Missing sidewalks in Kitchener-Waterloo
For a city to be open to pedestrians, there need to be paths between useful destinations, the paths need to be maintained, and pedestrians need to feel safe. Before you can run, you have to walk, and before you can walk, you need a place to do it. In Kitchener-Waterloo there are numerous roads that are missing sidewalks, often on both sides of the street. Sometimes the sidewalks are sporadic: they appear and disappear on a stretch of road. Occasionally one-sided sidewalks even switch sides at intersections. Suburban subdivisions are haphazard, sometimes having full sidewalk coverage, but just as often leaving them out. And sidewalks in industrial areas are simple: there just aren’t any.
I set out to document the state of missing sidewalks in Kitchener and Waterloo. Using Google Maps, I drew red lines for roads missing sidewalks on both sides and blue lines for those missing a sidewalk on just one. I tried to cover everything that is not a suburban subdivision, and I did Eastbridge as an example of a suburban area. There are undoubtedly missing sidewalks that I did not document, and probably some tiny sidewalks that I mistook for curbs. Click on the below map image to see it on Google Maps in more detail. [Update: This is based on 2006 satellite imagery, and a few sidewalks have been put in since then.]
The list of important roads with serious sidewalk absences reads like a who’s who of roads in the region: Fischer-Hallman Rd, Fairway Rd, University Ave, Westmount Rd, Seagram Dr, Victoria St, Homer Watson Blvd, Bleams Rd, Manitou Dr, Lackner Blvd, Bridge St, Northfield Dr, and even King St and Weber St by the St. Jacobs Market. The suburbs are missing many useful sidewalks. And the north Waterloo and south Kitchener industrial parks — while currently devoid of sidewalks — would be quite reasonable places for them, as both are within walking and biking distance of residential areas and transit hubs.
Of course, it isn’t enough for sidewalks to exist. The sidewalks need to be maintained, cleared of snow in the winter, free of standing water, and so on. There need to be walkway connections. There need to be places to walk to. However, sidewalks are a significant step, as they invite people to consider their use and have symbolic value as a commitment by the municipality to its pedestrians.
By the Region of Waterloo’s own estimates, it would cost less than $20 million to add in all the missing sidewalks on regional roads. I would guess it would cost less than $100 million to construct every single missing sidewalk in Kitchener-Waterloo. Considering the region and the two cities can afford to spend around $100 million a year on roads, we can afford this.
What would be the outcome if we added in all the sidewalks? First of all, the people who already walk in these places would now be able to do so safely. Other people will consider walking when they otherwise wouldn’t have risked the side of the road. Many probably aren’t currently willing to walk because there literally is no space for it, or because they are afraid that poor weather would make their journey back unpleasant. Perhaps most intriguingly, there are many missing sidewalks along fast-moving roads to destinations that may be far for walking, but just right for cycling. I think a secondary outcome would be that many will consider cycling on low-population sidewalks as an alternative way to get to their workplace from their suburban homes — both of which may now be solely accessible by car. I know that legally bicycles are supposed to be on the roads, but as a practical matter, many roads — especially in suburban areas — tend to be scary for prospective cyclists, and consequently a very strong deterrent if they are missing sidewalks.
I don’t think sidewalks are always necessary on both sides of the street, particularly if one side does not have any connections. However, calculations about where sidewalks may or may not be needed must be viewed with suspicion, as they appear to me to be prescriptive rather than descriptive. The purpose of sidewalks and walkways should not be just to provide a choice for people, but also to accommodate the choices that will be made and already are being made by pedestrians. People in industrial areas do walk, as do people in the suburbs, whether or not planners think it reasonable. If you look carefully at the satellite imagery in the above map, you will find many places with footpaths in lieu of missing sidewalks.
There is a possibility that if you build a sidewalk, it will not have a use. For 60 years we have been erring on the side of building fewer sidewalks than necessary. It’s about time we started building at least as many sidewalks as we need, and perhaps a few more. Widen (and create) sidewalks, not roads!