matter, why we've all seen this sort of thing before, but it generally fails to resonate; we overlook it completely. But public works and transportation departments across the nation share a duty to recognize the diverse needs of motorists, manifest in their various responsibilities: applying different paving surfaces depending on climate, measuring and publicizing the carrying capacity of bridges, announcing the height of viaducts, recognizing the turn radii of various vehicles at intersections, and so forth. Seldom if ever will one witness a similar degree of solicitousness toward the pedestrian sphere. Until citizen protests reach a certain fever pitch—the sea change in collective thinking mentioned earlier that shows a genuine demand among constituents—one can expect many more snafus from Public Works and other departments, all of them endowed with the responsibility to use our tax dollars for improving the city to the best of their ability.


Amy said...

I notice these signs-on-sidewalks all the time, too. There is even a somewhat more permanent sign advertising a church's activities on the sidewalk heading into the RR tracks on Michigan St. I guess the peds can walk in the bike lane...

This is an interesting blog post because while I think I'm in tune with such sidewalk blocking, our own trash service goes on our sidewalk! The walk runs along the street and there's no parking on our side, keeping us from putting the trash in the street. I wonder if they'll pick up the bags from the yard. That doesn't help much for the recycling toter that has to be on the curb for the truck to reach it...

Robby said...

Good to meet you at Calvin Fletcher!

The answer to your question is the almighty car. Our modern urbana is built with the vehicle in mind, not the weary feet and open eyes. Keep railing!


cdc guy said...

Okay...methinks we doth possibly protest too much. These are minor annoyances.

Signs on the sidewalk don't prevent people from walking. One can easily step through a single sign as pictured. Or around.

Trash and recycle bins on a lightly-traveled residential street one day a week aren't a true obstacle: a mobile pedestrian can easily share the street (and in my experience frequently does).

These don't rise to the level of other infrastructure (poles and signal-control boxes permanently installed in the middle of sidewalks).

AmericanDirt said...

Thanks so much for the comments, one and all. Yes, Amy, signs blocking the sidewalk ROW are widespread. It becomes a more flagrant violation when a private entity does it, thereby eroding the non-possessory interest to use real property for a specific purpose--in short, the legal basis of an easement which allows for the existence of sidewalks.

CDCguy, much appreciated for being a worthwhile devil's advocate. This blog post certainly is carping. After all, you're right that the vast majority of people can walk around, or under the sign. And no doubt it will be removed in time, just as garbage cans in the sidewalk are typically short-term. But this does not help the disabled person in a wheelchair, or a visually impaired person needing access at that moment. And these seemingly innocuous gestures--the mundane--indicate far more about a prevailing mentality than the largely top-down, megaplanned blunders. When it becomes banalized as a routine public-sector gesture, it reveals far more about an entrenched way of thinking than if this were the patio or main entrance to the JW Marriott.

cdc guy said...

I'm not as sure as you.

The percentage of truly mobility-impaired and blind people is very low. I'd assert that no entity can truly afford to be 100% inclusive 100% of the time across 100% of infrastructure.

We can go down that list: roads don't serve bicyclists or (where there aren't sidewalks) pedestrians very well, either. But is that because of a conscious decision to be exclusionary, or a cold-hearted look at the real numbers of each type of user or potential user (i.e. cost-benefit analysis)?

I am loath to suggest that ALL public rights-of-way must equally accommodate ALL persons who might someday use them, regardless of cost to the government.

I would also suggest that (bad) outcome does not necessarily signal (bad) intention.

Let's play "the ridiculous extreme": if a blind person wants to walk across America unescorted, or if a handicapped person wants to ride a scooter/cart all the way, should either be guaranteed an accessible public way across the whole continent (as car drivers have)?

I think most would suggest that's a "nice to", not a "have to".

So in cases like temporary obstructions, I don't think we can presume a larger agenda than a simple calculation that few will be inconvenienced for a short time.

AmericanDirt said...

Thanks again for your comments. I continue to admit that while this post is carping, it still reflects a negligence by the very notion that this "temporary inconvenience" could have been all but eliminated simply by moving the sign 24 inches to the left, in the grassy verge. Part if not all of the sidewalk ROW would then have been available. It would not have required implementing a cost-benefit analysis, nor any additional cost for labor or materials. If this had been a situation where DPW had no choice but to block part of the sidewalk because of a complete lack of other options, I would have been more sympathetic. (This is not the only example of this, nor is it the most flagrant: several weeks ago, at the intersection of Pennsylvania and Vermont, I believe, a similar sign was obstructing part of the handicapped ramp from the curb to the street, as well as visually blocking the pedestrian crossing sign. Not a larger, treacherous agenda--just a complete lack of cognizance. Small gestures all of them, but the remedies are equally small.

A much older post of mine on Complete Streets demonstrates that I would never expect a comprehensive, 100% infrastructural upgrade for bikes and disabled persons. In Indianapolis, sidewalk improvements in Butler-Tarkington, for example, would come before most roads in Franklin Township (many of which do not merit sidewalks). Prioritization based on other factors--housing density, mixture of uses, contiguity of the network--should always be integrated into any study.

cdc guy said...

I think we agree more than we disagree.

Perhaps a solution is to provide some (to use a far-too-loaded term out of context) "sensitivity" training for those who create these "temporary inconveniences".

I remain optimistic that in general, ignorance can be fixed...despite much evidence to the contrary!

Robby said...

I like what CDCguy had to say:

So in cases like temporary obstructions, I don't think we can presume a larger agenda than a simple calculation that few will be inconvenienced for a short time.

This sums up challenge. To me, the problem is not a larger agenda but a smaller one. I suspect our dutiful civil servants are not conspiratorial but are rather just not thinking in this regard. They are likely worried about people being hit by cars or stumbling over incomplete projects, so they obstruct.

This is not an issue of policy, but of perspective. And mine is now complete. :-)

AmericanDirt said...

Thanks again Robby/CDCGuy--
We're in agreement. Just like the countless folks who block their own sidewalks with their garbage cans each week, the city is not maliciously blocking the sidewalk--it simply doesn't register as a consideration.

Interestingly, I saw a couple trying to maneuver around this exact construction sign earlier today. Looking more closely, I noticed that the base is covered with sandbags to keep it from tipping in high winds, which poses an even bigger obstruction for someone on the sidewalk with wheels. At least it discourages bicyclists I guess...