Why addressing winter sidewalks is a priority for Kalamazoo innovation program

KALAMAZOO, MI — Waking up to a winter wonderland — a scene not uncommon in Kalamazoo, and to Michiganders in general — can be daunting if you rely on non-motorized transportation.

The city of Kalamazoo is aiming to change that, through a program with the Bloomberg Center for Public Innovation Program. Kalamazoo was one of 13 cities selected to undergo a ten-month course in innovation training to address a problem afflicting the city.

Deputy City Manager Laura Lam said equitable sidewalk management was selected because they wanted to pick an issue that could be solved within the 10-month time frame.

“We have parts of our city that don’t have sidewalks, period, so when you have a neighborhood without sidewalks your choice is to walk in the road,” Lam said. “We’ve also certainly heard from residents during the winter months and they’re looking to walk — there may be sidewalks here or there shoveled but rarely is there a clear path from where they are to where they want to go.”

Dan Bair, Kalamazoo resident and Modeshift Kalamazoo representative, has experienced this difficulty navigating the city in the winter months firsthand.

“I definitely move around less with my young child in the winter in the stroller because we’re pushed into the street,” Bair said. “Sometimes that just doesn’t feel safe walking down the street (with) a stroller.”

The goal of the innovation program is to answer the question: why aren’t sidewalks clear in the winter months and how can the city help?

Lam said they have done interviews to understand sidewalk accessibility from different perspectives and experiences, and those will guide them as they formulate solutions.

“We’re accustomed to operating very quickly and what this process is forcing us to do is to slow down and deeply understand a problem before you rush to solutions,” Lam said. “There’s an intentional deep dive into listening to members of the community.”

Currently, the group is roughly five months in but have not reached the solution stage yet.

“Its too early to say ‘here is the solution’ but what I would say is we hope to merge from this process, identifying actions we can take to help people’s access to our sidewalks to help us become a more connected city,” Lam said .

Dustin Black, a representative from Modeshift Kalamazoo, said when sidewalks are not properly maintained, accidents are more likely to happen.

Furthermore, accidents are more prone in lower-income areas with higher minority populations, in other words “places where people cannot affect their environments enough to decide the outcomes themselves,” Black said.

“If a city bus is a person’s only option, but it cannot be accessed without walking in the roadway because the sidewalk isn’t cleared, that’s a big deal,” Black said.

He has noticed the challenge faced by his neighbors when certain homeowners do not clear sidewalks on their property after snowfalls. The realization extends to city owned stretches of land where people board and depart public transportation.

“A lot of my elderly neighbors or people who might have disabilities (I) don’t really see much in the winter because it only takes one home owner not clearing their sidewalks to make the whole neighborhood inaccessible,” Black said.

Lam acknowledged this disparity in how they’ve gone about considering solutions thus far.

“’Who benefits, who burdens?’ that is a question that keeps coming up,” Lam said. “Being very mindful, ‘are we doing a broad enough reach? are we talking to individuals who have different perspectives, different experiences?’”

Black acknowledged how difficult it may be to find an adequate solution to equitable sidewalk management in winter months.

“That can be tricky because maybe they don’t want to maintain it, maybe they don’t walk somewhere they don’t want to deal with it, they don’t need to have a clear sidewalk because it’s not important to them, Black said.

“That to me, that’s the frustrating part of it,” he said. “If everyone does what they’re supposed to do, except for one person, that kind of screws the whole system.”

The innovation project is not the first time sidewalks have come up as a priority for city infrastructure work.

Sidewalk repairs is one aspect of the Imagine Kalamazoo 2025 projects for envisioning a better future for the city. This year, $1 million of work funded by the Foundation for Excellence is directed at sidewalk repairs.

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