Nashville’s list of 1,900 miles in critical need of sidewalks is larger than the county’s existing network of 1,328 miles. So how many miles were built in the last 12 months by Metro?
And that’s double what was built in 2020. At this rate, it will take 238 years to complete all of the sidewalks needed in the city.
Sidewalks are connectors to neighbors, bus stations, groceries, schools, and they serve other daily needs such as exercise or a well-walked dog. Nashville’s need for connectivity — and the Nashville Department of Transportation’s reported 4,600 missing miles of sidewalk — touches every district.
“Mobility is absolutely foundational to our ability to function in life and access anything,” said Jessica Dauphin, president and CEO of Transit Alliance of Middle Tennessee.
Such wide gaps in a sidewalk network are dangerous. Nashville has almost double the national average of pedestrian deaths, with 80 percent of these fatalities occurring on wide roads with multiple lanes and few safe crosswalks, according to the Nashville Department of Transportation (NDOT) 2022 Walk n Bike plan.
Last year’s pedestrian fatality count of 49 deaths set a new record.
“There is a large amount of vehicle traffic on Foster Avenue since it serves as a connector between Thompson Lane and Murfreesboro Road. Adding sidewalks is a crucial part to increasing safety for the Woodbine Community,” said Randall Miller, facility coordinator for the Coleman Community Center, which the Walk n Bike plan highlighted for its connectivity needs.
This disconnected danger lingers in every district, from fatalities to a myriad of other issues.
Dauphin says transportation “underscores” issues such as affordability, housing, health, environmental sustainability, education and equitable economic development. And for a “healthy and robust transit system…you need safe access and pathways to bus stops and destinations,” she said.
Metro Nashville Schools spokesperson Sean Braisted said, “complete sidewalk networks offer students the ability to safely walk to school, mitigating the risk of traffic-related pedestrian injuries.”
So when will the gaps be filled?
All of the mayoral candidates have discussed ideas for establishing a form of reliable, safe transit, but unless the city’s transit system arrives at front doors, the next mayor needs to pour more sidewalk concrete. But other hurdles keep rising.
This past May, the 6th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals issued a ruling that weakens a 2017 Metro sidewalk law requiring developers and landowners to contribute to sidewalk building.
“After the sidewalk ruling, Metro stopped collecting in-lieu fees to pay for new sidewalks. In the fiscal year 2024 budget, that translates to over $4 million in lost revenue for sidewalks. Unlike Williamson County and others, Davidson County does not have impact fees on new developments. After this ruling, Metro’s even more limited in its ability to build sidewalks,” said Wesley Smith with Walk Bike Nashville.
Smith said he wishes the plaintiffs addressed the sidewalk legislation’s “shortcomings through local policy tweaks” instead of involving the federal government, as the ordinance had the “rare” support of 38 out of 40 Metro Council members as co-sponsors.
When asked about this, Braden Boucek, the plaintiff’s attorney and director of litigation for Southeastern Legal Foundation, said they “tried to work with the city before coming to court.”
“The whole point of the Bill of Rights was to set aside some basic freedoms as being beyond legislative reach…Nowhere is that truer than in Fifth Amendment Takings cases, where cities like Nashville want things but don’t want to pay for them, and so they take property that doesn’t belong to it,” said Boucek.
The attorney does not know how much money the city will refund to developers, but Boucek said that throughout the case, they “demanded [Jason Mayes] receive full restitution in the amount he paid ($8.883.21) to the city, which it used to build sidewalks on someone else’s property.”
Boucek represented two Nashville homeowners, but the case decision also limited Nashville Government’s ability to partner with developers to build priority sidewalks.
“Sidewalks benefit both the property owner that builds them and the surrounding neighborhood: raising property values, promoting safety and increasing neighborhood connectivity,” said Smith. “The U.S. Court of Appeals’ decision should infuriate anyone that wants a more walkable and livable Nashville. It should also serve as a renewed cry to accelerate sidewalk construction with new funding sources, building faster and cheaper where we can.”
In short, money is a top barrier to having more sidewalks in Nashville. Dauphin agrees.
