Can new sidewalks boost Sacramento’s aging suburbs?

For more than a half-century, many of Sacramento’s classic suburbs have proudly and sometimes defiantly shared a common characteristic: no sidewalks.

Now that rural tradition is giving way in places like Carmichael, Arden Arcade and Fair Oaks. Saying aging suburbs need to modernize for safety reasons and for their own economic well-being, county officials are building miles of sidewalks on major suburban streets where for decades there was nothing but dirt and ditches.

One goal, they say, is pedestrian safety. Traffic numbers and speeds have increased greatly, as have street widths. That point was driven home last week when an elderly woman was hit and killed by a car in the Arden area while walking on a section of Eastern Avenue where there is no sidewalk or streetlights.

But the surge in construction of sidewalks and crosswalks is about more than safety, officials say. It is part of a county effort to help aging post-World War II communities reinvigorate themselves and attract residents who might otherwise be lured to homes in new subdivisions.

Sidewalks, especially connecting neighborhoods and commercial areas, provide the cash-strapped county with “bang for the buck” as it tries to encourage businesses to locate in and fix up older suburban strip malls, many of which were hit hard in the recession, officials said.

“Anytime you increase connections to our commercial corridors ... it increases their viability,” said county economic development chief Troy Givans. “Access to neighborhoods is critical, particularly for the neighborhood-size (shopping) centers.”

The pedestrian project list is varied. In old Fair Oaks Village, the county recently added sidewalks, crosswalks, and paved parking so Christmas shoppers no longer have to tip-toe through mud to get to the quaint antique stores.

On the east end of Marconi Avenue, dozens of workers are pouring new sidewalks to allow residents to walk to the commercial center of Carmichael on Fair Oaks Boulevard. Nearby, the county plans to pump more than $7million into rebuilding the streetscape in “downtown” Carmichael in hopes of stimulating economic development.

The county also plans to replace the dirt ditches on a notoriously dangerous section of Fair Oaks Boulevard with a sidewalk to give residents of the Del Dayo neighborhood a safe way to walk directly to the Five Points Shopping Center, Raley’s Supermarket and other businesses at the intersection with Arden Way. Students from local high schools frequently walk that section, either on dirt or a bike lane next to traffic.

“We’ll look to see if (existing) trees can serve as a buffer between sidewalk and vehicular lanes,” said county alternative transportation modes manager Ron Vacari.

The sidewalk installations represent a cultural change as much as a physical one in once bucolic areas where families could find a more relaxing lifestyle than in the concrete grid of the central city.

Linda Melody, a lifelong resident of Arden Arcade and Carmichael, now head of the Carmichael Chamber of Commerce, remembers the early years, post-World War II, when the area was still dotted with 10- and 20-acre ranchettes.

“Marconi Avenue was fig trees, pigs and chicken coops,” she said. “Now, there is so much traffic zipping by, it’s dangerous.”

County planners say the sidewalk program is focused on major thoroughfares, not smaller residential streets tucked in quiet neighborhoods where car traffic often is still slow and infrequent. In those areas, residents say their curving neighborhood streets continue to serve them well as paths where they feel comfortable pushing strollers and walking dogs.

“In Arden Park, they adamantly do not want sidewalks,” county Planning Director Leighann Moffitt said. “People moved there for that reason.”

It’s a different matter, though, on major connector streets such as Fair Oaks Boulevard, which serves as a commuter corridor, and also in spots that function as suburban Sacramento’s version of a Main Street business district.

It has rankled Linda Thomas for years that there is no safe way to walk the short half-mile from her house on Jacob Lane to yoga classes, shopping or coffee at the Five Points Shopping Center. She does it anyway, walking in the dirt, weeds and trash along a ditch on the south side of Fair Oaks Boulevard. A few years ago, Thomas circulated a petition in the neighborhood asking for a sidewalk there.

“I got 65 signatures in two days,” she said. “I didn’t have anybody turn me down. People want to be connected.”

County officials say they plan to talk with residents and businesses around the “gourmet gulch” section of Fair Oaks Boulevard between Howe Avenue, Fulton Avenue and Munroe Street about making that area more pedestrian-friendly. The area has sidewalks, but there is no place for pedestrians to cross the street along a 2/3-mile stretch, even though both sides of the street are populated with restaurants, stores, cafes and other businesses that are a natural for pedestrian connections. County transportation officials said they may talk with residents about adding one or two signalized intersections with crosswalks.

“The (county’s goal) is where people can walk to any place they desire,” county alternative transportation modes manager Vacari said. The task of creating this more walker-friendly environment is huge, however. The county has committed nearly $18million over the next five years for pedestrian improvements, most of it for new sidewalks, but county officials estimate the overall need in the unincorporated area for sidewalks, intersection improvements and other pedestrian enhancements is $318million.

Walking advocates applaud the move, saying sidewalks are an “equity” issue now that more elderly and less affluent people live in the older suburbs. Those are people with less access to cars.

“We see this as a powerful investment in public health and economic vitality at the same time,” said Terry Preston of WALKSacramento. “Some populations walk more based on their economic status. WalkSacramento pushes the 20-minute neighborhood, where you ought to be able to get milk, coffee, dry cleaning in 20 minutes” of walking.


Key pedestrian and bike projects in Sacramento County transportation budget

• Anna Kirchgater Elementary School, Safe Routes to School, $925,000

• Arcade Creek pedestrian and bike feasibility study, $320,000

• Bikeway master plan implementation, various locations, $800,000

• Countywide bicycle lane gap closure and signal modification, $1,250,000

• El Camino Ave. improvements, Ethan Way to Mission Ave., $5,531,000

• Fair Oaks Blvd. pedestrian improvements, Day Dr. to Arden Way, $758,000

• Howe Ave. Elementary School, Safe Routes to School, $3,333,000

• Marconi Ave. improvements, Phase II, Fair Oaks Blvd. to Walnut, $2,284,000

• Mary A. Deterding Elementary School , Safe Routes to School, $681,000

• Orange Grove Ave. pedestrian and bike improvements, $1,830,000