The Walkability team has been studying and raising awareness about Omaha’s lack of policy related to sidewalk closings in construction zones. Recently a new sidewalk closure occurred that has elements of danger to it – and highlights the need for a comprehensive policy like other cities of our size.
A townhome development is under construction at the Northeast Corner of 49th and Farnam Streets. The orange construction fence extends all the way to the edges of both streets. There are no warnings that the sidewalk closure is coming and there is no accommodation for sidewalk users once they arrive at the construction zone. I approached the intersection from the east – starting at 48th Street and Farnam. When standing at that corner, you are down the hill from the construction zone and you can’t see it. There is no sign at 48th street warning people that the sidewalk is closed ahead. The site starts coming into view once you get halfway to 49th Street.
Once you see and/or arrive at the construction zone you have a few options.
Option 1: When you get to or near the sidewalk closure you can walk south across Farnam. However, you don’t have full visibility – there’s a construction fence partially blocking the view and you are near the top of a hill, so you can’t see the cars traveling eastbound until they crest the hill. Pedestrians and drivers have between 5 and 8 seconds to react to this situation. (Many pedestrians can cross the street that quickly – but as a frequent pedestrian in this neighborhood I can attest that many of the adults that walk this neighborhood daily are not able to walk as fast as is required in this situation. In addition, this is a route to school for many elementary school children. We need to accommodate for all our citizens.)
Option 2: Walk down the westbound lane of traffic until you get past the construction zone. When you look behind you to see if cars are coming you do have a good view all the way down to Saddle Creek. If you get there at a time when no cars are in sight you probably can safely walk to the edge of the construction zone. But remember, Farnam isn’t treated like a regular street – during rush hour it switches from a 2-way street to a 1-way street. In an analysis by a neighborhood resident, it was shown that traffic speeds are higher when Farnam is 1-way (cars were even clocked at up to 49mph). Between 7 and 9 a.m., if you choose to walk in the street to get around the construction zone, you easily could come face to face with a car when it crests the hill. At this point, the pedestrian’s only option is to get as close to the fence as possible and the driver can only slam on the brakes and hope they can stop/avoid the pedestrian. (Again, each has 5 to 8 seconds to react, less if the driver is going above the 30mph speed limit).
Option 3: The sidewalk user needs to back track and assess their safest choice. They can go around the block (adding approximately 4 -5 minutes to their walk), or they can go to the closest crosswalk, which is between 46th and 47th Street (1.5 blocks behind them – again adding 4-5 minutes to their walk).
Option 3 is the safest but backtracking shouldn’t be needed. Minimally, the city should set up warnings and detours like other cities do: one should be set up by the crosswalk between 46th and 47th Street and one at 48th Street.
We urge people to call the Mayor’s Hotline when they run into situations like this. I truly am grateful for the Mayor’s Hotline as there is a serious effort to address problems and respond to citizen issues – many of my calls have led to quick and satisfactory resolution. Therefore, I placed a call and shared the situation. I suggested that they send someone out to assess the safety of the situation. I added that minimally there should be a sign placed at 48th Street (a block before the construction site) alerting sidewalk users that the sidewalk is closed ahead and provide a detour. That way the sidewalk user can reroute before they get all the way up to the construction site.
I returned to the intersection about a week later and I could see that someone from the city did address the issue. Unfortunately, the solution was to place Sidewalk Closed signs leaning against the construction fence. In my mind, this “solution” merely states the obvious. There’s still no accommodation. There is no warning or notes for sidewalk users to detour before they get to this dangerous spot. There is also no thought about complying with the Americans With Disabilities Act
Situations like this show that we need to continue to raise this issue with the City. We need a response to a sidewalk closure to come to a quick and satisfactory outcome like it does when we report issues that the city fully understands and embraces.
If you think this is an important issue – please do two things. First, call the Mayor’s hotline and ask them to provide warnings when there are sidewalk closures ahead (this issue exists all over the city, this is just one example). Second, view the Mode Shift Walkability Team’s video and Safer Sidewalks Petition and add your name and your experiences with unsafe conditions. We want to use that data to show the City Council that this is a public safety issue that people are concerned about. The more we have to share, the more likely that we can help our city leaders understand that sidewalks are important modes of transportation and that we need to enact better sidewalk policies and procedures, like many cities in our region already have.