An Open Letter to Barack Obama on Behalf of Sidewalks

Michael Ronkin is the former Bicycle/Pedestrian Coordinator for the Oregon Department of Transportation.

Mr. President-elect

Thank you for taking the time to listen to suggestions on how best to invest in our infrastructure. You have heard from many about repairing bridges and highways. You have been receiving many “shovel-ready” wish lists of projects. Big highway projects are rarely shovel-ready; there will always be legitimate environmental and political hurdles to overcome, requiring robust public debate.

However, there are many small-scale projects that require little or no red tape, provide tremendous benefit/cost, and create the greatest number of local jobs per dollar spent: sidewalk repair, infill and construction, and bringing existing sidewalks up to ADA compliance. Sidewalk projects provide many economic benefits for communities large and small:

  • Most of the sidewalk cost is labor (60-80%);
  • The labor force is usually local; the bulk of the materials (sand and gravel) can be found locally too;
  • The wages are living wages, but not too high for financially strapped communities;
  • The minimal amount of design needed can be done in-house or by small local engineering firms.
  • Local small contractors can perform the work;
  • This provides work for small contractors hurt by the housing downturn, as they are doing less small concrete work for house foundations, driveways etc.;
  • These are opportunities to make good use of existing incentive programs such as Emerging Small Businesses, Disadvantaged Business Enterprises, Minority-Owned Businesses;
  • But most important are the positive results for the community:

    Sidewalks improve property values, make it easier to walk for short local trips, reduce municipal liability for trip and fall injuries, and help make the transportation system accessible to all pedestrians, including those the Americans with Disabilities Act was intended to help bring into the mainstream.

The backlog of sidewalk infill and repair is huge in most cities. When I worked as Pedestrian and Bicycle Program Manager for the Oregon Department of Transportation, I managed a small grant program (approximately $3,000,000/year statewide) that funded sidewalk infill projects. Every year we had to turn away many worthy applicants, as the requests exceeded available funds at a 5:1 ratio.

Thank you,

Michael Ronkin
Designing Streets for Pedestrians and Bicyclists LLC
1602 Center St NE
Salem OR 97301

22 Comments

22 Responses to An Open Letter to Barack Obama on Behalf of Sidewalks

  1. Christopher Cotrell
    January 8, 2009 at 9:55 am Link

    Barack.

    Learn how to spell his name already. He’s been around for a while, and he’s been president elect for two months.

    [Moderator: The typo in the title has been corrected.]

  2. Matthew
    January 8, 2009 at 10:08 am Link

    One of the things that they mention in the high price of free parking, is that the legal costs of dangerous existing sidewalks, (and then having people trip and fall, and go to the hospital,) is higher than the cost of fixing them…

    And given that fixing broken sidewalks rarely requires any design work, but simply jack hammering the old section out, building forms to match the connecting segment, and pouring a new section in it’s place, they are by definition “shovel ready” already.

  3. billb
    January 8, 2009 at 3:39 pm Link

    There ia a new brick sidewalk in NW PDX on a block between 17th and 18th. It is so beautiful. It is hand laid with non-slip bricks. It rolls slightly at tree roots and fits cleanly against each yard.
    It needs little repair , because it moves with the land and does not fight it. Making it requires skilled craftsmen with living wages. It replaces concrete which is one of the worst items on the planet for greenhouse gasses. If Mayor Sam wanted to do one thing special for PDX , it would be upgrading to brick sidewalks. Better Jobs, better aesthetics and better City of Portland

  4. Jason McHuff
    January 8, 2009 at 7:11 pm Link

    I’ve done some work with Mr. Ronkin before, and have to agree with what he says here. But one thing that doesn’t seem to be mentioned is how encouraging people to walk (by having sidewalks) can mean better health for them. In addition, sidewalks make accessing transit better (but sidewalks should not be transit’s responsibility).

    Also, who is the “they” in “they mention in the high price of free parking”?

  5. Erik Halstead
    January 8, 2009 at 9:08 pm Link

    Huh.

