Minda Cox’s motorized wheelchair rolls up the hill northbound on Pike Avenue, up and over bumps and debris along her path and dipping down, rattling across the scars in the concrete.
A pair of flags on poles waves in the wind above her chair, doing their best to signal to drivers, “I’m here. Please give me space.”
“People don’t always look anymore,” she says, recounting a story of a friend who was almost hit by a driver.
She says she’s closer to the center line than she’d prefer, but drivers have parallel parked along the curb, preventing her from scooting over. Vehicles pass by on her left when they can.
Cox, who was born without arms or legs, relies on the wheelchair for transportation.
Ideally, she says, she’d prefer to be on a sidewalk. However, Bolivar’s network of sidewalks and crosswalks is perforated by cracks, creases, steep grades and dead ends she says prevent her from using them.
“The sidewalk isn’t great,” she says.
On Monday, Aug. 26, Cox is headed toward the art gallery near downtown where she works, relying mostly on less-trafficked side streets.
A sidewalk stretches past Southwest Baptist University’s campus along Springfield Avenue but comes to an end near South Street.
“I use the backroads to avoid all the cars,” she says.
The route requires taking a long sidewalk west along West Aldrich Road before turning north on South Pike Avenue.
Cox says the Aldrich sidewalk is one of the exceptions to the city’s sidewalk problem. It’s smooth and wide enough to allow her to share with others or even turn around if needed.
“I wish all sidewalks were like this,” she says.
Once she’s turned on Pike Avenue, though, the sidewalk immediately ends and Cox opts to take the road.
Sidewalks pick up again as she passes a Southwest Baptist University parking lot, though Cox says the passage is chipped and cracked. If her wheelchair gets too far off center, it may tip over, she says.
“People say, ‘Why aren’t you using some of these sidewalks?’” she says. “It’s like, ‘Have you seen some of these sidewalks?’ How much safer am I going to be on the sidewalks if my chair tips or if I fall out because I’m going over a big bump?”
As if to make a point, the Pike Avenue sidewalk ends at a steep decline on West South Street, one Cox says her wheelchair is incapable of traversing.
Along South Street, the sidewalk drops through a pair of steps, effectively making the path a dead end, she says.
Cox says she’s heard from other locals who rely on wheelchairs, and the issue of dead end sidewalks is one of the most serious. Across town, paths end either in stairs, steep curbs or gravel lots.
“That’s what a lot of the frustrations are is that (the sidewalks) just stop and they have to turn all the way around,” she says.
Once on the square, Cox says her journey becomes partly easier. The sidewalks bordering the courthouse are some of the nicest in town with wide, smooth paths and clearly marked crosswalks.
“If there were more places like this, people would be safer,” she says.
Gathering the troops
While finding the safest route from point A to point B by navigating a labyrinth of sidewalks and streets is nothing new for Cox, a close call in 2017 gave her a new perspective.
Crossing eastbound over South Springfield Avenue to Woods Supermarket, Cox says she and a woman pushing a baby in a stroller were nearly hit by a truck.
“He drove off and didn’t even ask if we were OK,” Cox says.
In that moment, safety for pedestrians — by foot and by wheelchair alike — became a passion project for her.
Cox expressed her concerns in a recent meeting with City of Bolivar administration and staff, including Mayor Chris Warwick, City Administrator Tracy Slagle, Public Works Director Jerry Hamby and street crew members Andy Stanek and Shane Duncan, as well as Planning and Zoning Director Sydney Allen and Beth Schaller with the Missouri Department of Transportation present via speaker phone.
“My fear is that one day, somebody is going to get hit,” Cox said in the Monday, July 22, meeting at Bolivar City Hall. “We are all trying to get more people involved. … Bolivar is getting bigger, and people simply aren’t paying attention like they used to. They’re just not.”
Warwick said seeing more people out using sidewalks is a sign of the times.
“I think we’re moving into an era where people are back to walking places,” he said. “So we just need to change with the times.”
Cox said that’s especially true for her friends who also use wheelchairs.
“There used to be a time you just didn’t go out,” she added. “My friends don’t want to be homebound anymore.”
In the meeting, Cox said there are some areas in Bolivar she simply avoids, like along South Springfield Avenue from Walmart north to Woods Supermarket.
“When it gets to be rush hour, it’s just terrible, even with a sidewalk,” she said.
“If you live on the east side of Mo. 83, there’s not really a nice clear path,” Slagle added.
A couple of proposed projects could help people reach places along South Springfield Avenue more effectively, Warwick said.
He said a crosswalk at the intersection of South Springfield Avenue and Aldrich Road, allowing people to cross to the south side of Aldrich without “hitting the streets,” is a needed change.
If leaders can work with MoDOT to install that crosswalk, Warwick said the city could then build a sidewalk on the south side of Aldrich to connect to South Boston Place, which provides an open, parallel path adjacent to Springfield Avenue.
Another place to focus attention is South Pike Avenue, Warwick said.
Slagle said the main issue along Pike is the lack of American Disabilities Act compliant ramps to allow people to get from one sidewalk to the next.
“In the next few years, (we want to) get Pike all the way to Broadway completed,” Warwick added. “Then start looking at branches off of that and how that gets people to certain areas.”
Slagle said focusing on sidewalks off Bolivar’s main strip might not create “the fastest route” for pedestrians, but “it may be the safest route.”
Hamby said Broadway Street, where ADA compliant ramps are also scarce, should be at the top of the city’s to-do list.
“If we were to work with MoDOT, that would eliminate a lot of the trouble here for you,” he said to Cox. “Broadway’s one of the first ones we need to fix.”
Because both South Springfield Avenue and Broadway Street are state highways, MoDOT’s cooperation is essential for any project affecting the right-of-way on those roadways.
While Schaller said MoDOT is currently focused only on maintaining existing sidewalks, not placing new ones, the state hired a consultant to survey sidewalks needing ADA improvements.
“It’s for Bolivar and probably five or six other communities,” she said, “because our intent is to get all of these communities’ design needs addressed.”
Bolivar’s sidewalk survey is complete, Schaller told the BH-FP Tuesday. Once all surveys are complete, MoDOT will bid out ADA repairs as either one or two projects.
She said the work, which could begin in 2021, will span several counties.