The old utility-pole-in-the-sidewalk predicament: do we have clearance…Clarence?

I’ve written as a guest contributor at the blog Urban Indy numerous times in the past.  Although the blog is currently only marginally active, and I personally have not dabbled in the topic, other contributors have bemoaned the fact that pedestrian improvements in the very auto-centric city of Indianapolis rarely extend to persons with disabilities, as evidenced by the many sidewalk projects throughout the city where utility poles stand squarely in the middle of a four- or five-foot pedestrian easement, obstructing normal clearance.  And when I say “pedestrian easement” I mean sidewalk, but I used the legal term because it emphasizes the fact that a sidewalk is an exemption of private exclusivity without being de jure public land.  That thin strip of pavement next to the road still belongs to the owner whose property fronts the road (the land underneath is his or hers), but the act of walking alongside the road is not officially trespassing thanks to the pedestrian easement.  And a sidewalk helps etch that easement into stone.  Or concrete or asphalt.  Maybe brick.  Probably not stone.  (But occasionally.)

All too often, however, the four-foot or five-foot strip, intended to give pedestrians safe passage, offers hazards or obstacles all its own.  It’s not just Indy.  We encounter this everywhere: more often than not, it’s part of the installation of a new sidewalk project in an area that previously lacked them.  The design specifications for the sidewalk mandate that the new pavement runs a certain width and a certain distance from the curb or right-of-way (if the road lacks a curb).  Sometimes these design features require the presence of a small grassy terrace separating the sidewalk from the road, which allows space for utility poles, road signs, pedestrian crossing signals, and (in a less urbanized setting) mailboxes.  But it’s often more cost efficient simply to append the strip of a sidewalk to the existing curb, requiring less grading or edging to the slabs of concrete that serve as the preferred tool in sidewalk installations.  In other instances, the sidewalk predates the utility pole.  The utility company installs a new power line or (more likely) simply upgrades an existing one, placing new poles smack in the middle of the sidewalk.  After all, the utility easement and the pedestrian easement mostly coincide.

It is no small comfort, therefore, that it’s become easier in recent years to spot examples where the municipal public works department has rectified the issue.  Here’s one in North Beach, Maryland, a small bedroom community on the western shores of the Chesapeake Bay, a mere 45-minute drive from Washington DC.  At first, it looks like the usual predicament: the utility pole sits squarely in the middle of the sidewalk.

Yes, the average person could easily sidle around this pole.  It’s persons with disabilities—wheelchairs, walkers—who lack the space for their wheel beds to stay on the hardened surface.

Fortunately it’s a misleading photo.  Pivot a bit to the left and the construction crew has provided a concession.

sidewalk with wheelchair clearance in North Beach, MD

The curved pavement here provides enough clearance for the typical wheelchair to maneuver around the pole.  And judging from the fissures in the concrete, the Public Works Department for the Town of North Beach demonstrated the foresight to design the sidewalk installation with wheelchair clearance in mind, rather than providing a corrective new, curvy slab ex post facto.  Compare this segment of sidewalk, for example, with the one in the background in the photo below:

curved pavement allows wheelchair clearance in North Beach

In that more distant example, the curved piece of concrete most likely arrived at a later point, in an effort to address the problem with clearance.  Not that it really matters when it happens; the point is that North Beach has found a simple, non-intrusive solution to what has long been a pervasive oversight.

But alas, it’s still easy to spot another minor blunder: several feet away from the first utility pole, the stabilizing cable still offers a bit of an impediment.

I’ll concede: this isn’t as bad as a pole.  It’s possible that some wheelchairs will be able to fit around this space.  But the whole intent of the clearance is for individuals to avoid a detour into the grass, and I’m not certain all wheelchairs can manage this space.  Furthermore, those who use motorized carts may not be able to overcome the lip of the concrete if they have to slip into the grass.  It doesn’t look like a particularly large grade change between sidewalk and grass right here, but the whole point is to accommodate persons with disabilities—a situation all the more ironic when one spots that icon for disabled parking painted nearby onto the street.  And erosion over time could cause that lip to protrude more.  These stabilizing cables can actually prove far more dangerous that utility poles themselves.  They’re not always as thick as this one, nor are they always a conspicuous yellow.  I can recall a situation during high school cross country where the path for the race went through a grassy, interior utility easement, adjacent to power lines and poles, but the course designers put the trail too close to one of those cables, running at a 45-degree angle into the ground.  The dark, thin cable blended in easily with the surroundings, and most runners couldn’t see it.  The tall ones (not me) clotheslined themselves.  Ouch.

