Why Doesn’t “Share the Sidewalk” Work?

America is an entitlement society. Unlike European – or even more strikingly, Asian culture – we don’t share. We don’t cooperate. Every special interest group has their own identity and expects their own separate but equal facility.

Non-transport example: look at how Portland solved the dogs in parks problem. Not by getting dog owners and non-dog owners to cooperate and follow common sense rules of civility better. No. Instead ugly chain link fences were erected like miniature Berlin walls in our parks, creating dog only areas and in the process further atomizing both our social and physical shared resources.

But this is a transport blog, not a dog blog. So how about sidewalks and bike lanes? Why do we need bike lanes AND sidewalks even in constricted downtown right of way situations where the space simply doesn’t exist?

And in those cases where there isn’t enough room – why does a winner take all ethic operate so that NO bike lane is built but sidewalks are FULL IDEAL width?

Without going into any details – hard fought “visionary” urban corridor plans like Burnside and Hawthorne where bikes have been basically shut out could have looked really different if a shared bike/ped facility had been designed. But even in the case of the Burnside plan, which has 30′ wide sidewalks no one knows what to do with – the possibility of mode sharing was never mentioned. To do so would be to risk having every bike person and every ped person in the room start throwing chairs at you. Why?

Our new South Waterfront Greenway will have strictly separated bike and pedestrian pathways (at double the price for one). Peds will get all the waterfront views and ambience, bikes, banned from waterfront access, will be pushed back into the shrubbery – so they can “go fast”. This decision was made by city of Portland planners in secret with no opportunity for public input or comment. They said it was obvious this was the only right way. Why?

Why can’t bikes and pedestrians share facilities and why can’t new facilities be designed to encourage sharing? Examples from Europe – and Asia are staring us in the face. In Japan tens of thousands of bike commuters share the sidewalk with pedestrians every day. No one dies or even gets into fist fights. [www.japanesestreets.com for amusing if not engineerocentric view of what it is like on an urban street in Japan.]

Every thoughtful transportation planner in the Metro area will tell you the problem with advancing Portland’s bike masterplan is that all the “low fruit” has been picked. All the easy streets with sufficient right of way for bike lanes have been converted. What is left is the dreaded parking removal option or just a bunch of discontinuous routes never to be completed. Why can’t anyone look at shared sidewalk facilities to fill missing links?

To study the hows and whys of successful sharing I will be spending 7 weeks in Japan starting this August on a fellowship grant from the Architectural Foundation of Oregon. I hope to file some communiques from the field and have more to tell you when I get back. Meanwhile, please get me your questions and comments for my upcoming research! I hope to use all of you reading this blog as a brain trust for my fellowship. If we can’t share the sidewalk, let’s at least share ideas.

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