Rules of the Road

Tripped up by uneven pavement on your last run or ride? Here’s what you should do

Bellingham doesn’t have a fleet of sidewalk checkers roaming the city in search of uneven pavement problems, such as this one along Barkley Boulevard near Northridge Place. Instead, it relies on reports from people who use the sidewalks and bike lanes to let them know when they encounter a problem.
Bellingham doesn’t have a fleet of sidewalk checkers roaming the city in search of uneven pavement problems, such as this one along Barkley Boulevard near Northridge Place. Instead, it relies on reports from people who use the sidewalks and bike lanes to let them know when they encounter a problem. Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

Question: In local parks, sidewalk upthrusts (say, by tree roots) are marked by yellow paint for the length of the walkway re-elevation. That's terrific.

But what about regular sidewalks along streets where there is often a one-inch elevation change from one concrete section to the next? Can we call the city to apply yellow paint to those? Could we simply paint them ourselves in our own neighborhood?

Streets often have the same upthrust problems and are a great surprise to bicyclists. Also those pedestrian courtesy outcroppings of sidewalk that shorten their walk across the street (but stop cold the parking lane) – unwary or at-night cyclists ram those all the time; some are painted yellow but most are not.

Thank you from a voice of unfortunate experience.

Answer: If suffering with others offers more comfort than suffering alone, take solace in knowing that your unfortunate experience is shared.

Shortly after I read the question, a friend of my told me about an incident she had while on a run in Bellingham. Unnoticed by her, a portion of the sidewalk on her route had been uplifted by tree roots. Her toe caught the edge of the concrete and she took a tumble.

Fortunately, her injuries were minimal, and the response from passers-by helped to reaffirm my faith in humanity. One of those who stopped to offer assistance was a paramedic who happened to witness the fall and checked to make sure she wasn’t seriously injured. (I’d like to pass along her thanks to the unnamed handsome paramedic.)

A few days later, in an effort to conquer the course that she lost to on the previous run, she followed her same route and noticed that the offending section of sidewalk had been painted white.

It turns out that what she experienced is a typical process for addressing a pedestrian or cyclist safety hazard. Not the falling part, but the part about identifying a problem and reporting it to the city.

As you might expect, the city doesn’t have a fleet of sidewalk checkers roaming the city in search of problem areas. Instead, they rely on reports from people who use the sidewalks and bike lanes to let them know when they encounter a problem.

The public works department will send someone out to mark the hazard for future repair and determine how to address it. If it’s a minimal amount of uplift they can grind off the protruding concrete. For more significant lift, they’ll cut out a portion of the sidewalk, address the underlying root problems, and pour a new section.

You don’t need to paint the sidewalk yourself; that would actually work against the end goal of getting it repaired. If you do your own marking instead of calling the city, the public works department won’t know about the problem or put it on their list for a fix.

If you encounter a sidewalk or bike lane hazard in the city of Bellingham, you can let the public works department know about it by sending an email to Mailto: askpw@cob.org or calling 360-778-7700.

I haven’t checked with all the various public works departments in the region, but I’d guess that if you stumble upon (pun intended) a lifted sidewalk in another city, the process would be similar.

When it comes to the pedestrian bulb-outs, all I can do is encourage riders to watch out for what’s in front of them. The bulb-outs make crossing the street safer for pedestrians, but I could imagine that if you hit one on your bike you could end up flying over your handlebars.

Occasionally bulb-outs get painted (I’ve seen red and yellow), but most cities leave them unpainted. I looked for any possible paint requirements in the Manual of Uniform Traffic Control Devices (the book that traffic engineers generally follow when signing and marking our transportation infrastructure), but as far as I can tell, there are no rules or suggestions about painting bulb-outs.

Road Rules is a regular column on road laws, safe driving habits and general police practices. Doug Dahl is the Target Zero Manager for the Whatcom County Traffic Safety Task Force. Target Zero is Washington’s vision to reduce traffic fatalities and serious injuries to zero by 2030. For more traffic safety information visit TheWiseDrive.com. Ask a question.

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