Through the front window at her place of business, Hawley Design Furnishings at 702 S. Utica Ave., Christine Booth has watched for years as wheelchair-bound individuals and pedestrians pushing strollers try to negotiate what she calls the "goat trails"--actually ruts through the grass--that run parallel to Utica in lieu of sidewalks.
"We get a lot of foot traffic" in that area, she said, describing how she has watched people struggle to maintain control on those trails, particularly people trying to access the Center for Individuals With Physical Challenges at 815 S. Utica, an organization that provides social, cultural and recreational opportunities for those with physical disabilities.
"It was heartbreaking to watch," she said.
Booth eventually decided to take her concerns to the city's Public Works Department, advocating for the construction of safe sidewalks on both sides of Utica where she says there are none for several blocks, essentially from S. 3rd Street to S. 11th Street.
Along the way, she discovered that a number of other individuals and groups were concerned about the situation, as well, and three months ago, they all got together to talk about what might be done about it.
From that initial meeting has sprung a new group operating under the working name of the Alliance for an Accessible City that is dedicated to serving as the city's leading, grassroots advocacy group for safe, accessible, attractive sidewalks. Booth emphasizes that those sidewalks should be safe and accessible to everyone--"young, old, in a wheelchair or of any physical capability," she said. "You should not have to fear for your life when you're going down the street just because you're not in a car."
Booth--a former president of the Pearl District Association, the near-downtown neighborhood that is undergoing a dramatic makeover in an attempt to become a model of a walkable, sustainable urban community--said the group is having its third meeting this week and will be putting the final touches on a white paper called "Getting There" that was authored by group member Jamie Jameson.
According to Jameson's paper, Tulsa currently fares poorly in comparison to other U.S. cities in a number of areas related to the alliance's concerns.
For instance, the paper reports that Tulsa ranks 48th out of 50 in sustainability among the most populous cities in the country. It is also two and a half times more dangerous than the national average for pedestrians, invests less than half the national average in pedestrian- and cyclist-related infrastructure and invests 75 percent less per person on pedestrian projects than Oklahoma City.
Better and more plentiful sidewalks, Booth believes, would alleviate many of those shortcomings--not just on Utica Avenue, but throughout Tulsa.
"We all should be able to safely use all our streets and encourage walking and better health," she said.
Booth pointed out the timeliness of the issue by citing the example of Enid, a western Oklahoma city that agreed last year to a $3 million settlement in a lawsuit brought by two citizens who alleged the city was out of compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
That situation actually might have sparked a delay in the resolution of the sidewalk issue on Utica Avenue. Booth said the city's Public Works Department had agreed to build sidewalks in the area, initially targeting the work for completion by the end of this year. But work on that project has been stopped while a citywide survey of sidewalks is conducted.
James Wagner--a transportation planner who serves as the bicycle-pedestrian coordinator for the Indian Nations Council of Governments, which is a member of the alliance--said that survey should help provide a better picture of where Tulsa stands in regard to the rest of the country.
"We really don't know," he said. "And the reason we don't know is that the city doesn't have a sidewalk inventory."
Wagner said the city gradually has been improving accessibility for pedestrians or those in wheelchairs as it resurfaces streets, particularly in regard to constructing sidewalk ramps.
"But there are still a lot of places with no sidewalk," he said.
Wagner said it's his understanding that Tulsa is not that different from other cities in the region in that regard.
"In the Midwest, it's more common not to have done it," he said.
"On the East and West coasts, everybody has done a pedestrian and bicycle master plan. That then allows them to start programming their capital to address those projects."
Once city officials have a grasp of the situation, Wagner said, they can start identifying what kind of projects are necessary and where they need to be built. But funding is obviously an issue, he said, as city officials continue to wrestle with declining sales tax revenue.
Wagner said his agency has applied for federal funding to pay for a bicycle-pedestrian master plan that would examine the issue from a regional perspective. He said his role at INCOG now is to promote bicycle and pedestrian travel as a mode of transportation throughout the region, along with examining the potential for increased rail transit.
As for the alliance, Booth said it is focused on the situation on Utica for now, since that's what brought the group's members--the Pearl District Association, the Center for Individuals with Physical Challenges, INCOG, state Rep. Seneca Scott and City Councilor Maria Barnes among them--together in the first place.
"We've certainly have had an auspicious beginning, with lots of enthusiasm and commitment," she said.
Ultimately, Booth hopes to see the alliance make an impact city wide--if only in the minds of Tulsans, to start with.
"One of our main goals is to elevate everybody's consciousness. We want to make people aware of the need for sidewalks," she said, citing a recent San Diego State University study that indicated the single biggest factor influencing physical activity around the world is accessibility to sidewalks.
Examining data from more than 11,500 participants in 11 countries, including the United States, Lithuania, Brazil, Japan and Sweden, researchers discovered that residents who lived in a city neighborhood with easy access to sidewalks were 15 to 50 percent more likely to engage in moderate to vigorous physical activity for at least 30 minutes a day five times a week than those who did not.
SDSU professor Jim Sallis, the lead author on the study, said the report serves as evidence that incorporating sidewalks into existing neighborhoods is a practical, relatively inexpensive way of encouraging residents to exercise. Booth believes that could help serve as a solution to Oklahoma's well-documented obesity problem.
"I have huge expectations," she said of the alliance's potential impact. "But some of the things I'm most excited about, I can't talk about yet because we haven't decided if we're going to do this."
Wagner said he believes the alliance can help generate results, but he believes the group should proceed carefully.
"Advocacy can really make a difference," he said. "That can work, but it has to be done in a way that's rational. We need to make sure we don't propose something that's not feasible from an engineering point of view, but as something that makes sense. There's a limited amount of funds out there."
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