Explaining Nashville’s slow sidewalk progress is complicated, and there is a laundry list of barriers, including a lack of funding.
“Stormwater costs continue to drive sidewalk project costs where current infrastructure doesn’t exist, rising property values have driven higher right-of-way acquisition costs and construction costs have risen significantly over the past few years due to both inflation and competition for quality contractors,” said Cortnye Stone, NDOT communications director.
Vanderbilt Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering Mark Abkowitz warns that “flooding can be exacerbated by having too much concrete in a particular area which restricts soil absorption and channels a larger amount of water to a narrower area.”
What has John Cooper’s administration done?
Past mayors have attempted to resolve the sidewalk funding barrier. Megan Barry’s 2016-2017 operating budget included $60 million for sidewalk and road construction, Nashville’s largest one-time investment. Since then, the 2020 Metro Nashville Transportation Plan added $200 million to fund 50 percent of the remaining 71 priority sidewalk miles by 2025.
Cooper announced a hefty goal in his 2021 State of Metro Address, saying he aims to “improve sidewalk construction times by 50 percent and reduce costs by 20 percent within 12 months – as we work to build and repair 75 miles of sidewalks.”
These goals have been met, but applying the estimates from Cooper’s 2020 special committee on sidewalks to today would make addressing Nashville’s 1,900 miles of critical need sidewalks about 10 billion dollars.
“Public Works budgets $1000 per linear foot of sidewalks” and “current average cost of sidewalk is $837 per linear foot, which is 18 percent professional services and 82 percent construction costs,” wrote Emily Benedict, a Metro councilwoman, in the committee report.
Given the tight budget and high need, NDOT’s 2022 WalkNBike Plan asserted that sidewalk projects must be prioritized, specifically those with safety, connectivity, transit accessibility, and health and equity needs.
“The sidewalk project that they are planning on installing from Whitsitt Road to Thompson Lane would serve as a connector between Whitsitt Elementary School and Coleman Park. Up until now it hasn’t been a safe option for youth to be able to navigate Foster Avenue due to the lack of sidewalks,” said Miller.
This project is one of the areas highlighted for its connectivity needs in the WalkNBike report.
In 2022, Cooper also announced new sidewalk guidelines requiring a temporary sidewalk while the current one is under construction. NDOT announced new rapid-build sidewalk projects that can save money and speed up sidewalk construction.
To address pedestrian safety, NDOT, under Cooper’s administration, established an education campaign for pedestrian safety as part of Vision Zero Action Plan implementation. The plan includes public awareness campaigns, community engagement events and high visibility signage and pavement markings for new safety programs such as High-Intensity Activated crossWalK (HAWK) beacons.
Ultimately, the Cooper administration has built 17 miles of sidewalks, with 120 miles added through other avenues.
What could the next mayor do?
“The next mayor has to set sidewalks right. A critical issue will be securing dedicated funding for multimodal transportation so that as we improve public transportation money is earmarked for sidewalk and bikeway improvements that connect to better bus service,” said Smith. “Building sidewalks at the pace we need will take a mayor that is prepared to act on day one.”
Dauphin advises mayors to seek more regional funding, as sidewalks are also a regional issue.
The Greater Nashville Regional Council (GRNC), or the Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO), is federally mandated to update the 25-year Regional Transportation Plan (RTP) every five years. Every year the RTP allocates federal dollars for the next three years, called the Transportation Improvement Plan (TIP). Dauphin says there is room for Nashville sidewalk projects to receive funding from these funds.
NDOT’s 2022 WalknBike plan cites that it collaborates with TDOT and GRNC for “planning process,” “grant applications,” and for projects across county lines. The plan also says that state funding applications for “pedestrian projects” are “ongoing.”
Stone explained NDOT’s goals for the next four years under the new mayor.
“Over the next four years NDOT will continue to execute the 2022-2024 Work Plan for Sidewalks and Bikeways, aiming to advance 74 miles of sidewalk to either design, right-of-way acquisition, and/or construction phases,” Stone said.
Alongside funding, the next mayor will be met with safety concerns for Nashville sidewalks. Abkowitz is leading a Vanderbilt campus research project on pedestrian safety.
