Saturday, September 1, 2007

Where the sidewalk ends

Why, when the City of Windsor decides to do something that might be considered sustainable, does it fail to go the distance? A case in point is the proposed Pedestrian Generator Sidewalk Policy which is due to come before council on 10 September. (Click on the picture at left to get to the policy!)

First, let me be absolutely clear that I support the separation of sidewalk creation from the local improvement policies, especially if it means that capital funds (you know the big pot of money, of which 80% is ear-marked for roads in Windsor) are to be allocated to build them. I also applaud the expansion of the policy to include multiple pedestrian generators including, but not limited to, schools, parks and shopping destinations.

While sidewalk access isn't necessarily a problem in the old parts of Windsor, anything built since the mid 1950's has been hit or miss with sidewalks and anything built in the past quarter century is almost guaranteed to have no sidewalk access. I can only assume that, in order to keep housing costs down, builders, without requirements by the city for sidewalks, abandoned sidewalks to increase profits and housing density. According to the Local Improvement policies, established in 1968, property owners who desire to have a sidewalk installed can petition the city that will then require a 66% affirmative response from impacted homeowners. Of course, asking your neighbours to fork over a couple of thousand dollars, give up 5-6 feet of frontage, and put up with the associated construction mess and landscape carnage is, well, akin to asking to kiss your neighbours wife.

If the new policy is so positive, pushing the accessibility to capital funded sidewalks to so many more areas of the city, why do I have my panties in a twist? One word: ambiguity and cost-sharing. Ok, three words.

On the surface, the plan seems to be a real winner (and I think that the intentions of the writer, Andrew Dowie, are good) but there are some blatant loopholes that could, and will, be used to stall the implementation of the sidewalks if they are not tightened up prior to passing council.

First, section 3.2 of the proposed policy states that:

"Where appropriate, benefiting organizations (excluding School Boards) may be asked to contribute a portion of the cost of the sidewalk"

Unless I missed something, that basically means that, although the policy is opening up access to a multitude of pedestrian generators, the city can (and trust me, they will!) ask any non-education beneficiaries to pony up the cash before the sidewalk goes in. That sure seems like a re-worded Local Improvement policy, now doesn't it?

The second, and this is where the ambiguity comes in, failure can be found in section 5 of policy states:

5.1 The City Engineer must determine the existence of the following conditions as outlined in the associated procedure prior to recommending sidewalk construction:

5.1.1 Acceptable pedestrian generator in vicinity of proposed sidewalk;

How close does the pedestrian generator actually need to be? Does it need to abut the sidewalk, or can the sidewalk simply increase the safe accessibility to the generator?

5.1.2 Sufficient pedestrian volumes from above pedestrian generator;

What is a "sufficient ... volume"? In fact, I would say that this policy is important to Windsor because we don't have sufficient pedestrian volumes. Requiring pedestrian volumes at a certain level (not defined, --- there's that ambiguity again) to build infrastructure to increase pedestrian volume it really the old adage of "Which came first, the chicken or the egg?"

5.1.3 Lack of acceptable pedestrian/vehicle segregation;

I love this one -- in my opinion any place pedestrians are, cars should not be. I'm not sure that is what the city intended, as that would encompass every square inch of this city, but I can dream, can't I? What constitutes "acceptable -- segregation"? Do sidewalks require a boulevard or do sidewalks that terminate at the curb meet the criteria?

5.1.4 Heightened motorized traffic volumes.

Heightened motorized traffic volumes? Isn't that, again, everywhere? This is a huge loophole, and deterrent to implementation. Mark my words, that first time a request is made to use capital funds to build a sidewalk, the city will require an exhaustive transportation study to determine if "heightened traffic volumes" exist. I am sure that, for non-education requests, this will simply be passed down as an additional line item on the cost of the sidewalk implementation.

5.2 The City Engineer must ensure that the proposed sidewalk will satisfy all of the following requirements:

5.2.1 Provision of dedicated pedestrian facilities;

Huh? Ok, I think that I am a pretty smart guy, at least compared to my four-year old, but if that line actually means something to someone, please clue me in.

5.2.2 General neighbourhood need;

Isn't the argument that every neighbourhood needs sidewalks? Heck, I would go as far as to say that every neighbourhood should have sidewalks and front porches, but then I'm a little bit of a socialist sometimes!

5.2.3 Connection to other pedestrian facilities;

Again with the 'A'-word -- how close do these facilities need to be? It can be argued that everything connects to everything else, but somehow I don't think that this was the intention of this catch all requirement.

5.2.4 Other factors of benefit to pedestrian travel.

As I am sure that I have already proven here, you can write a book, and then some, on the benefits of pedestrian travel. What factors are they looking for that haven't already been established? The cost savings are monumental when you incorporate infrastructure wear and tear, environmental benefits, health benefits and overall standard of living (which directly translate into higher property values). If you doubt that last one, check out any of the cities on the top 10 list of most livable cities in the world and then try and find a three-bedroom house for the going rate in Windsor. I tried Vancouver and both Sydney and Melbourne, Australia. Vancouver started at about $430,000 -- the Aussies got off lucky in the high 200's -- but in Australian dollars.

The long and, well, there is no short of it, is this -- Windsor needs to embrace walkable living to change the image of the city to stave off unemployment and extinction. The Pedestrian Generator Sidewalk Policy does a great job of opening the topic up for discussion, but leaves too many loopholes that could be exploited both for the benefit and detriment of the citizens of Windsor. The Public Works people need to strengthen and firm up the language of this policy to make its' true intent known and its' implementation a reality.


Anonymous said...

Hey Josh - what definition is the city utilizing when it uses the term "generators"?

Josh Biggley said...

According to the policy proposal (although not actually outlined in the proposal), generators include schools, community centres, parks, arenas and commercial areas.

The policy actually lists 6 criteria:
1. Located on a route leading to a significant pedestrian destination
2. Required to serve more than the abutting properties
3. Required on a school approach street
4. Required for the seperation of pedestrians and vehicles
5. Requested or endorsed by the school board
6. Required where it would be inequitable to charge abutting homeowners the full costs.

I can actually think of a couple areas in my neighbourhood that fit many of the criteria, although only only 1 of the 5 need exist.

The Official Plan, section 7.2.3, Pedestrian Network Policies, states that the city should provides "a walking environment that encourages people to walk to work or school, for travel, exercise, recreation, and social interaction"

By that definition, then the city needs to do some heavy reallocation of resources because every street, and neighbourhood, needs to have sidewalks with defined pedestrian routes.

Not that I oppose implementation to that extent, only that, as the past has shown, without definitive guidance in a policy (reference the bike policy in Windsor!) it becomes a moot point.


NB: Note that the official plan also requires all new developments and infrastructure changes "to provide facilities for pedestrian movement wherever appropriate."

When was the last time you saw a new subdivision with a sidewalk installed? Maybe I should get out more ...

Anonymous said...

Josh: It may be worth your while to e-mail the author with your concerns, and he may be able to prepare a response justifying the vague nature of the "Policy". (Recall that there is an associated "Procedure" that must be approved by the CAO as well, that is more easily amended.)