Missing sidewalks create parental worries

Published 9:14 am Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Column: My Point of View, by Jennifer Vogt-Erickson

Kiddie drag strips, dog walking corridors, stroller lanes, wheelchair paths, pedestrian arteries. Sidewalks have different functions, depending on people’s circumstances.

I have two young children, so I’m part of the kiddie drag-racing/stroller-pushing demographic. My family lives on a street with sidewalks lining both sides. The kids in our neighborhood use them the most, going up and down the sidewalks on bikes and scooters, sometimes in a tight pack and sometimes spread out in a clattering, rag-tag parade.

Jennifer Vogt-Erickson

Jennifer Vogt-Erickson

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The street is on a small hill, and my son works out so hard on the sidewalks that he sometimes flops down in our neighbors’ front yards to rest before springing up and rejoining the munchkin mob. Probably the most oft-repeated phrase parents utter outside in this neighborhood is, “Stay on the sidewalk!”

Why? Because the sidewalk is safe. Meandering into the street introduces many potentially dangerous variables.

We live two blocks from Hawthorne Elementary School, and my kids will be able to walk directly there on sidewalks when they reach school age. We consciously chose this amenity when we bought our house, which was built in the 1940s while sidewalks were still in fashion. There are lots of children in our city, though, who do not have this luxury. A block north of us, most of the sidewalks end. The sidewalks on Garfield Avenue drop to one side at Hawthorne Street, and that path ends one block farther north at Fairlane Terrace. This point is less than a mile from school, so families in the vicinity would have to pay extra to bus their children.

Personally, I would feel uneasy letting my children walk to school on either Fairlane Terrace or the stretches of Richway Drive and Garfield where sidewalks are lacking. I’ve observed backpack-wearing students alone or accompanied by their mothers walking along the edge of these streets. Kids have to dodge around parked cars and vehicles rounding curves. Do some parents who have the option to drive their kids to school in these areas choose to do so partly because they don’t think it’s safe to let their children walk on the margins of these streets? I suspect the answer to that question is yes.

Besides safety concerns, I see two main problems with the current missing sidewalk situation:

1. Our kids need more physical activity. Routinely walking or biking to and from school prepares young minds to learn each day and helps children get much-needed exercise. In 1969, 40 percent of children used their own power to get to school. By 2001, this figure had dropped to 13 percent. Kids would probably use new sidewalks after school and during the summer as well, as they do in my neighborhood.

2. It’s about justice. Forcing children to walk in the street instead of providing safe sidewalks sends them the message they are second-class citizens. Elementary kids may not be conscious of it, but it is clear to high school students who walk to school on the edge of town. For them, the sidewalk runs out on Hammer Road well short of Tiger Lane. The campus, beautiful as it is, was built for vehicles. The secondary students who walk are mainly those who live within two miles of school but don’t have the means to drive themselves or family or friends who can give them a ride. Every time the car-less students reach the last cement square of sidewalk and step out onto Hammer Road, they are reminded that we don’t value them enough to give them a safe, direct walkway all the way to the front doors of the school.

A person shouldn’t need a driver’s license and a car to be a full citizen in our community. Sidewalks make a city more democratic ­­— more accessible to everybody, including kids. They give elderly people the freedom to stride, stroll or shuffle around a block or to a nearby store. It is also a boon to moms like me, pushing 78 pounds of toddler heft and thankful for every block boasting the safety of sidewalks and every curb cut easing our crossings at intersections.

Our city has added a number of major sidewalks since 2009, and it’s in the midst of a streetscape project that will improve walkability in the downtown area. Let’s build more sidewalks, giving top priority to the main routes children use to walk and bike to school. I envision a future where sidewalks are everywhere in our city. The city streets belong not just to those who drive, but to all of us.


Albert Lea resident Jennifer Vogt-Erickson is a member of the Freeborn County DFL Party.