Chalk up one for progress in the 'burbs Sidewalks: Several area counties are pressing residential developers to create them even the state is getting into the picture.

March 06, 1998|By Laura Sullivan | Laura Sullivan,SUN STAFF

For 50 years, developers have been building curvy roads, landscaping mounds of grass and painting thousands of parking spots in Baltimore's suburbs, but most left out one thing -- sidewalks.

"If you can't walk around the block to see your neighborhood, you've cut the idea of community by three-fourths," said John Baer, an Annapolis resident and Sierra Club member who has pushed for years for more sidewalks.

Now, growing suburban populations, increasing traffic with heightened worries about safety, and yearnings for a more old-fashioned community lifestyle are bringing cityscape sidewalks into vogue in the suburbs. Anne Arundel, Howard and Baltimore counties have been pressing developers harder to add walkways, and, for the first time, the state is in the sidewalk-building business.

"It boggles the mind that this wasn't a factor considered essential for quality of life in the suburbs," said Professor John Falcocchio, director of the Transportation Research Institute based at the Polytechnic University in New York. "Now with the needs of the family, children and the communities, it's beginning to change. States are beginning to change. People wish they had access to walk to buy a newspaper rather than having to drive to do it."

Most Baltimore-area counties until recently rarely required developers to build sidewalks. When they did, it was sidewalks within a new subdivision. Occasionally private homeowners of neighborhood associations put in walkways, but overall, the result in most counties resembled a confusing grid of housing developments isolated from each other like a gigantic connect-the-dot puzzle.

Some counties did set aside funding to build and maintain walkways near commercial centers, but for the most part, engineers said, the feeling for years was that if suburbanites wanted to get from one place to another, they could drive.

Drive they did -- and they are paying a price for a car culture. Roads have been widened, eating into park and private land, public transportation has been mostly ignored, traffic speeds have gone up, pollution has increased and children heading to school have been forced to walk in ditches.

Over the past several years, Anne Arundel, Baltimore and Howard counties have begun tightening the rules, requiring developers to lay out plans to build sidewalks in nearby communities -- an idea unheard of 20 years ago.

"I used to laugh because sidewalks would be built in these places where nobody would ever go," said Merril Plait, chief engineer for Anne Arundel County's Development Division. "And then there would be these worn paths leading to places where people were really going. We're asking now for developers to put more thought into where sidewalks are put, what they link up to and how people can can get from one place to another."

State funding

Two years ago, the state allocated $4 million -- out of a state Transportation Department budget of more than a billion dollars a year -- to build 150 sidewalks by this year.

"It took us three years to get a sidewalk program," John Porcari, deputy secretary of the state Department of Transportation, recently told some Annapolis residents. "We had to go to the state legislature for this, believe it or not."

County officials say, small as the sidewalk funding is, at least it's a start, and they have eagerly submitted requests. Baltimore County has nine state-funded projects in the works; Anne Arundel, seven; Carroll, six; and Howard, three.

In the late 1980s, northern Anne Arundel County residents launched what turned into a six-year battle to get sidewalks installed near their local school and along a state road where one child was killed and four injured. They find the state's support of sidewalks bittersweet: Their area would probably have been a shoo-in for funding.

"I am grateful the state highway [department] has finally added a sidewalk program," said Pasadena resident and community leader Carolyn Roeding, "because no community should have to go through what we did for the safety of children. If you look at all the ramifications of growth without sidewalks -- the sheer tragedies -- it's horrendous."

"We're getting to the point where we can't build our way out of transportation anymore," agreed Harvey Gold, a senior traffic planner on the state Transportation Steering Committee for the Baltimore region. "We can't physically build any more roads. Everybody is looking for alternatives. It's created a countermovement away from a life built around cars."

The number of funding requests has prompted state transportation planners to put in for more sidewalk funding when the current pot runs out at the end of this year. But funding isn't the only obstacle to more walkways.

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