Typical Tucson scenes: A woman taking a walk pushes her baby in a stroller along the side of a residential street.
A man in an electric wheelchair rides up the bike lane alongside speeding cars on a busy thoroughfare.
Young boys and girls laugh and clown while walking in a street on the way to the park.
All these people are in the streets, in harm’s way, because of a historical mistake: Tucson didn’t require sidewalks as part of housing developments during decades of growth after World War II.
As a result, most of midtown and many other city neighborhoods have either no sidewalks or a peculiar patchwork where sidewalks run for, say, 50 feet, leading from one sandy patch to another.
Busy streets like East Speedway are even more mystifying, with long parking lots blending into driveways, bumping against stretches of sidewalk that may end in landscaping gravel and pick up a few feet later.
You could consider it one of Tucson’s cute quirks: a city of a half million with hardly a complete sidewalk outside downtown. But I have a hard time finding it cute.
Worse, the city’s anti-sidewalk attitude remains enshrined in its laws. A little-known — but still enforced — code requires city property-owners to maintain the sidewalks abutting their land. In other words, if the sidewalk buckles in front of your house or business, you have to pay to fix it.
This code was passed in 1964, and, almost 50 years later, the City Council has still not taken back what should be as much a government responsibility as maintaining roads.
The code gives property owners just 10 days to fix the sidewalk once inspectors have given them a notice of the violation. Otherwise, the city will do it and bill the property owner.
I asked city spokesman Michael Graham on Tuesday how many tickets inspectors are writing these days for sidewalk repairs. By the end of the day he had heard back from two of five inspectors who may write such tickets. They’d written a total of 45 in the last year. So, if that proportion held for the remaining inspectors, the city issued well over 100 notices in the last year.
It’s quite an anomaly in an era when people freely use the term “walkability” and consider it a gauge of a city’s attractiveness.
But when I spoke with Mayor Jonathan Rothschild Tuesday about the city’s sidewalks, he wasn’t willing to propose changing that city code.
“I would love for the city to be in the financial position to take responsibility for the sidewalks,” he said.
But there’s no point in such a step, he said, until the city’s in a financial position to take on a major sidewalk-building and -maintenance effort.
This is coming from a mayor who points to walkability as a priority. In fact, he’s proposing to take $1.9 million from the city’s community-development block grant money, to be paid back over the next 20 years. and funnel it toward sidewalk construction in areas where new road construction is occurring. The proposal is set to go before the council on Tuesday.
Councilwoman Karin Uhlich is opposed to the idea because, she says, it takes valuable economic-development money away from better job-creating uses.
Councilwoman Regina Romero told me she only wants to use the money that way if tree-planting and other landscaping is done along with the new sidewalks in order to create shade.
What they all need to understand is, it’s time to start making up for our past mistakes.
Emily Yetman, who heads Tucson’s Living Streets Alliance, and Patrick Hartley, a transportation planner at the Pima Association of Governments, both told me Tuesday that creating more pedestrian-friendly cities is a trend nationwide.
“There’s a lot of buzz around walkability right now. A lot of cities are investing in walkability,” Yetman said.
Having sidewalks allows people to walk their neighborhoods more easily, creating more of a feeling of community, a greater sense of security, and potentially helping limit obesity and related health problems, she said.
This “cultural shift” toward walkability is not just about being cool, though, Hartley pointed out, when I met with him and two other planners at PAG offices. As the population ages, more and more people are disabled and need sidewalks to give them access to the outside world without relying on heavily subsidized services like Sun Van, the transit option for disabled people in Pima County.
“If people are capable of wheeling to a bus stop, that converts it from a $30 trip to a $4 trip,” said Jim DeGrood, the director of transportation services for PAG and the Regional Transportation Authority.
It’s the RTA, with its bond money, that is making the most visible sidewalk improvements, putting them in wherever it’s doing major road improvements. In my neighborhood, for example, North Craycroft Road, which used to have a sandy strip along its edge, now has a full sidewalk, block after block.
But in the future, Pima County bond money may be where the biggest investments in sidewalks come from. As the county prepares to put a bond package before voters, one of the more popular priorities is putting $50 million toward pedestrian safety and walkability improvements.
That’s movement in the right direction, though it’s hard to imagine how many millions more would be required to put sidewalks in the Tucson neighborhoods where they should have been all along.
The city of Tucson could signal its shift in mindset by assuming the responsibility for sidewalks that it should have taken on decades ago.