City Has a New Bounce in Its Step

At Rhode Island and U streets NW, rubber sidewalks, made of recycled passenger tires, are said to have a lifespan three times longer than that of their concrete counterparts.
At Rhode Island and U streets NW, rubber sidewalks, made of recycled passenger tires, are said to have a lifespan three times longer than that of their concrete counterparts. (By Susan Biddle -- The Washington Post)
By Elizabeth Williamson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 2, 2006

A small boy in big white Nikes hustled down Rhode Island Avenue heading for the bus stop when, boing . He stopped, looked down at the pavement, and took a few hops.

Rubber sidewalks -- good for the trees, easier on the knees, no cracks to break your mother's back. In one of the biggest tests in the nation, the District recently installed several blocks' worth of rubber sidewalks in Northeast. The cost was $60,000, roughly three times more than if it had been concrete.

Around tree roots, the walkways are said to last about 14 years -- nearly three times longer than concrete ones -- and are favored by city bureaucrats who last year took 2,600 complaints about broken concrete, got slapped with three lawsuits from people who fell on sidewalks and replaced hundreds of trees. Next year, if all weathers well, there may be a springy surprise in store for even more of Washington.

John Thomas, the city's chief arborist, said he hopes rubber sidewalks "will wind up being the most effective way to treat this problem we have with the sidewalk-tree relationship."

Concrete suffocates tree roots, which then grow upward to fight for air and water. The roots break the concrete, which trips the pedestrians, who sue the city. Rubber sidewalk panels have quarter-inch spaces between them that let air and water through, so tree roots grow downward like they should.

The walkways are made of ground recycled tires molded into squares; one old car tire can make one square foot of bouncy pavement. They can be cut and molded around trunks and roots, and if crews need to get to anything beneath, they just lift the sidewalk. For now, they are installed around trees along Rhode Island Avenue between North Capitol and 15th streets NE.

Rubber sidewalks, now found in 10 states, promise to change forever what it means to be a city kid in summer. You cannot press a dog's paw print or carve a sweetheart's initials in it when it's wet. And chalk just won't stick.

"We might have a little trial and error here," said Sharif Fattah, who lives in the area where the sidewalks are being tested. "I wonder how you shovel a rubber sidewalk?"

It's hard to tell a rubber sidewalk from a concrete one by looking at it. The sidewalks come in different colors -- a Wal-Mart in Texas has a snappy red one -- and fit together using fiberglass pegs.

David Kiser strode onto the rubber sidewalk in front of All Nations Baptist Church. B oing , he was sold. "They look like granite. . . . Maybe they can put them on my street."

He studied the rubber walkway, then the concrete, with gang names etched in. "The kids won't get to mark on them. But see, it's not 'I Love You' they're writing."

Much of the cost of the sidewalk is shipping, because rubber is heavy and the company, Rubbersidewalks Inc., is 2,700 miles away in Gardena, Calif. By next year, the company and the District hope a new plant will open in New York, slicing freight charges.

The idea for rubber sidewalks appeared in a dream one night in 1998 to Richard Valeriano, a public works inspector for the City of Santa Monica, Calif. In bed after a day spent identifying sidewalk damage, he said he dreamt that "the sidewalks were sort of moving up and down, twisting." He found a company to develop a prototype, which the city tested using bicyclists, in-line skaters and women's high heels. Lindsay Smith, a former screenwriter, took over the business in 2001, naming it Rubbersidewalks Inc.

The District installed the walkways in April. In a city worried about crime and schools, lawsuits and money, rubber sidewalks protect people, trees and the planet, their proponents say. But for others, who are accustomed to concrete summers, the sidewalks may be a tiny bit boring.

"The experience of our childhood is gone for a lot of things," Thomas said. For a city child, "maybe the healthy tree in front of their house would be a better lasting memory."

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