“Our research has identified key factors impacting serious accident outcomes involving pedestrians and bicyclists when interacting with motor vehicle traffic. This can help identify locations where sidewalk enhancements are most needed,” said Abkowitz. “We also have performed a research study that uses personal tracking devices to identify locations where pedestrians themselves are exhibiting greater stress.”
As safety programs are implemented, Dauphin voices a need for awareness.
“I have seen cars blow right through [HAWK beacons] and when there’s a pedestrian in it. I have seen the pedestrian, push the button and begin walking immediately not waiting for the flash…I feel there’s some education that needs to happen there,” said Dauphin. HAWK beacons are not mentioned in the 2022 Tennessee Comprehensive Driver License Manual.
Lastly, the next mayor cannot ignore school sidewalks.
“MNPS provides transportation for students at their zoned school who live outside of a ‘Parent Responsibility Zone’ of 1.25 miles or less from an elementary or middle school and 1.5 miles or less from a high school. That means that those within the PRZ will generally need to walk, ride their bike or be driven by a family member in order to get to school,” said Braisted.
On the record
We asked the eight mayoral candidates for their positions on two different issues of Nashville sidewalk development.
1) This past May, the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals issued a ruling that weakens a Metro sidewalk law requiring developers and landowners to contribute to sidewalk building. How could sidewalk funding be increased and what type of investment/funding are you willing to make to support sidewalk development?
(complete responses in alphabetical order)
Heidi Campbell: Funding to build more sidewalks must increase. Period. As the city grows and annual revenues increase, my administration will prioritize allocating part of the increased revenues we’re allocated from the recent transportation bill passed by the state towards building more sidewalks. We can make these dollars go further by prioritizing new construction on roads and intersections that don’t have sidewalks and which experience high levels of injuries and collisions, and then prioritizing existing sidewalk maintenance on a schedule such that the oldest sidewalks in the most disrepair countywide are up first for repair. This way, we use our dollars most effectively in the highest-priority way.
Jim Gingrich: Unfortunately, there has been a rise in pedestrian injuries and deaths, which is just unacceptable. This means we need to be more adept at identifying particularly dangerous intersections, increasing the accessibility of buses, and using analytics through an upgraded traffic signal system.
However, that only addresses the danger to pedestrians of vehicles on the road. We will finally fix those crumbling and incomplete roads and sidewalks that every politician has talked about for years. Previous mayoral plans and TDOT proposals have outlined a rigorous and cost-effective method to maintain safe sidewalks and bikeways, and implementing these proposals would help us take one more step toward making our streets safer for pedestrians.
Additionally, that maintenance must be done uniformly across the city. Prioritizing high traffic areas does not mean that I will ignore parts of the city. Instead it means that my administration will be nimble enough to respond quickly to emerging problems among the ongoing maintenance and construction across the city. One way we do that is to reallocate money from expensive consultants, and rely on in-house sidewalk designs, using the savings to increase the number of sidewalks and our maintenance plan. A court ruling restricting requiring sidewalks on new developments weakens our ability to respond and is detrimental to everyone living here – something I would fight should those court rulings work against Nashville.
Sharon Hurt: I believe that the funding we need for sidewalks can come from existing revenue streams – we just need to prioritize sidewalks in our budget instead of the other concerns that are currently being prioritized. We can also bring down the costs of sidewalks to make them more attainable. For example, we can find where Metro Water has to replace a sewer line, and then when they rebuild that line, make sure sidewalks are included in the renovation. We can use quick build materials like flex posts and cheap curbs. We can make sure sidewalks don’t get sidelined by keeping them affordable.
