So You Say You Want a Sidewalk?

“You’d think with all the taxes we pay that they could have put in a sidewalk.” That is the exasperated comment from my mother-in-law as she and I were driving past the local playground near their house in the Milwaukee suburbs with my kids in the back seat.

She has a very good point. The previous day she walked the half-mile or so from her house to the playground (adjacent to an elementary school) with my two-year-old son Shaw in the stroller. The walk begins in their subdivision, developed in the 1990s, which has no sidewalks but relatively wide streets (30 feet curb to curb), so at least walking along the side of the street allows plenty of room for cars to comfortably pass (not to excuse the lack of sidewalks!) and thus is a somewhat tolerable place to walk.

However, once you cross in to the next subdivision, developed in the 1960s, with just two-lane streets and no storm sewers. As a result, there are shallow ditches lining these streets, leaving no room to move to the side to allow two cars to pass; far from an ideal place to walk. The worst part of the walk, and the portion of the walk that most raised my mother-in-law’s ire, is the last 1,000-foot leg of the journey along, for lack of a better term, a “little arterial.” This roadway is also two-lanes like a rural highway, but has a 35 mile-per-hour speed limit and is without shoulders and has even deeper storm ditches; a hostile place in which to walk indeed!

This part of Menomonee Falls, and nearly all of neighboring Brookfield, are lined with these pastoral two-lane roadways, one every mile on the grid. I don’t know their classification; I call them little arterials because they are somewhere between a collector and an arterial. They roll along the edges of bucolic subdivisions with mature trees and really are pleasant, if not wonderful roads to drive. A stately 35 miles-per-hour is comfortable, and there is very little of that roadside schlock from which to avert your eyes. In fact, I actually look forward to driving there. Walking, on the other hand….

So to the crux of the matter – of course they should have put in sidewalks or walking trails in the first place, particularly since there is a playground and elementary school. But here we are without them, so let’s consider the options. To paraphrase, with all the taxes my in-laws pay, couldn’t a sidewalk be added, even if just for the portion along the little arterial? Sure, but at this point in time it would require more money any way you cut it.

So who should pay for it? Under typical circumstances, each individual homeowner would be assessed for the portion of new sidewalk in front of their respective homes. The assessment for a new sidewalk along the 100-plus feet of frontage for each lot would cost thousands of dollars for each of the 10 or so homeowners along that section of little arterial. I doubt that would go over well. Of course, state or federal grants for safe routes to school or other sources of money could offset some of that cost. Nonetheless the dollars aren’t presently in place (earmarked, if you will) and would have to come from somewhere.

And that is just the dollars. In my neighborhood, the city is replacing aged sections of sidewalk in front of our homes this summer and assessing us for the cost. Those assessments are far less than the cost of starting from scratch and adding sidewalks where they didn’t exist. But at least the very existence of those sidewalks isn’t in question. What is the political appetite for retrofitting suburbia and adding sidewalks where they don’t exist? Maybe every single homeowner has the righteous anger and demands a choice of transportation options from their house, but I doubt that. Thus, getting many or all to agree on the principle of a sidewalk in the first place isn’t likely, much less adding significant assessments so that others can walk in front of their homes. I don’t see this as happening, and I don’t see my in-laws getting sidewalks any time soon. I believe in local action and placemaking in our communities, but even if they managed to get a groundswell of support and found a funding solution for sidewalks, replicating that across all of suburbia is not a practical solution.

Furthermore, simply adding a sidewalk won’t create walkable urbanism. Certainly adding a pedestrian route to an elementary school deserves a hearing, but retrofitting suburbia and sprawl repair are more than that; they involve mixing uses, increasing density and creating whole neighborhoods where one can meet at least a reasonable amount of daily needs on foot, by car or by transit. In practical terms, it is far easier to focus on core cities where the bones of walkable urbanism already exist.

When my in-laws chose a lot and built their home more than a decade ago, I’m sure walking to the nearest playground with their grandson in a stroller, and the quality of that walk, didn’t enter their minds. Why would it? But maybe it will if they move again. And it is something that crosses the mind of an increasing number of people when choosing where to live. And that is my hope for the future of urban places – that people vote with their feet and choose walkable urbanism in ever-larger numbers.

This piece is crossposted at Joe Urban.

Sam Newberg

About Sam Newberg

Sam Newberg, a.k.a. Joe Urban, is an urbanist, real estate consultant and writer. He lives in Minneapolis with his wife and two kids, and his website is

6 thoughts on “So You Say You Want a Sidewalk?

  1. Ian Bicking

    My daughter's grandparents also happen to live in a neighborhood without sidewalks, and the city is actively trying to put in sidewalks on an arterial road in their neighborhood. My understanding is that they are not assessing the properties for the cost of installation. And to be fair I assessing individual homes would be inappropriate – sidewalks are a community asset, not a homeowner asset. Homeowners would still be responsible for maintenance of those sidewalks. But still it's been hard to get sidewalks in, and the result is currently a piecemeal where sidewalks start and stop where some homeowners are holding out or contesting the process.

    Little things like this create a surprising amount of grief from effected homeowners. There's a heck of an incentive to just leave things as they are.

  2. Jeff

    My parents are facing this exact problem. They live in a subdivision built in the early 90's, some of the properties have sidewalks and some do not. At the time the road ended just a few blocks down the road and traffic was light. The city did not require sidewalks at the time for whatever reason. As more houses have been built and the road extended, traffic has increased substantially (I estimate 2000-3000 vpd) and the city wants to put sidewalks on all properties. There at least are sidewalks across the street and an all-way stop in front of their property to make it easy for pedestrians to cross (they live on a corner lot).

    Their main concern is over the property assessments. 50% of the cost will be borne by the homeowners which in their case amounts to several thousand dollars they do no have. Property taxes in this city are also quite high. They have petitioned the city and gathered signatures from other neighbors who are affected to try and stop this.

    I doubt anyone is actually against sidewalks, but when the homeowner is billed several thousand dollars for something they perceive as having only a small value, then we get the problems noted in this article.

    1. Nathaniel M Hood

      Property assessments are what kill sidewalks. It's hard to justify them in a number of ways actually besides dollars and cents. For starters, lots of sub-divisions are so cut-off and lack general connectivity that the sidewalk would only allow people to walk around their sub-division. Furthermore, the roads of residential subdivisions are often times so large that (50 to 60ft sometimes) that it's easy to make the argument that people should just walk on the shoulder. There's also little traffic in a number of these places. Private property / government control issues / libertarian issues can play a role too.

      These developments would likely be better off (urban design-wise and ROI-wise) if they were to have originally cut the road in half and placed sidewalks in from the get-go. Retrofitting is almost always more expensive (and politically contentious).

  3. Jim Young

    There are sidewalks and there are sidewalks that are both useful and pleasant.

    In addition to the costs/assessment issue and the maintenance issue already mentioned, look at how useful and pleasant sidewalks are in suburban areas. When you put 4 feet of "sidewalk" between an arterial street with high speed traffic on it on one side and a parking lot on the other, it's not a pleasant place to be a pedestrian. In the winter, snow gets plowed up from the street onto the sidewalk so it's no longer unusable either.

    In contrast, Minneapolis sidewalks, like most pre WWII developments around the country, have a row of parked cars and a strip of green space separating traffic from the sidewalk. Winter snow from the streets ends up on the green space rather than the sidewalk. The separation and leafy green space makes the sidewalks there both pleasant to use and useful year round.

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