Dear City Council: Please help me run safely.

Dear City Council,

It’s past time to make our city a safe place to run.

Perhaps this is going to seem like it only applies to runners.

But hear me out.

I couldn’t wait to move here. I’d looked at average temperature for January, and it looked like I could run without risk of frostbite almost all season long. I dreamed of winter running, imagining how wonderful it would feel to be in shorts whilst the rest of the world retreated to the treadmill.

I was willing to put up with heat and humidity to have year-round running temps. I was excited to be moving to a small town where surely — surely — I could run without risk of bodily harm.  Even though sidewalks aren’t common in the small-town south, I erroneously assumed that there would be roads here with a shoulder deep enough to run or roads less traveled where I could run without playing frogger.

I was wrong.

There is exactly one bike lane in town, approximately a mile long, where I can safely run from my downtown home. I have to run on the bike lane and not the sidewalk when I run back and forth on this stretch, because the sidewalk is so damaged (and completely blocked off in two areas) that I can’t physically access the sidewalk in places.

The rest of the town, with the exception of a very small downtown area, is either completely lacking sidewalks or the sidewalks start and end at will.  It’s almost like sidewalks have been deposited here by a SimCity novice, placed just to get the residential zoning to grow. This lack of sidewalk might be okay if there were shoulders instead that were wide enough to run on. But alas, that is also not the case. Often the road’s edge ends so abruptly that the white line marking the edge of the road is eroding into the gulley. I don’t mind running on technical terrain, but even I can’t navigate that morass.

For fun, I did a little experiment to see exactly how much of the town was runnable. I embarked on this adventure one early morning run, as I resolved to only run on sidewalks and turn around when they ended.  In 75 minutes, I had to make no less than 13 full stops to turn around. I didn’t count where the sidewalk was so damaged it should really be called scree. I ran through the places where bushes and trees had almost completely obstructed the sidewalk.

The price of this folly was a branch that slapped into my face so violently, it bled.

Adding to the joys of running here, I’ve yet to go on a run where I don’t get honked at, perhaps because I’ve chosen to run in a sports bra (on warmer mornings). Or perhaps because I’m dancing along a minuscule shoulder. Or perhaps this is just a friendly southern hello? All of the above?

Even better, it’s more often accompanied by catcalls and shouts. Every run is truly a delight.

So it’s not runnable. So what?

Well, if it isn’t runnable, it’s also not walkable. And definitely not bike-able. Recent research suggests that people feel more connected to their towns if they can walk from place to place. For a town trying revitalize the downtown, I think we want to encourage people to travel from place to place on foot, not dissuade them. Plus, moving at least 20 minutes a day is proven to improve mental, emotional, and physical health.  Don’t we want this for all residents, not just runners and cyclists?

I hope we do.

To help, I have a few suggestions:

  1. First, build more sidewalks. It seems like a fairly simple solution, but then again, I’ve already noted I think city planning is like playing SimCity, so I’m no expert here.
  2. Second, create some marketing about how to respond to runners for residents. I think a quick reminder that it’s not okay to honk or shout at runners is a nice start. Suggesting that drivers get out of the way of runners would be a super bonus. In a family-centeric town, perhaps you might even ask residents to consider how they’d like their daughters, sisters, mothers, or other women they care about to be treated when they were running and behave accordingly.
  3. Third, truly delightful would be adding some more running and biking trails. I’ll even help. I’ll plan them, reach out for sponsors, find funding, sit in city planning meetings, anything.

I’m desperate.

And I just want to love our town and make it better.

Sincerely,

Cilantro

P.S. You can reach me almost every morning along the bike lane. Depending on the day, I might be there for hours.

Has your community taken steps to be more pedestrian-friendly? Have you chosen where you lived based on its runnability?

Ultrarunner, adventurer, academic, and feminist. Running Across the USA in 2021 to raise money for Girls on the Run. Next challenge: Collegiate Trail Loop FKT. I write about ultrarunning, adventuring, and the intersection of endurance athletics and life.

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13 comments

  1. It’s like you live where I live! I am also in the south. Sidewalks are rare outside of downtown, and if we have them, they often just stop in random places (often just before a busy intersection but I mean that’s exactly why we need the sidewalks COME ON); walkers and bikers get honked at; I know people who feel the need to carry a gun for safety when they run, in case the honkers decide to stop and exit their vehicles…so yeah. It’s awesome. The more affluent part of town is making advances, but the folks in the normal part of town are pretty screwed.

  2. This definitely takes some commitment to make it happen. One of our neighbors organized a sidewalk petition to get a stretch of road that led to a recreation center from our blocks to get a sidewalk. It involved getting property owners’ signatures, a fundraising campaign to pay their part, communications with the city planners and councilmen, and finally it’s on the city bond measure that just passed. That process took a year and a half. We might, just might, get the 0.5 miles of sidewalk by next year. It’s an uphill battle, but really worth it- what sort of government/budget is in place in your town?
    And I’m sorry about the honking. That’s something I no longer have to deal with for some reason, maybe folks in my Dallas ‘hood are too polite?

    1. I wonder if it would be worth trying to work with the local downtown business association or something like that to get more sidewalk put in – after all, enabling people to walk around must be good for business, too!

    2. It’s good to know that others are setting a good precedent to help all of us improve our areas! I just hope that with time, it won’t be a battle. Eventually, I’d love it if all areas were pedestrian-friendly, but I know that is likely just a dream…

  3. Last summer, when I was running on vacation in Maine, I noticed a ton of signs reminding drivers to keep at least 3 feet from cyclists and pedestrians. Apparently it’s actually a law there. I really appreciated it given that the road shoulder was the only place to run.

    There was a noticeable difference, too, between drivers with Maine license plates and those from out of state. The ones with the Maine plates always slowed down and made sure they kept the three-foot rule. Others – although presumably on vacation – were still in too much of a hurry to make any room whatsoever, let alone adhere to the speed limit.

    tl;dr runner-friendly laws add greatly to the runnability of a community. Not sure if that’s a thing anywhere else, but it should be!

    1. We’ve vacationed in Vermont and they have a law about yielding to pedestrians which people actually follow! Anytime I was remotely near an intersection or cross-walk, cars came right to a stop and waited for me to cross. It was such a treat!

      1. When we moved from eastern Massachusetts to central New York 9 or so years ago it took a bit to adapt from ‘pedestrian really has the right of way’ to ‘you take your life in your hands daring to cross the street’. The communities I am in most (Corning, Ithaca) are continuously getting better in terms of laws and marked crosswalks … but as a result of a coworker getting hit by a car just walking to the parking lot across the street … I never assume a car will stop for pedestrians, stop signs, or pretty much anything.

  4. This is very timely for me. Last Sunday I had a letter to the editor in our local newspaper about people not stopping at the crosswalks, and also sent it to the town council and police chief.

    I use the crosswalk in front of the elementary school at least once a day, often with my children, walking them to preschool. There are 4 schools in the immediate vicinity of this crosswalk, yet people rarely stop. We often have to wait for a gap in traffic to sprint across the street. It infuriates me.

    A few weeks ago a running friend was hit by a car when crossing the street. She wasn’t using a crosswalk, and although had to be airlifted, luckily won’t have any permanent injuries other than the rod put in her leg. It really rattled me, so I’ve now made it my mission to keep pestering the town council/police until they start enforcing the pedestrian safety laws in place.