Freddie O’Connell: The ruling will cost Metro millions of dollars, which can be paid out of our in lieu fund. Many of us have been listening to the feedback we’ve received about the impact of the sidewalk bill in communities and from developers and already working toward something better. Now as a city we need to determine what we can legally require during development as an alternative to impact fees, which are not available to Nashville unlike some other Tennessee communities. Beyond that, WalknBike, our strategic plan for sidewalks and bikeways lays out 5-, 20-, and 35-year funding scenarios for a priority sidewalk network. The 35-year scenario requires $15m/year, which is more than we’ve historically spent for a sustained period. I think that has to be our baseline going forward, and we’ll need to have an important community conversation about whether we want to move faster. We should also use every possible opportunity under the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and state infrastructure program to deliver coordinated projects that include sidewalks. As a former president of Walk/Bike Nashville and inaugural member of the Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee (BPAC), I’m fundamentally committed to reconstituting the BPAC and accelerating the work of the Vision Zero task force to ensure that more of Nashville’s communities enjoy safer streets.
Alice Rolli: This Metro sidewalk law needs to be completely revisited. Aspects of the law make the county vulnerable to ongoing litigation expense. In addition, citizens are frustrated when they have miles of existing sidewalks in a neighborhood and a new build requires the sidewalk in front of the new home to in no way match the existing sidewalk network – but to match an idealized version of a sidewalk – not the reality of the existing adjacent sidewalk construction.
We will continue to fund sidewalk construction and will evaluate the most cost effective strategies for sidewalk deployment in order to increase the rate of new sidewalk construction for the city.
As Mayor Alice Rolli will operate the city with an entrepreneurial mindset based on maximizing potential revenue for the city. Recently $5billion in federal funds was appropriated for local governments to fund Safe Streets for All – including safety enhancements such as sidewalks. Under current leadership NDOT has improved its grant writing throughput which is essential to continue to ensure that Davidson County is applying for all available Federal and State grants to improve our infrastructure. In addition the Rolli administration will work constructively with our neighbors and with the Tennessee Municipal League to advocate for the state to reset the local option sales tax to the ratio prior to 2002 when an austerity position for the state adjusted the local sales tax ratio. This is a conservative position – matching the costs of servicing sidewalks, roads, and public safety – with the local government providing those services. Additionally, the Rolli administration will advocate to create a market-based fee structure for permits and fines. Today a state Jacksonian-era law limits local governments’ ability to charge more than $150 in fines. This has created multiple challenges – namely, very low revenues for the city related to fees and fines and the high likelihood that developers and others break existing ordinances because the fee levels are so low. Alice is uniquely and constructively able to advance these changes for the city. Such revenue enhancements for the city will ensure that we are better at capturing the cost of growth at the site of growth and that we are not leaving longtime Davidson County taxpayers to foot the bill.
Vivian Wilhoite: It was once said, “don’t tell me your values, show me your budget.” If we value sidewalks, we are going to have to put them in our budget. We are also going to have to reimburse developers and property owners who have paid into this sidewalk fund that the courts have found to be unconstitutional. I have said that we must close the economic parity of neighborhoods that pay the same tax rate but not given the same services. The plan to get sidewalks in all neighborhoods starts with assessment of neighborhoods and start with the most critical area. I am willing to invest in making sidewalks a reality in our neighborhoods especially where critically needed.
Matt Wiltshire: Sidewalks contribute greatly to the health, safety, and quality of life of a community. Unfortunately Nashville has some of the most inadequate sidewalk infrastructure in the country. We’ve made some progress recently in this area, but we must accelerate our investments into building out this crucial infrastructure. Sidewalks were less than 4 percent of Mayor Cooper’s most recent Capital Spending Plan – there is room for additional capital investments without displacing other priorities.
Jeff Yarbro: Sidewalks and pedestrian infrastructure are essential to the future of our community and to the quality of life of residents. The recent Court decision forces Metro to revamp and overhaul pedestrian infrastructure strategy, and I will prioritize it both as a budget and policy priority.
For example, I will ensure sidewalk development is given a high priority in the city’s planning process. By incorporating sidewalks into comprehensive urban development plans, we can allocate resources effectively, take advantage of economies of scale to ensure that we are rapidly completing sidewalks in our highest need areas, ensuring new developments have adequate pedestrian infrastructure, and improving the overall walkability of the city. I’ll work closely with urban planners, community organizations, and transportation experts not only to continuously identify areas in need but also to develop a plan to build out a comprehensive sidewalk network for the city.
