San Angelo has been shaken awake recently. There have been two pedestrian fatalities. This caused the issue of sidewalks to be brought back before the City Council with little notice or citizen input. This issue had been very much overwhelmed by issues such as the storm water mandates, and hadn't been looked at much for almost 2 years. The council and staff are quite open about how this happened.
At the last council meeting, the staff brought the council some ideas on a sidewalk ordinance for new developments. The discussion went on about sidewalks, and old neighborhoods, and commercial districts, etc. until someone finally reminded them that the real issue here is not just sidewalks. This is about transportation and safety.
For years (pretty much since WWII), transportation has been reduced to motorized transportation. Cars, truck, trains and planes: That was the only transportation that mattered. We were in love with our cars. Mom and the kids would hop into the station wagon and drive the half block to the neighborhood store. Neighborhood stores vanished from many neighborhoods, and by the 90's, the mall, an island of stores in a sea of parking spaces, was the new hunting ground for the SUV and the family. Entire neighborhoods were built where the front door was only used to get the mail or for special occasions. People drove out of their privacy fence protected garages onto alleys that were only usable as extended driveways. Neighbors had to make an effort to see each other outside of their cars. This is far different than the neighborhoods of the early 1900's, when towns were laid out so that everyone could walk to work, and sidewalks were a luxury to keep mud off shoppers feet. Many towns had sidewalks before paved streets, at least down town, because foot traffic was the major form of transportation.
Times are changing again. People are becoming health conscious, and realize that riding everywhere contributes to obesity. They have realized that using the SUV for a quick trip to the convenience store wastes a lot of money when gas prices are as high as they were (and will be again.) People are starting to think that polluting less by driving less might not be such a bad idea. Many neighborhoods actually like it that their kids can walk to school. Just look at the results of the last 2 bond elections for confirmation. And some people are actually discovering that when they walk through their neighborhood, they have time to actually meet and talk to their neighbors. They get to participate in that friendliness that west Texas is famous for.
With all this new found interest in non-motorized transportation, problems are showing up in many areas of the city. San Angelo is not a very walkable city. Ideally, you should be able to walk from any place in the city to any other place in the city safely. Throw in public transportation (buses primarily) and you should be able to shop and conduct most business without a car, provided you have enough time. This is currently not the case. Not even close. Just for fun, try to get to the CVCOG office (just off loop 306) or the SAISD administration building by walking and using the bus. It can be done, but it won't be an excellent adventure.
We need a new approach to transportation and transportation planning that includes non-motorized, non-vehicular transportation as a major component. When a plan for a new development is submitted, it should account for pedestrian and bicycle traffic, as well as cars and trash and emergency vehicles. That may mean sidewalks or pedestrian lanes, crosswalks, tunnels, overpasses, etc.. New development plans should show more than just how cars leave the area. They should show foot paths to schools, shopping, parks, churches, etc.. When neighborhoods are revitalized, all forms of traffic need to be addressed. We need sidewalks on some streets, such as 19th and 29th, but we also need a plan so people can safely walk to those sidewalks. Sounds like one of the first challenges for our traffic engineer once he is on board.
Let me make one thing clear: the city hasn't been ignoring this problem. They have done a fairly comprehensive bicycle and pedestrian plan in the SAMPO. It is a good starting point. The problem is that it is currently not part of regular, day to day transportation planning. That is one of the goals of the plan, but the reality is that we're not close yet. One only had to listen to the discussion at the last council meeting to see that. It is obvious that we haven't brought developers on board yet. The city has also a number of projects competing for limited engineering resources so when the storm water wheel squeaked, it got the priority.
Transportation in our city is changing. We must become more pedestrian and bicycle friendly, or at least less dangerous and hostile. We need a plan that in addition to pedistrian districts, includes pedestrian feeders, connectors, and arteries, just like we have for motor vehicle traffic. We need an integrated plan where pedestrians are not an afterthought or footnote. Sidewalks will be a part of any pedestrian planning, but they are just a tool like crosswalks and signs and lanes, etc.. Pedestrian safety won't be achieved until from start to finish, pedestrians are as much a part of any transportation and traffic planning as automobiles.