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As Pedestrian Dignity on TikTok, Denverite spotlights crumbling sidewalks

6 min read

Where does the sidewalk end? Along the west side of Colorado Boulevard, just south of Trader Joe’s, it turns out.

Jonathon Stalls knows where all of Denver’s sidewalks end. The 39-year-old walks or takes public transportation almost everywhere he goes and has devoted his life to advocating for those whose primary mode of getting from Point A to B is walking or rolling down Colorado streets.

The Denverite founded Walk2Connect in 2012 after trekking from Delaware to California by foot, during which time he saw firsthand the infrastructure — or lack thereof — that made getting around on legs, wheelchairs or motorized scooters less than ideal. Stall’s worker-owned cooperative encourages communities to walk for healthier minds, bodies and planet — and prods leaders to make it safer for Coloradans to do so.

Four months ago, Stalls began filming his jaunts across the state on TikTok under the username pedestriandignity. There’s a video praising a walkway in Alamosa that has wide sidewalks along with protective barriers to cars and public art. Another spotlights a sidewalk along Sheridan Boulevard near Colfax Avenue interrupted by a fence that dumps pedestrians into traffic. And there’s the clip about a stairs-only underpass at Iowa Avenue near Santa Fe Drive inaccessible to people in wheelchairs.

Stalls is using his platform on the wildly popular social media app to highlight crumbling sidewalk infrastructure, a problem Denver has been grappling with for years, particularly after a city audit last year found its plan to get homeowners to fix problem walkways would have taken about half a century to complete at the current pace. City officials now are working to find a new approach.

A scroll through Stalls’ TikTok comments reveals that he’s turning his 54,000 followers — many of them Denver locals — into transportation and pedestrian advocates ready to engage.

“I’m in love with this platform,” Stalls said while walking to his Park Hill home. “It is so localized. I have been blown away by young people seeing my videos and commenting that their eyes have been opened to something they never thought about before. It fills my whole heart. For years, I have just been out here screaming, and now I feel heard.”

Ten percent of Denver streets have missing sidewalks and 30% are considered substandard, meaning they’re too narrow to accommodate a person in a wheelchair, according to advocacy organization Denver Streets Partnership. Almost 50% of streets in low-income areas have missing or substandard sidewalks, the organization said.

Pedestrian traffic deaths in Colorado have increased 89% since 2009, a 2021 AAA analysis showed, with urban crashes accounting for a majority of the fatalities. Mid-block locations along main road arterials were identified as a problem spot.

One such arterial — a major road designed to move heavy vehicle traffic — is Colorado Boulevard, which Stalls filmed himself navigating by foot Tuesday during late-afternoon rush hour for one of his TikTok videos.

Stalls started at the Trader Joe’s store at 750 N. Colorado Blvd. and headed south — a practical trip for a pedestrian on a grocery haul, he said.

What began as a journey along wide sidewalks next to bustling businesses quickly devolved, in a matter of blocks, into precarious skittering along sloped dirt patches. To Stall’s left, the wind emanating from cars zipping past was strong enough to prickle neck hairs. To his right, Stall pressed against fences of the homes backed up against Colorado Boulevard. Thorny bushes jutted into the skinny path of dirt Stalls navigated, worn down by trampling feet. The foliage was so overgrown in spots that the only option forward was a properly-timed dash onto one of the state’s busiest roads.

Drivers stared at Stalls while he trudged past their car windows. Some jeered.

“Focus on feeling it,” Stalls said, using his phone to film the trek. “The dehumanization. I want them to feel what it’s like to have this bush in the way. I want them to see the smog coming out of these exhaust pipes. I want them to feel the cars whizzing by. Some car commuters won’t know what this is like because they’ve never had to do it, but others — they don’t have a choice. This is what they have to deal with before they even get to work. Can you imagine in the snow? In the rain? Ice? With a stroller? With grocery bags in hand? In a wheelchair?”

City Councilman Chris Hinds, who represents District 10, is the first Denver official — at the local, state or federal level — who uses a wheelchair for mobility. Hinds, an accessible transportation advocate, said he rarely travels by car.

“I roll around everywhere,” Hinds said. “I just don’t take Colorado Boulevard, which is sad because that is a designated transit corridor in the city. But there are areas that don’t have a sidewalk at all.”

At the city’s current funding levels, Denver Street Partnerships said it would take nearly 400 years to build out a complete, integrated sidewalk network to serve every Denver neighborhood. The city has spent an average of $2 million to $3 million per year since 2017 on new sidewalk construction, the organization said. An estimated cost for the complete Denver sidewalk network envisioned in the city’s 2017 Denver Moves: Pedestrians & Trails plan is around $1.1 billion.

On Friday, Denver community members organized the first in a series of walking tours dubbed Sidewalk Palooza to be attended by the public and City Council members with a stated goal of “convinc(ing) Denver to stop treating sidewalks as secondary infrastructure.”

Acknowledging that “Denver streets are not as safe as they should be,” Mayor Michael Hancock has committed to Vision Zero, a goal of reaching zero traffic-related deaths and serious injuries by 2030.

The plan city’s identified streets where most fatal and serious injury crashes are happening in the city — locations that include Colorado Boulevard — and vowed to make improvements.

Examples of this work, according to city officials, include:

  • Narrowing the roadway with paint and posts along East Colfax Avenue to slow drivers and provide a mid-street spot where people crossing the street can stand if they can’t get to the other side before cars start approaching
  • Changing how traffic signals operate to allow pedestrians to get the walk signal first, so they can start crossing the street and establish themselves in the intersection before cars get the green light
  • Installing more protected bike lanes

“Our sidewalk gap program — where we’re building new sidewalk where it’s currently missing — is in full swing,” said Nancy Kuhn, Denver Department of Transportation and Infrastructure spokeswoman. “We installed 9 miles of new sidewalk in 2020 and we anticipate installing another 9 miles in 2021.”

What are some of the roadblocks to achievement?

The fundamental problem, according to Denver Streets Partnership, is that the city places the responsibility for repairing sidewalks on adjacent private property owners rather than funding the issue through taxes like street repavemment or sewer maintenance.

“It’s really challenging for a lot of those major arterial streets because a lot of the property owners back up to the sidewalk — in some cases they even have a fence separating it — so to be able to get there in the winter when part of their responsibility is shoveling the sidewalk, the property owner would have to go a quarter of a mile around,” said Jill Locantore, executive director of Denver Streets Partnership. “Those are the major transit corridors — like Colorado Boulevard. It’s clearly not working to ask the adjacent property owner, and it’s a complete shock to a property owner to learn a broken sidewalk is going to cost them thousands to fix. They’re expecting the city to maintain a public infrastructure.”

Stalls is using his TikTok platform to encourage viewers to pressure their elected officials to better address the situation. Comments on his videos include, “My eyes are opened to this now thank god,” “This is one of my favorite accounts, it has totally shifted my perspective and the way I interact with the world around me,” and; “This channel opened my eyes to a big problem that I never even knew was there.”

Some commenters leave contact information for the Colorado Department of Transportation. Other Denver pedestrians share their most frightening commutes.

Stalls relishes the engagement and often responds, providing more information or resources to get further involved in the cause.

As Stalls slogged down a skinny patch of dirt alongside Colorado Boulevard last week, a nearby driver shouted over the roar of traffic.

“Hey, there’s that TikTok guy!”

Stalls smiled.

“People are listening and learning,” he said, an unavoidable tree branch scraping against his face. “At least there’s that.”

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