I will also actively seek partnerships with private developers and landowners to collaborate on sidewalk construction. By working together, we can share the costs and ensure that new developments include sidewalks as an integral part of their plans. This approach is a win-win: taxpayers alone would not be burdened by the cost and these policies would encourage responsible development with retail and residential options enhanced with increased pedestrian traffic.
Investing in sidewalk development is an investment in the safety, accessibility, and overall livability of our city. Improving our sidewalks will not only make Nashville a more walkable city but also promote public health, reduce traffic congestion, and enhance the economic opportunities in our communities.
2) According to the 2022 Walk/Bike report, Nashville has nearly twice the national average of pedestrian deaths, with 150 deaths from 2015-2020. How do you think pedestrian safety can be improved and how would you implement a strategy to accomplish this? How would you educate both drivers and pedestrians about this strategy?
Heidi Campbell: Nashville’s disproportionately high traffic-related fatalities are a senseless, on-going tragedy and we need smart policies and planning to address this issue, immediately. Beyond building more sidewalks, we need to invest in additional safety treatments to reduce pedestrian collisions and deaths, specifically targeting high injury and accident prone streets and intersections. This should include improving lighting and visibility along roads, adjusting intersection crosswalks and traffic light timing to give pedestrians more time to cross, and developing more bulb-outs, medians, and bikeways to slow and guide traffic. Where feasible, maintenance funding and projects should be prioritized for high injury roads, allowing these safety treatments to be built in conjunction with routine and necessary maintenance. My plans to boost public transit in the city–which include investing in multimodal transportation infrastructure that is both more accessible and better integrated, as well as finally bringing commuter rail to the region at scale–will also reduce traffic and curb traffic-related fatalities. We can educate the public on these efforts, as well as on best practices for safety, by using the bully pulpit of the mayor’s office in conjunction with public awareness initiatives done in partnership with non-profit organizations that have been leading on this issue, like Walk Bike Nashville.
Jim Gingrich: Years of unrestrained growth with no plan to manage it have congested our streets and made our city unsafe for pedestrians. It is unacceptable that our families and children are risking their lives to move around their community. We need to urgently deal with the fact that we have an unacceptable rate of pedestrian deaths.
Last year alone, we had 49 pedestrian deaths. That is unacceptable. We must fix dangerous intersections, accelerate traffic calming, and invest in sidewalks.
Sharon Hurt: Most of these pedestrian deaths occur on our high-speed roadways. If we reduce the speed limit on these roadways, I believe we will reduce the number of pedestrian deaths as well. Walk Bike Nashville has already successfully reduced the speed limit on many of our local roads, we just need to work with the state to reduce the speed limit on state roads. Some other things I believe could help are encouraging our drivers to re-test and get updated on new traffic laws and increasing visibility on our roads by keeping the vegetation cut.
Freddie O’Connell: Building a complete transportation system will give us more than buses and trains; it will give a safe sidewalk and bikeway network and help us redesign and redevelop roadways to incorporate more trees and street lights. Transit and related infrastructure, when done well, improve the ways we move around as pedestrians, cyclists, transit users, and motorists and improve safety, health, and affordability.
Most of the time what we need is not innovation; it’s preparation. We should be shovel ready for as much of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act federal money as possible to deliver safety. It turns out we often can’t make our rail crossings safer for pedestrians or cyclists because of a lack of coordinated investment. We should fix as many of our at-grade rail crossings as possible to the benefit of pedestrians, cyclists, transit users, and motorists using one-time infrastructure dollars.
Despite my being a member of the Vision Zero Task Force, I’ve found we still don’t actually prioritize the concept of achieving zero pedestrian deaths from car crashes. Even when we knew how deadly our infrastructure choices have been, we chose to spend $15m on a private parking deck at the Nashville Zoo. Our family loves the zoo, but it’s located on one of the most dangerous corridors in the city. And our capital spending was going to do nothing to make the nearby Caldwell Abbay Hall neighborhood—the zoo neighborhood—have safe pedestrian access to the zoo until I fought for $12m of funding for Vision Zero along Nolensville and improved transit access. When I’m mayor, we will be serious about Vision Zero and specifically prioritize making our most dangerous intersections and corridors safer.