I never want to let perfect be the enemy of the good, so it would be petty for me to flog North Beach after it clearly got the clearance issue right where it really mattered.  Perhaps the bigger concern is the conflation of pedestrian and utility easements, when the nature of the clearance for these two legal remedies shouldn’t necessarily coincide.  Humans and electric cables don’t usually mix.  Or perhaps the long-term goal, especially in a hurricane-prone area like the Chesapeake Bay, would be to bury the electric cables altogether.  All things in due time.

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6 thoughts on “The old utility-pole-in-the-sidewalk predicament: do we have clearance…Clarence?

  1. Jeffrey Jakucyk

    Another issue with these minimal sidewalks right up against the curb, aside from frightening proximity to often fast-moving traffic, is that they are frequently blocked by ever-larger trash and recycling bins, autumn leaves or grass clippings, whether bagged or piled in a heap for vacuuming, temporary construction signs, and all the various posts for parking signs, speed limits, signal ahead, etc. Bonus points if there is street parking, but low mountable curbs encourage people to pull their car up onto the sidewalk, because their side-view mirrors are more important than someone with mobility impairment. For trash bins alone, you really need a 10′ sidewalk or a 5′ grass strip between the sidewalk and curb, to make it work. Then you at least have room for all that other stuff and some street trees too.

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      Yes, that’s a common approach all over the country. The Urban Indy community liked to grumble about how so many new sidewalks in Indianapolis metro get installed right alongside the curb with zero buffer, as though it was an Indy thing. It was just as prevalent in the residential neighborhoods of Cambridge, MA when I lived there. In an ideal world, the buffer is indeed present on sidewalks in lower density areas (those that can justify a 4-5′ width), but I know that a freestanding sidewalk (not conjoined with the curb) does cost more. Not being an engineer, I suspect the biggest consideration is the need to stabilize two sides of pavement as it cures, rather than just one. I’d also imagine a buffered sidewalk faces more opposition from homeowners because it feels like pedestrians “are walking right through our front lawn”, and I’ll concede that the setbacks on some sidewalks have been amazingly large. Indianapolis’s sidewalk ordinances seem to mandate a terrace/grassy buffer for new developments–both full scale residential subdivisions and a single-lot new construction. Yet when the DPW undertakes a street improvement with transportation enhancements, it nearly always builds the sidewalk right along the curb, albeit a bit wider than on a small collector/local road.

      All the considerations you present are equally valid compounding arguments against sidewalks up against the curb. Yet all too often, $$$ reigns supreme. And I don’t see this changing any time soon.

      Reply
        1. AmericanDirt Post author

          That wouldn’t be a half-bad argument, Chris. Especially in a place like Cambridge, where they get a whole lot more snow than Central Indiana (although Indy gets much lower winter temperatures). Incidentally, Cambridge was the first place that came to mind as offering numerous examples of sidewalks built right to the curb, so they aren’t exactly giving their citizens much of an option for a place to store street snow….and Cambridge is also a place where they enforce the shoveling of sidewalk snow among property owners/residents.

          Reply
          1. Jeffrey Jakucyk

            I guess the point isn’t that building the sidewalk right up to the curb is necessarily bad, but if you’re going to do that then a 5′ sidewalk is inadequate. If it’s against the curb it should be 8-10′ wide minimum, and if it’s 5′ wide then there should be at least 3-5′ of buffer, whether that’s grass or planting beds or whatever. That makes “doing urbanism” easier too, because if the back edge of the sidewalk is a consistent distance from the curb, then it’s easy to transition the buffer strip from grass/trees to brick/trees to all-sidewalk without changing the right-of-way width. Sort of like this: https://goo.gl/maps/DfSnXaqrYEgtnGYq8

            Reply
            1. AmericanDirt Post author

              Agreed, especially in commercial districts like the one you’ve featured. Since it’s a neighborhood-scaled node (and I know Cincy is replete with these) the scale of the buffer and the sidewalk is probably appropriate. And 5′ is probably pretty much always adequate in low-density residential neighborhoods, though (as Chris noted) it often incentivizes vehicles to half-park on the sidewalk if they have the opportunity to do so, especially if the curb isn’t that tall…which both inhibits pedestrians and looks terrible (in my opinion).

              What really gets my goat is when a DPW takes a particularly busy collector/arterial road with three lanes (a middle suicide lane) or even four+ lanes, “upgrades” it, puts a 5′ sidewalk in directly up against the curb…often on only one side of the street. It’s patently obvious that the DPW in this case is doing the exact minimum to meet pedestrian/sidewalk obligations. We see this all the time in the outlying areas of lower density cities like Indy. http://www.urbanindy.com/2012/08/27/emerson-avenue-lopsided-improvements/

              Reply

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