Seven feet: narrower than some pickup trucks. That’s how wide the sidewalk is on the east side of the Drag. All for the sake of some waist-high dinky planter boxes on the western edge of campus.
Anyone who’s ever experienced the Drag at rush hour knows the gridlocked street is a traffic jam for vehicles and people.
When the sidewalk gets too crowded, we have to shuffle past one another. When we ride our bikes on the Drag, we have to dodge pedestrians stepping into the bike lane to escape that crowded sidewalk. When we wait for the bus to arrive, we have to stand in the middle of that sidewalk or sit on top of the wall, legs flailing about. Either way, we’re blocking others just trying to get by.
The culprit? The so-called “West Campus Wall,” a stone retaining structure that supports the landscaping on the western edge of campus. The wall is not very high or very imposing, but it’s built right up to the edge of the city-controlled portion of Guadalupe Street. And there is no room — or plan — to widen the sidewalk.
For students, this means walking down Guadalupe will remain a lousy experience indefinitely. What a waste. The Drag is the heart and soul of UT, and our side of it could be transformed into something so much more comfortable and welcoming.
Just look across the street. The business owners on the Drag know that a wide, luxurious sidewalk creates an attractive space to walk and shop. So the sidewalk on their side of the street stretches 24-feet wide, and it comes complete with bicycle parking, B-Cycle stations and handy trash receptacles.
Healthy public space fuels a vibrant and dynamic university. Indeed, the 1970s regents who ordered the construction of the West Campus Wall understood this. According to African diaspora professor Edmund Gordon, the wall was built specifically to “control the student politics of that day” by restricting where people could enter the 40 Acres.
Imagine if our side of the Drag was not only easier to walk on, but also offered a landscape more inviting than concrete walls and trees. Imagine if our campus was open to the street and our world-changing student activism, no longer confined to Facebook and Wildfire, was on display, front and center.
To get there, we have a lot of work to do. The 2013 campus master plan calls for narrower pedestrian crossings, which will make it much easier and safer to cross the Drag — but the West Campus Wall stays put, and the plan maintains the existing width of the sidewalk. Seven feet.
Flush with money from the 2016 mobility bond, the city of Austin is currently finalizing its plans to reconstruct Guadalupe into a brand new street. Now, more than ever, is the moment UT should undo a decades-old mistake and reimagine our side of the Drag as a truly inclusive and inviting public space.
President Fenves, tear down this wall.
Young is a computer science senior from Bakersfield, California. He is a senior columnist. Follow him on Twitter @ryanayng.