By Pat Bywater
If you had any question about where you stand as a pedestrian among priorities in the greater Meadville area, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation recently provided some perspective.
As reported in last week’s Tribune, the sidewalk that runs along Smock Bridge over French Creek is now closed for at least two years — maybe more, can’t be sure — because the railing that keeps walkers from tumbling from the span is too rotted for the task.
Color me shocked! That railing has been falling to pieces for years and now it’s unsafe!
The bigger issue is PennDOT’s and local leaders’ casual disregard for the impact of the closure. PennDOT has no plan to fix the problem until it gets around to rehabbing the entire bridge and there is no date set for that work. A spokesperson for the agency says that won’t be until 2015 at least.
As I have documented in past columns, this attitude of sidewalks as optional is mirrored in the City of Meadville. Even though many Meadville kids are not provided school bus service, there is no coherent sidewalk maintenance requirement and sidewalks are left to crumble as simple, straightforward solutions languish for an apparent lack of interest.
At its neglectful best, however, the city has yet to have the impact of PennDOT’s announcement.
Closing the Smock Bridge walkway cuts off people who have no choice but to walk from relatively easy access to one of the area’s most affordable grocery stores as well as numerous sources for low-skill service jobs. The closest alternative route adds miles to the trip and, while there are apparently no hard statistics on the number of people who use the Smock Bridge walkway, it is clear that it is a necessity for some. There are more than a few reports of people climbing the barricades to use the unsafe sidewalk or simply walking on the bridge’s road surface.
Now, probably to you and also to me, nothing in life changes because this sidewalk is closed now or for eternity. Same holds true for the fine folks who work at and administer PennDOT and the men and women who govern the municipalities on either side of the bridge — the City of Meadville and Vernon Township. And this is very likely why nothing has been done about it and very likely why nothing will be done about it.
Through good luck and hard work we have the means to get and keep a vehicle. We don’t need sidewalks and we rarely use them.
That’s not true for a good number of us, however. The U.S. Census Bureau’s 2007-2011 American Community Survey estimates that about 27 percent of Meadville residents’ income was below the poverty level. And while we do have a low-cost public transportation system, it’s not always convenient for work schedules or to meet unexpected needs.
Our working poor and unemployed poor neighbors are those most affected by this sidewalk closure and they are the least able to lobby for their needs. It’s not so easy to run for office, serve on a public board, show up to make comments, write letters to the editor or contact politicians when most of your time is taken up just getting by. And it is easy to come to the conclusion — with such clear evidence across our community that we don’t care about pedestrian access — that fighting this battle is clearly not worth the time anyway.
To the working class folks whose sweat and effort built this town, sidewalks were essential infrastructure. Personal transportation was a luxury and you had to be able to walk to work at one of the many, mostly long-gone factories that dominated employment. That’s why Meadville is blessed with an extensive network of sidewalks.
Today, sidewalks remain important to our children, the less fortunate and folks just trying to save a few bucks by avoiding high gas prices. And it appears sidewalks will be of growing importance in the very near future. Surveys show that younger generations drive less, own fewer cars and rank sidewalks and extensive public transportation as key considerations when buying a home or considering a job.
It’s high time the deciders in our community got out of their cars and walked a mile in their brothers’ and sisters’ shoes. The perspective they gain may help address some of the economic disparities in our community as well as position us well to take advantage of coming opportunities.
Tribune editor Bywater recently spent a year commuting to work primarily on twos — by foot or by motorcycle — and writing columns about that experience. He can be reached at 724-6370 or email@example.com.