It's hard out there for a pedestrian.
With 266 pedestrian deaths between 2000 and 2009, Memphis was ranked the seventh most dangerous metro area for walkers in this year's annual report by Transportation for America.
While it's not clear whether those deaths were caused by inadequate sidewalks, one thing is certain: The Memphis Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) has little information on where sidewalks are (or aren't) located within the metro area.
The MPO's Bicycle and Pedestrian Plan, which identifies 1,400 miles across the metro area that could use improvements, was released earlier this month, and it notes "a lack of data regarding the presence, location, or condition of sidewalks."
"Where are the sidewalks? Who knows? Some streets have sidewalks and some don't," said Kyle Wagenschutz, bicycle and pedestrian coordinator for the Memphis MPO. "When we talk about mapping them on a regional scale, that's a big undertaking. That's the next step we'll be moving on in the future."
The plan, which outlines existing conditions and recommendations for improving bicycle and pedestrian facilities, is intended to help local jurisdictions plan transportation projects using state and federal money.
The plan suggests the MPO needs to identify locations of missing sidewalk segments, as well as list all sidewalks, trails, and other walking paths in the area. Property owners inside the city limits are responsible for maintaining sidewalks in front of their homes, but Wagenschutz said the city has policies in place to handle complaints about sidewalks in bad condition. But he said it's difficult to recoup funds from property owners if the city has to make repairs.
"It's not a very efficient system, and it puts the city in a bad place where, technically, the city isn't liable for maintaining the sidewalks. But they also have a mission to provide safe and adequate facilities for people to walk around in their own neighborhoods," Wagenschutz said.
The plan also calls for the agency to develop a database of all accidents involving pedestrians and to prioritize the building of sidewalks around schools, parks, and other attractions.
Mary Margaret Ware, a pedestrian advocate who serves on the MPO's Transportation Planning Advisory Committee, is most concerned about a lack of sidewalks near city schools.
She referenced a city engineer's office study that found 99 out of 175 Memphis City Schools did not have adequate sidewalks leading to them. Although many of those schools had sidewalks on their property, there weren't sidewalks into surrounding neighborhoods.
"Besides the problem of kids not being able to walk to school, other people in the neighborhood can't walk anywhere either, at least not safely," Ware said.
Steven Sondheim, a member of the MPO's Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee, said the MPO should focus on improving facilities for cyclists and walkers rather than contributing to urban sprawl by building new roads outside the freeway loop.
"If we had better pedestrian access, we wouldn't need quite as many roads, particularly around the schools," Sondheim said. "People want more walkability in their neighborhoods, not just for recreation but so they can get a few things done. And that takes a few cars off the road."
The MPO's Bicycle and Pedestrian Plan, a smaller component of their 2040 Long Range Transportation Plan, is available for public comment through December 12th.