    Many “transit supporters” didn’t like my views about improving access to transit by installing sidewalks and sidewalk-based bus stop amenities…

    Meanwhile, I’m looking at a list of parking lots and garages that TriMet built (or are currently under construction). In the last ten years, TriMet has spent more money on PARKING LOTS than it has in capital expense on the bus system (i.e. replacing old buses, improving bus stops).

    That’s right. Our so-called Transit agency spends more money on PARKING LOTS than building TRANSIT.

    (Did I forget to mention, that TriMet doesn’t charge to park in one of their parking lots?)

  6. Bob R.
    January 8, 2009 at 9:21 pm Link

    Huh. Many “transit supporters” didn’t like my views about improving access to transit by installing sidewalks and sidewalk-based bus stop amenities…

    I didn’t see anyone who opposed having more and/or better sidewalks… the reaction I saw was to your insistence that TriMet was largely responsible for providing said sidewalks.

    Meanwhile, I’m looking at a list of parking lots and garages that TriMet built (or are currently under construction). In the last ten years, TriMet has spent more money on PARKING LOTS than it has in capital expense on the bus system (i.e. replacing old buses, improving bus stops).

    See, there it is… a thread about sidewalks turned into a complaint about TriMet, parking lots, and levels of investment bus service. That’s where you’ve been finding disagreement.

  7. Jeff F
    January 8, 2009 at 10:05 pm Link

    Erik Halstead Says:

    Meanwhile, I’m looking at a list of parking lots and garages that TriMet built (or are currently under construction). In the last ten years, TriMet has spent more money on PARKING LOTS than it has in capital expense on the bus system (i.e. replacing old buses, improving bus stops).

    Could you please document this? Because, frankly, this is a fairly outrageous claim.

  8. Max
    January 8, 2009 at 10:35 pm Link

    Still no sidewalks (or curbs for that matter) on the residential streets in my neighborhood (SE 72nd & Flavel). I’d like to see some built here before we repair everyone else’s.

    I grow tired of pushing my son’s stroller through the street.

  9. Zachary Horowitz
    January 8, 2009 at 10:36 pm Link

    Michael Ronkin is right on the money.

    This must be part of any transportation/infrastructure stimulus package.

    The long term (decades and decades) benefit to America’s health would pay the investment back again and again.

    I’m going to evangelize this idea – it’s genius, and one I haven’t really heard before…

    Thanks Michael!

  10. ws
    January 8, 2009 at 10:42 pm Link

    I don’t think people realize how less labor intensive roads are than they were years ago. It’s very mechanized. Yes, there’s people who design the roads, but the stimulus plan should go to putting people to work.

    Sidewalks aren’t a bad idea, but who would get the money? At least with highways we can tell of the ones that need it the most.

    Just give tax breaks to people, this will please more people and won’t create public policy that may have detrimental effects on the built environment for years to come.

  11. Stan
    January 9, 2009 at 9:03 am Link

    It’s amazing how neighborhoods that have been part of Portland for decades (Cully, Outer SE) still don’t have sidewalks.

  12. Jeff F
    January 9, 2009 at 9:15 am Link

    You don’t even have to go that far out to find a lack of sidewalks. Take a look at the neighborhood just south of Woodstock, between 39th & 52nd, especially the east-west streets. Most not only lack sidewalks but are unfinished roads (and there are some hellish examples of this around Cully).

  13. Terry Parker
    January 9, 2009 at 1:07 pm Link

    It does reasonable to use stimulus dollars to fix and repair broken sidewalks, to add handicapped ramps, and to construct sidewalks in areas that need them, but where they do not exist. However, the stimulus package dollars should NOT be used for adding curb extensions that often add to traffic congestion, and/or replacing existing sidewalks with super-sized sidewalks (like was don at a great expense on NE 102nd).

  14. Matthew
    January 9, 2009 at 2:56 pm Link

    “Also, who is the “they” in “they mention in the high price of free parking”?”

