For years, John Z. Wetmore walked down a muddy track next to six lanes of traffic on Bradley Boulevard to get to his Bethesda house, scampering out of the path of a wayward minivan or pickup that swerved too close to the shoulder. At night, he felt invisible to the cars speeding inches away from his feet.
He spent 17 years lobbying for a sidewalk, finally winning one along the dangerous stretch of road in front of his house in 1997.
Wetmore, who moved to Maryland from Evanston, Ill., when he was a boy, said sidewalks play an important role in shaping neighborhoods and their residents.
"After we moved, all of a sudden, it was one-half mile to the nearest sidewalk. I couldn't walk to school, I couldn't walk to the store to buy bubble gum," he recalled. "A walkable neighborhood was the normal state of the universe to me, but it was a whole different world here."
Although the District has sidewalks along 99 percent of its roadways, said Harry Cepeda, who holds the District's newly created position of pedestrian program manager, sidewalks in suburbia are much less routine. They can run the length of entire subdivisions or suddenly sprout in front of just two houses on a block. For long stretches, they can be missing altogether.
Installation of a four-foot-wide ribbon of concrete can turn streets into battlegrounds, with some neighbors opposed to giving up part of their yards to the state or local government. Some worry about shoveling snow or uprooting trees that have shaded the street for years.
Others, like Wetmore, say that safety should be the paramount concern.
"It's amazing to me that you can build six lanes of road and then run out of concrete before you put in the sidewalk," said Wetmore, whose advocacy for a sidewalk in part led him to create a cable-access show called "Perils for Pedestrians," aired on more than 60 cable-access channels across the country. The show highlights pitfalls and progress for pedestrians from Arlington to Australia.
"I hear a lot of people saying that 'No one has died here, so we don't need a sidewalk.' But sidewalks should be more than just a monument to dead pedestrians," he said.
For Mary Jane and Steven Solomon, the presence of sidewalks played a major role in determining where they would live.
The couple rejected Mary Jane's top choice in Annandale because there was no sidewalk in front where their two children, then 5 and 2, could walk and ride bikes. They bought a house in a nearby neighborhood with sidewalks on both sides of the street.
"The safety factor was a big issue," she said. "The neighborhood without sidewalks had a completely different flavor, which I liked. It felt like we were more out in the country. But at the same time, it wasn't as comfortable for families with children."
But sidewalks can bring more than safety to a neighborhood, said Ahmed Rayyan, chief of the planning support branch of Fairfax County's Department of Public Works and Environmental Services. They can help residents keep fit by encouraging them to walk. And they can pry people out of their cars for short errands, helping cut down on clogged streets.
"People aren't going to walk to the store if they have to get there by walking in a ditch or on a gravel shoulder. But with sidewalks they might," he said. "Elderly people who don't drive can get out of their houses and walk safely to the bus stop."
It appears that many Fairfax residents agree with Rayyan. He has a backlog of more than 200 requests from citizens for sidewalks, and more keep pouring in.
Rayyan said he's seen a greater interest in pedestrian safety in the past few years.
But tight budgets have cut sidewalk funding. For the 2002 and 2003 fiscal years, Rayyan's office has received no budget for new sidewalk projects.
Similarly, Arlington County's Neighborhood Conservation Program, which constructs sidewalks, gutters and other street-side improvements at residents' request, has seen a huge influx of applications.
"There's a lot more usage of public space for pedestrians and bikes," said Chris Nixon, manager of the conservation program. "Frankly, there's a lot more traffic cutting through neighborhoods, and you can't walk in the street anymore or you take your life into your hands."
In most jurisdictions, all it takes to get the ball rolling is a request from individual residents or community groups. However, Nixon cautioned, it can take years from when the request is made until a sidewalk is actually built.
But as much as there has been a new call for better walkways, there are also those who resist.
"People say, 'Sidewalks are great as long as they're across the street, not on my property,' " Rayyan said.
In fact, the issue can get downright nasty.
In one instance of sidewalk opposition, last summer, after the backhoes broke ground for a sidewalk on Brookeville Road in Chevy Chase, a resident refused to let the equipment in his yard. Today, the concrete stops abruptly at the resident's property line.
"I've had people threaten me, scream at me, 'I don't want a sidewalk, get away from my house,' " said Janet Dunkelberger, who has spearheaded the installation of sidewalks throughout much of her Aurora Hills neighborhood, a community of homes built in the 1920s and 1930s, sandwiched between Route 1 and I-395 near Pentagon City. "One woman practically chased me off with a broom."
Dunkelberger has persevered through a decade of lobbying for sidewalks because she said it's important for residents to be able to safely walk to the Crystal City and Pentagon City Metro stations from their homes.
In the past, Arlington residents had to pay the $500 to $600 bill when the county put in sidewalks. Now the county pays for them.
To get a sidewalk through the Neighborhood Conservation Program, at least 60 percent of residents must agree to having a walk put in. Nixon said she and sidewalk designers meet with residents several times during the process and ask them to help with the design.
She said that if a street is lined with mature trees, she will recommend against a sidewalk. In other cases, streets can be narrowed to save trees, or replacement trees can be planted.
A Silver Spring resident -- weary of fighting neighbors, hassling over which trees could be cut down, and wrangling over whether a sidewalk could be placed on the side of the road with a historic church -- threw up her hands in despair.
"We asked over four years ago for a sidewalk, and I just want a break from the whole issue at this point," said the resident, who requested anonymity. "It's very tiring going round and round trying to get residents to agree, to understand how the whole thing seemed to blow out of proportion."
Part of the problem surrounding the installation of new sidewalks is the public's misunderstanding of who owns the property near the street. In Montgomery County, for example, the county owns a 60-foot right of way from the middle of the street up into residents' yards. Last year, Montgomery County passed a law requiring residents to shovel their walks, which has added to the anti-sidewalk sentiment in some areas.
Still, the sparks flying over the installation of sidewalks puzzle Richard Earp, the program manager for Montgomery County's annual sidewalk program.
"I've done miles and miles of sidewalk that people use every day," he said. "For it to be brought into the public limelight like this in such a negative way is sad."
But for every disgruntled homeowner, there are those who are excited about the prospect of a more walkable community.
"A sidewalk changes the fabric of your neighborhood," Wetmore said. "You can walk to school, walk to the store, just walk around and meet your neighbors."