Someone Should Build a Sidewalk Over There!

We’ve all seen it: a busy road with lots of stores but no sidewalks. Or there’s a bus stop, but it’s situated in a ditch with no bench or sidewalk. We easily notice a deficit of what would be appropriate infrastructure – and the benefits that would come from investment in that infrastructure – but who exactly is in charge of building the sidewalks? And how might we convince those decision-makers that the presence of sidewalks or bike lanes or greenways in our communities is a good idea?

Local governments often prioritize transportation projects for their jurisdictions, but many lack planners –more specifically, transportation planners– and engineers to help them make informed decisions. They may recognize the problem of a growing amount of traffic congestion, but automatically turn to what’s been the traditional, but often ineffective, solution: widen the roads. The thought process being that if capacity for automobiles is the issue, then creating additional space to move the cars is the logical next step. Sidewalk construction, some might think, is an overpriced, unaffordable luxury. (The price-tag for sidewalks and bike lanes runs from $100,000 to $1 million or more per mile while the cost for a mile of four lane road can be around $5 million.)

To facilitate change, it helps to have some idea of how the process works for transportation planning in your community; from identification of the problem – be it safety, congestion, user demographics – to the proposed solution, and eventually construction of facilities. Most cities and towns in urban areas are members of a Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) – a federally-mandated setting for regional cooperation and coordination around how to spend federal transportation dollars on roadway improvements. Many jurisdictions rely almost exclusively on MPO resources to fund their Interstate highways, mass transit, sidewalks, bikeways, and local road projects.

MPOs typically employ modelers – trained engineers who deploy advanced computer algorithms to determine the volume of cars using the roads now, as well as future volumes reflecting urban population and job growth over time. The problem is that their models are designed mostly to predict trips for one mode: that of the automobile. Pedestrian, bicycle and transit trips are often missing altogether from the “big picture.” Modeling sophistication is evolving, but the American system has been geared toward accurate analysis of automobile travel for so long that change continues to be slow. It can therefore be a challenge to convince decision-makers, even using the very best information available to us on the other modes of travel, to invest in infrastructure that would support a non-automobile trip in order to better serve the community.

Luckily, times are changing. Not only are transportation planners gathering more sophisticated tools to facilitate this type of work, but research convincingly indicates that transportation decisions can have a substantive effect on public health outcomes: impacting air quality, injuries and fatalities, obesity and diseases known to be associated with overweight/obesity, mental health, and the symptoms of poverty and inequality. This is particularly true among people who cannot sustain the high cost vehicle ownership and, therefore, have no other choice but to utilize more affordable modes like walking, biking, or transit.


American obesity rates have risen in very near proportion to the number of miles driven by licensed drivers (VMT/LD), excluding commercial vehicles. While correlation ≠ causation, public health practitioners, transportation planners, other decision-makers and the public are permitted in utilizing this near-perfect correlation to make predictions about obesity rates; how VMT might contribute to or detract from a community’s propensity for either an active or sedentary lifestyle.
Image credit: Nashville Area MPO

One emerging solution is the use of innovative new tools such as the World Health Organization’s Health Economic Assessment Tool, or HEAT. Developed by WHO to synergize transportation and health data, this resource could help convince decision-makers and the public that money spent on widening roads just for cars (as opposed to bike-lane, sidewalk, or transit-lane right-of-way), or building totally new roads, pales in comparison to what communities spend on injury or illnesses attributable to a transportation system that’s too heavily tilted in favor of automobile travel.

Another convincing factor is the increasing number of employers that are choosing to locate to areas that will enable their workforce to enjoy a “high quality-of-life” – which typically means an active lifestyle that doesn’t involve long, arduous car commutes and little-to-no access to parks and farmer’s markets. Most decision-makers can understand, then, that some leveling of the playing field for the other modes has to occur if cities want to remain economically competitive in a global economy.

We’ve a long road ahead of us (pun intentional), but we can shift our thought processes to more broadly consider our roadway corridors. Are they there just to quickly move cars from A to B; or are roads actually spaces under public domain that have the potential to connect people [regardless of whether or not they’re on four wheels or two, or perhaps their own feet] with the places they want and need to go, such as residences, jobs, schools, and grocery stores.

The movement is upon us. We’re already making wiser decisions about how to spend our public monies on building a transportation system that moves a lot more than just cars. I aspire to a time when our roadways work for all of us — fostering healthier, happier, and more prosperous places to live, work and play.

Editors Note: Read more about improving the built environment in the Community Commons feature Complete Streets: Safe Access for All Users

Leslie Meehan is the Director of Healthy Communities for the Nashville Area Metropolitan Planning Organization. She specializes in policy, planning and education considerations around the active modes of transportation (walking, biking, transit), with a focus on how the built environment and transportation affects human health. A member of the American Institute of Certified Planners and the Institute of Transportation Engineers, Meehan works closely with the public health sector and is an advisory committee member for the Tennessee Obesity Taskforce and its Eat Well, Play More Tennessee strategic 5-year plan for solving the obesity crisis in Tennessee. She also serves on the steering committee for the Safe Routes to School National Partnership, and makes a concerted effort herself to frequently bicycle to work.

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