    Sorry, bad punctuation. Read it as: In the book, “The High Cost of Free Parking,” Donald Shoup says…

    If I remember correctly, the data he sited came from the city of LA, but I don’t see any reason for it not to apply to most US cities, (unless people in LA are somehow clumsier than people on average.)

  15. Erik Halstead
    January 9, 2009 at 9:09 pm Link

    Jeff F. wrote: Could you please document this? Because, frankly, this is a fairly outrageous claim.

    Sure.

    TriMet parking lots:

    Opened in 1998:

    Hatfield Government Center – 250 spaces on two levels of multi-level garage
    Fair Complex/Hillsboro Airport – 396 spaces
    Orenco – 180 spaces
    Quatama – 310 spaces
    Willow Creek – 595 spaces
    Elmonica – 435 spaces
    Beaverton Creek – 417 spaces
    Millikan Way – 400 spaces
    Sunset TC – 587 spaces (garage)

    Opened in 2001:

    Parkrose/Sumner – 193 spaces

    Opened in 2004:

    Delta Park/Vanport – 117 spaces in near lot, 175 spaces in far lot

    Opening in 2009 (currently under construction):

    Main Street – 420 spaces
    Powell – 400 spaces
    Holgate – 120 spaces
    Fuller – 630 spaces
    Clackamas Town Center – 750 space (garage)

    Hall/Nimbus – 50 spaces
    Tigard TC – 100 spaces
    Tualatin – 130 spaces
    Wilsonville – 400 spaces

    Parking Upgrades:

    Gateway TC – 690 spaces (garage), opened in 2006
    Gresham TC – 540 spaces (garage), open date N/A

    Total spaces: 2,817 garage spaces, 5,468 surface spaces.

    The Oregonian reported that a garaged space costs about $25,000 per space – or $70,425,000 total for the garage spaces.

    Another Internet source reports a cost of $4,000 per surface lot space, or $21,872,000.

    Total cost: $92,297,000.

    Number of new buses ordered by TriMet:

    2000 series New Flyer D40LF – 22 vehicles, 1997
    2100 series Gillig Phantom – 65 vehicles, 1997
    2200 series D40LF – 58 vehicles, 1998
    2200/2330 series D40LF – 59 vehicles, 1999
    2400 series Collins 3000RE – 18 vehicles (minibuses)
    2500 series D40LF – 60 vehicles, 2001
    2561/2561 series DE40LF (Hybrids) – 2 vehicles, 2002 (vehicles provided to TriMet at no cost)
    2600 series D40LF – 55 vehicles, 2002
    2700 series D40LF – 25 vehicles, 2003
    2800 series D40LF – 39 vehicles, 2005

    Total number of vehicles: 338 D40LF and Gilligs
    18 Collins mini-buses.
    2 Hybrid buses at $0 cost to TriMet.

    Total cost: $118,300,000 for the 40′ buses, $3,600,000 for the Collins buses = $122M.

    So, maybe TriMet didn’t spend “more” on parking lots, but as you can clearly see, $92M in PARKING LOTS to feed MAX and WES, compared with $122M in buses.

    It’s not all that far-fetched. When you add in the cost for STREET and SIDEWALK improvements to feed into the parking lots – as examples, the roadway system around Sunset TC, street improvements made around the Gateway TC, traffic signals to exit the Sunset TC, street/driveway improvements to Millikan, Beaverton Creek and Elmonica, traffic signals at Elmonica and Willow Creek, streets at Willow Creek (plus a current parking lot project going on right now at Willow Creek), a new street and sidewalks, plus a traffic signal, at Fairgrounds/Airport…

  16. Erik Halstead
    January 9, 2009 at 9:13 pm Link

    I should add…I’ve seen a lot of new sidewalks that were constructed as part of the WES project…paid for and installed by TriMet dollars, and TriMet contractors.

    Including 1,300 feet of new sidewalk installed alongside the WES line in Tualatin.

  17. Douglas K.
    January 10, 2009 at 1:27 am Link

    Capital funds spend on building park & rides (which last decades) vs. buying buses (which last years) is really an apples & oranges comparison.