I have a bill in progress in Metro Council right now that would reconstitute the Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee established under Mayor Dean. This important multi-departmental body brought together Metro staff with community leaders to ensure that designs and priorities were aligned.
Alice Rolli: Pedestrian safety can and must be improved and the Vision Zero and Walk/Bike Report for 2022-2024 provides a strong framework to focus most on the areas with the greatest challenges. The plan, which should continue to be executed and performance managed, was made in conjunction with TDOT, NDOT and multiple stakeholder groups and provides an effective strategy around prioritizing projects based on areas with high traffic and pedestrian risks as well as projects that can be readily and cost effectively deployed.
The plan shows that some of the most unsafe streets in our county are state roads. Together with TDOT there are several promising projects underway on state roads including Dickerson Pike and Nolensville Pike. The General Assembly recently appropriated an additional $3.3Billion to fund acceleration of TDOT projects. In addition to working productively with our neighboring mayors to deploy the $750MM for our region, we will advocate for our share of the $300MM county-level fees with a priority to clearing the priority list for pedestrian safety, as identified in the 2022 plan. Similarly, we will ensure analysts and grant writers within NDOT are applying for every available grant dollar from the Safe Streets and Roads for All federal grant programs, and other recently appropriated federal infrastructure funds. We will performance manage each dollar to ensure that taxpayers are getting the highest and best value.
In terms of education, the Tennessee Highway Safety Grant for community outreach recently awarded to NDOT for Bike/Pedestrian Safety is one example of leveraging state dollars to improve awareness of pedestrian safety. The Rolli administration will encourage cross-departmental collaboration on all public safety education – including working with MNPD to ensure that education efforts around parking / locking vehicles also includes driver safety and awareness of pedestrian/vehicle accidents. While departments may be siloed, to the public we are one government and the Rolli administration will champion departmental collaboration to increase opportunities to educate the public on all aspects of improving public safety.
Vivian Wilhoite: We must include bike and walk safety planning in everything the city does. This has not been done in the past and the results are fatal. We start with educating our community and neighborhood groups utilizing such organizations like Neighbor2Neighbor and establish a campaign to educate our children in our schools. Pedestrian safety can also be improved with sidewalks. Sidewalks in all neighborhoods should get pedestrian traffic off the roadways. We need bike lanes, and we need an education campaign to inform motorists of the importance of safety, especially in our city’s corridors.
Matt Wiltshire: Reducing pedestrian deaths starts with better road design. The 12th Avenue South Complete and Green Street Project is a great example of how we can develop pedestrian friendly infrastructure – it features sidewalks, bike lanes, and bioswales. The project utilizes best practices, like a pedestrian median and design aspects that force cars to decelerate. Well engineered pedestrian friendly roads and infrastructure throughout our city should be our aspiration and intention.
Jeff Yarbro: The recent spikes in pedestrian fatalities are unacceptable and demand both urgent and significant focus from the next Mayor. Ordinary folks shouldn’t have to be scared to walk their kids to school or to a bus stop, and people shouldn’t have to drive somewhere just to go for a walk.
We need to accelerate investment in pedestrian and traffic calming infrastructure such as speed bumps, traffic islands, and pedestrian refuge islands. We should similarly take efforts to enhance pedestrian visibility and safety through well-marked crosswalks, lighting, and signage at strategic locations. Consistent with the Vision Zero strategy to eliminate traffic-related fatalities, we should prioritize and tailor our approach to promote pedestrian safety in those areas previously identified with high rates of pedestrian accidents.
It also means a planning review process designed to ensure safe pedestrian access to schools, transit connections, parks, and key neighborhood centers.
We need to make sure people feel comfortable getting around in Nashville in whatever way they please, and that will require a comprehensive strategy that extends beyond infrastructure to include education, community engagement as well. We should further support these efforts through safety-focused traffic enforcement. I’m confident that important strides in these measures can help reduce vehicle speeds and create safer environments for pedestrians.
Disclosure: Matt Wiltshire has donated to the Nashville Banner. Financial supporters play no role in the Banner’s journalism.