Stacy Dorris became an advocate for safer streets after a failed attempt to walk to the park by her home in Nashville, not far from Vanderbilt University.
Like most streets in Nashville, there were no sidewalks along the high speed road that leads to the park. Still, Dorris headed out with her dog and stroller and gave it a shot.
After getting buzzed by a few speeding cars, however, she threw in the towel.
“We literally had to abort the mission,” she told the Tennessean. “I feared for my life.”
Since then, Dorris, a physician at Vanderbilt University and a mother of three — two daughters, age 15 and 4, and one son, 2 — has been on a mission to make Nashville more walkable. She is single-handedly leading an effort to reform the city’s sidewalk rules.
Though the city has improved its sidewalk situation dramatically in recent years, it’s still pretty dire. The Tennessean reports that Nashville has only about .45 miles of sidewalks for every two miles of road.
I spoke with Dorris by phone to hear the latest. Here’s what she had to say about her quest to fill in the gaps in the Music City’s pedestrian infrastructure:
That was an interesting story in the Tennessean about how scary your walk to the park was.
Literally, when we tried to walk, legally facing traffic, people were honking at us, people were swerving all over the road. This one SUV, they didn’t see us to the very last second. I think she was texting. It was terrifying. I thought we were going to die. After that we just went home and it was sad. It was so sad that for safety reasons we literally couldn’t walk down our street with a stroller and a dog.
So basically nobody walks in your neighborhood?
No, people do walk on some of the side streets where traffic volume is lower. The problem with Nashville in general that I see, it was either designed poorly or no thought was put into it. There’s these huge superblocks. You really have to go on main corridors to really get anywhere. You can’t get anywhere [on foot] because of these sort of main roads that are very dangerous to walk on.
Why do so few of Nashville’s roads have sidewalks?
One of the things I hear over and over again is that there’s just sort of poor funding. Money is really just sort of a big issue. One of the things that I discovered was there is this whole sidewalk fund that Nashville has set up.
The Tennessean said developers are not required to add sidewalks, instead they can pay into a fund. They said this was to encourage infill development. But it seems like Nashville’s real estate market ought to be healthy enough where that kind of incentive is not needed.
The fund was created in 2002, and amended in 2012 for a drastically reduced price. They dropped it to $15 per linear foot. What I heard was that they were trying to promote development. They were worried if there was an exorbitant fee people would leapfrog right out of Nashville. But a few years later the economy has sort of returned, I don’t think that argument… I think that the time has passed. There’s more interest in city living. In my opinion the fee itself should go away.
I calculated it out. They’re basically paying in 6 percent of the total cost. A developer can actually put [a sidewalk] in cheaper [than the city] because they don’t have to go through [the] public works [department]. The cheapest thing would be to require a developer to do it.
How is your campaign structured? Who is involved?
It’s me. I’ve been writing about sidewalk issues since November of 2013. I really started because I couldn’t find anyone else doing it. There are local advocacy groups that are very good, but they were very focused on bike issues. I thought, “Well gosh, who’s advocating for pedestrians around here?” So I started blogging about it under the name Shade Parade.
Through that writing… I’ve really gotten pretty heavily involved. Through that I’ve gotten a lot more people excited about it. I did start a non-profit arm where I’m raising money for sidewalks. When we polled people, about 92 percent said they want sidewalks. I have one street in particular that I’m trying to get a sidewalk on.
What are the next steps?
Our council people have put what I’m calling a pilot project in their capital improvement budget. We’re waiting to see if we can get some individual funding for those projects. They’ve been very helpful in that.
We have two projects coming up for Walk Month [in October]. One is called the mayoral candidate’s coffee on walkability. We’re going to have the next mayors come and talk about their solutions for walkability in Nashville.
We’re going to essentially art bomb a park. We’re going to have people hopefully walk to the event. We’re going to have a lot of people walk and hopefully experience what it’s like to walk in the neighborhood.
Does your work as a doctor, an allergist and immunologist, play into all this?
Yes, that’s one of the reasons I got interested in walkability issues. Here in the South we do see a lot of obese patients. I have patients with respiratory issues. Air pollution in general, elevated CO2 levels, can both influence the pollen. Air pollution, in general, affects my asthmatic patients.
I want my children to safely walk all over this town. And my patients too. Right now I wouldn’t recommend it. Something’s got to give.