    However, nearly all of those “parking lots” (also known as “park & rides” or occasionally even “transit centers”) serve buses as well as MAX (and WES). So add the money put into parking lots to the capital expense put into the bus system. You want to count “bus stops” as capital expense for buses, add in parking spaces that bus riders can use to get to their buses.

  18. Jeff F
    January 10, 2009 at 8:20 am Link

    Erik Halstead

    So, maybe TriMet didn’t spend “more” on parking lots, but as you can clearly see, $92M in PARKING LOTS to feed MAX and WES, compared with $122M in buses.

    As [Douglas] noted, most of the parking lots are serving buses as well as rail. Virtually all were built with project funds rather than out of the General Fund. And if you include construction in 2009, you should also include the 40 new buses arriving in 2009.

    [Moderator: Attribution corrected.]

  19. ws
    January 10, 2009 at 1:48 pm Link

    ” However, the stimulus package dollars should NOT be used for adding curb extensions that often add to traffic congestion, and/or replacing existing sidewalks with super-sized sidewalks (like was don at a great expense on NE 102nd).” -Terry Parker

    Curb extensions do not add to traffic congestion. This is a completely made up statement. Curb extensions “bump out” in front of the street parking section where cars are pakred, not the driveable lanes for cars.

    Curb extensions are crucial in allowing for cars to actually see the pedestrian, rather than them hiding behind a wall of parked cars. They can’t be used everywhere but places I have seen them are in areas that are slower, pedestrian-oriented.

  20. Unit
    January 12, 2009 at 2:21 pm Link

    Erik, I believe the reason TriMet has spent so much on parking decks has a lot to do with the federal funding formula. They have to demonstrate instant ridership on proposed lines to meet federal cost-effectiveness rules, and receive the big chunks of capital funding. Of course, the unintended consequence of these well-intentioned but poorly conceived rules is to favor long transit trips over dense transit-oriented development which would cost less in the long run. It also means more decks and fewer buses than TriMet might otherwise prefer.

  21. Erik Halstead
    January 12, 2009 at 8:16 pm Link

    Jeff F. wrote: “As [Douglas] noted, most of the parking lots are serving buses as well as rail. Virtually all were built with project funds rather than out of the General Fund. And if you include construction in 2009, you should also include the 40 new buses arriving in 2009.”

    How many of those parking spaces are used by bus riders; especially given the large number of those spaces which aren’t even located at a transit facility that is served, or is very poorly served, by bus service?

    And I included costs that were already paid for; most of the WES and Green Line MAX parking lots are ALREADY built.

  22. Erik Halstead
    January 12, 2009 at 8:22 pm Link

    Douglas K. wrote: So add the money put into parking lots to the capital expense put into the bus system. You want to count “bus stops” as capital expense for buses, add in parking spaces that bus riders can use to get to their buses.

    But how many of those parking spaces are used by bus passengers? Very few. The best solution is to eliminate the free parking and make parkers pay for the space. Problem solved – encourages “door-to-door” transit, fewer trips taken by auto, eliminates unfair parking/auto subsidy.

    As for capital expense for, quote, bus stops, quote… The average bus stop is a sign. Cost of a sign? $20. Cost of a pole? $15. Average life of a bus stop sign? 15 years. $35 divided by 15 is…what, $2 something per stop per year?

    Keep in mind that TriMet’s own Bus Stop Guidelines states TriMet should install A MINIMUM of 100 shelters per year and TriMet affords about 30 per year, all of which are minimal prefab structures as opposed to the larger structures used on a MAX line. So if we’re going to talk about bus stop capital expense…let’s talk about the inequalities of MAX stops – particularly at stops like Hollywood TC, 82nd Avenue, Parkrose/Sumner, Beaverton TC, Willow Creek, Millikan Way – where buses get woefully inadequate shelters and MAX gets large, oversized shelters with Transit Tracker displays, large benches, and so on…

Leave a Reply

By posting a comment, you are granting a license to Portland Transport for your comment. Please refer to The Rules.