Tuesday, August 11, 2020

A good walk spoiled

At least there’s a sidewalk. But shouldn’t walking be more comfortable than getting slapped in the face with overgrown weeds? Photo: Mary Newsom
It was a morning walk along pandemic-cleared Providence Road. That means the street was seeing dramatically fewer vehicles than the 32,000-some it normally carries. And for once the pandemic was helpful, because the sidewalk was so obstructed in several spots that a couple of times I had to walk in the right lane of Providence Road. During rush hour. I was briefly – only very briefly – thankful for Covid-19.

That morning walk in late July spotlighted an under-reported but notable flaw in the City of Charlotte’s management of pedestrian life. Yes, the city to its credit has more than 1,900 miles of sidewalks. And yes, the city long ago stopped charging property owners for sidewalk repairs.

But what about keeping sidewalks passable? That’s iffier territory. My experience along Providence shows why, too often, walking is uncomfortable. That’s one reason people with options will opt to drive. It matters. Unless we want to live with ever-growing traffic and ever-worsening climate change from burning fossil fuels, we should be encouraging more people to walk, not drive.

Providence is a major artery (it’s a state highway, N.C. 16), but for about 6 miles through the city it acts like a neighborhood street (not a “road.) It’s flanked by front lawns, homes, churches, stores, a park, etc., many of which have been there three-quarters of a century or more. Yet it still lacks sidewalks on both sides on key stretches. Worse, the side with a sidewalk switches back and forth. Example: from where it crosses Briar Creek south to Wendover the sidewalk’s on the west side. From Wendover to a block before Sharon-Amity Road, the sidewalk is on the east side. Along that whole side-switching stretch you find one lone stoplight to get you across.

I was heading north, toward uptown. The first sidewalk blockage was due to a brick retaining wall plus overgrown shrubbery on my left, and on my right a mountain of clipped branches awaiting curbside recycling. There was no clear passage between wall, shrubs and branch clippings.

How do you walk past this? Photo: Mary Newsom


With no options, I did some impromptu hand-pruning, meaning I broke off some of the shrub’s branches. The bushes looked robust enough to survive the breakage.

I walked on. A runner approached on that narrow sidewalk. In these pandemic times we’re supposed to stay 6 feet or more apart to avoid infecting others or being infected by them. Typically when meeting people on a narrow sidewalk, I step to the side. You’d have the same problem when two people walking abreast meet a third, or you meet someone with a stroller, or a bicyclist. And many cyclists use the sidewalk on this section of Providence with its jammed, narrow lanes and motorists going 50 mph in the 35 mph zone.

Stepping aside here was impossible. To my right was Providence Road. To my left, the land plunged down into a ravine carrying a creek. The property owners had planted monkey grass  along the sidewalk edge, which would have been fine, except it was laced with poison ivy. So I had to walk in the traffic lane on Providence Road. I was lucky – less traffic due to the pandemic.

Miffed, I walked on. Within 200 feet I faced another problem. Literally. Rampant weeds slapped me in the face. Where Providence Road crosses a creek (Briar Creek), weeds were overtaking the sidewalk. Pedestrians are poked with waist-high pokeweed, while vines dangle in their faces. I ducked and twisted and – lucky again to find no poison ivy or right-lane traffic – hopped into Providence Road for the second time.

What would someone in a wheelchair have done? A kid on a bike?

Wondering how the city handles these random sidewalk obstructions I checked in with Scott Curry, the active transportation coordinator at the city’s Department of Transportation. He sent me a pertinent section of the city’s 2017 pedestrian plan, Charlotte WALKS.  It says:
“For matters of routine maintenance however, like cutting grass and clearing debris, the city does not have sufficient resources to maintain its 1,900+ miles of sidewalks. As such, the city relies on individual property owners to maintain sidewalks. There are some problematic gaps in the current interpretation/language of the city’s code of ordinances however, that lead to some confusion about maintenance responsibility.” (Emphasis mine.)


One part of the city code requires property owners to trim trees on their property so they don’t obstruct pedestrians on sidewalks. (Trees in the public right-of-way, such as planting strips, are maintained by the city.)

Another part of the code make it unlawful “to place or maintain an unnecessary obstruction in the public right-of-way,” though it isn’t clear what’s an “unnecessary obstruction.” Another section prohibits abutting property owners from allowing “the accumulation of leaves, grass clippings, or any other debris” on a sidewalk.

But … what if the property owners don’t obey? I’m thinking of the sidewalk on the south side of Runnymede between Sharon and Colony roads, near three public schools. Most of that sidewalk has been cluttered with leaves for at least a decade. A goat path of sorts is visible where pedestrians scuff through the leaves and debris. I have never seen that sidewalk cleaned.


Curry’s advice: Call 311. If the obstruction is from city street trees or in a city right-of-way, the city will clear it, he said. But if it’s private property, it becomes an issue “for code enforcement,” he said.

Poison ivy threatening pedestrians’ ankles.


I emailed the city’s code enforcement folks, asking what they do. The reply from Jane Taillon, code enforcement division manager:  “A private property owner will be cited (mailed a notice) if they have vegetation protruding from their property that is impeding the vehicle or pedestrian way, this includes leaves accumulating on the sidewalk in front of their residence.”


Can the city actually punish people if they don’t comply? Taillon responded: “If they [property owners] do not abate the violation a contractor is hired to abate the violation. The owner of the property is then billed for the expense.”

And what about poison ivy encroaching? Her reply: “Code Enforcement does not have the authority to enforce specific types of vegetation.” Sigh.


I’ve called 311 and reported the weed invasion at the Providence Road bridge over Briar Creek, as well as the never-ending leaf debris on the Runnymede sidewalk. We’ll see if they’re ever cleared.

You can report problems to the city by calling 311. Taillon recommended also trying online, but that page offers no obvious way to report sidewalk obstructions. So good luck.