The High Cost of Bad Sidewalks

Stuck at home because of the coronavirus, millions of urban residents suddenly became acutely aware of an easily overlooked element of urban infrastructure: their neighborhood sidewalks (or lack thereof).

“Maybe when this is all over we can widen the sidewalks,” mused Dan Rather in an April 2 tweet that garnered over 26,000 likes. The retired newscaster was on to something: During the lockdowns, as walking provided a critical antidote to cabin fever, sidewalks become crowded, contested space. Many are too narrow to provide the requisite six feet of physical distance from others, as a performance artist in Toronto memorably showed. With vehicle traffic temporarily in retreat during Covid-19 shelter-at-home rules, many cities claimed street space for pedestrians via quick-fix solutions like traffic cones and Jersey barriers. Meanwhile, retailers and restaurants, desperate for safer outdoor space, are making their own incursions into this increasingly valuable infrastructural  commodity.

With sidewalk awareness ascendant, this is indeed an opportune time to start an overdue national upgrade. Sidewalks play a vital role in city life: Long after the pandemic has ended, better sidewalks can continue to offer a host of benefits, including improving resident health, reducing automobile usage and helping to address historical underinvestment in low-income communities.  

Current sidewalk deficiencies have accumulated over decades of neglect. In the pre-automotive era, many cities had far more space for pedestrians, says Arlie Adkins*, a professor of urban planning at the University of Arizona. “Since the 1920s we’ve seen this explosion of driving, and there’s been a competition for fairly scarce real estate,” he says. “There’s only so much space between buildings, and we’ve made some clear choices about how that should be distributed.”

In the first half of the 20th century, Adkins says, the federal government gave millions of dollars to older cities to accommodate automobiles by shrinking sidewalks, while newer cities deprioritized pedestrian infrastructure. Some traffic safety boosters protested, but auto interests generally won out.

“In a place like New York that were built out before cars were dominant you’ll see a more robust sidewalk network,” Adkins says. “But if you come to newer cities in the West you’ll see a different picture.” In Austin, for example, barely half of the city’s nearly 5,000 miles of streets had sidewalks in 2017.

Where they do exist, sidewalks are treated as public spaces like streets — but there’s no consistency around who pays for sidewalks. They’re ”the most bizarrely funded thing ever,” says Emiko Atherton, Vice President for Thriving Communities at Smart Growth America. “Depending on your jurisdiction, the homeowner or the city has to pay for it.”

If you think it’s unfair that cities like San Jose and Minneapolis force property owners to pay for sidewalks when every taxpayer contributes to the streets used by drivers, you’re not alone.  Relying on private citizens to fund sidewalk maintenance also means that a few laggards can create neighborhood-scale problems. “You could have the best sidewalk in the world for one block,” Adkins points out, “but if it doesn’t continue to the next block people just aren’t going to use it.” Seeking to address weak links, in 2017 Denver offered $4 million in sidewalk grants to property owners in low-income neighborhoods.

Other cities, such as Washington, D.C., and Boston, do assume responsibility for sidewalk maintenance, tapping a hodgepodge of funding sources that includes federal programs like Safe Routes to School and Community Development Block Grants as well as allocations from state and local budgets. Their sidewalk repair projects often cost in the tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars, paling in comparison with street construction. That can lead them to be deprioritized in budget decisions made by powerful state departments of transportation. “Sidewalk projects are too small, based on how states value things,” says Atherton.

Well before the coronavirus added a new sense of urgency, persistent sidewalk underinvestment had been a major urban problem. National statistics are scarce, but “we are far from adequate,” says Kate Kraft, the executive director of the nonprofit America Walks. Problems range from “cities not having [sidewalks], to having them not be wide enough, to having them not maintained adequately.” In Los Angeles, the nonprofit group Investing in Place estimated that half of the city’s 11,000 miles of sidewalks were in disrepair in 2017.

Such neglect contributes to myriad health problems. A 2009 study in the Journal of Preventative Medicine found that urban residents across 11 countries were more likely to get at least 30 minutes of daily physical activity if they lived in a neighborhood with sidewalks on most streets. The study’s authors called sidewalk improvements a “practical and effective policy for encouraging physical activity.”

Of course, as the coronavirus lockdowns revealed, people walk for reasons other than burning calories. “It’s not just that I want to get out and stroll through the neighborhood; it’s that I need to take care of my activities of daily living — getting to a grocery store, a workplace, or a drugstore,” says Kraft. “These are corridors of transport.”

Sidewalks also funnel people to and from bus stops, bikeshare docks, and parked scooters, favored modes among local leaders trying to reduce auto usage. Crumbling or nonexistent walkways tilt travel decisions toward driving and force remaining pedestrians into the roadway, leaving them vulnerable to automobiles (pedestrian traffic deaths have been sharply rising in recent years). The burden of bad sidewalks falls especially heavily on certain groups — older people, wheelchair users, parents with strollers. The Americans with Disabilities Act requires cities to provide wheelchair-accessible sidewalks, but many fail to do so.

Disadvantaged communities are most likely to be burdened with bad sidewalks. Kate Lowe, a professor of urban planning and policy at the University of Illinois at Chicago, studied the quality of sidewalks in New Orleans, where property owners are responsible for them. Pedestrian networks were worse in minority and low-income neighborhoods, she found. An examination of sidewalk quality in Boston, where the city pays the full cost of maintenance, reached a similar conclusion. Pedestrian fatalities from automobile collisions are also much higher in low-income neighborhoods.

Sidewalks are essential to city life, but there are limits to what they can achieve in isolation. A renovated sidewalk will probably require frequent street crossings and a buffer between the walkway and the street in order to attract pedestrians. It will also need to be useful. “Sidewalks have to go somewhere and connect people to destinations,” says Atherton. For that reason, they can’t do much in exurban and rural locations. And residents of low-income communities may avoid walking not only because of substandard walkways, but also due to social norms or safety concerns.

Those caveats aside, most Americans value the walkability that a quality sidewalk network can provide. A 2017 survey by the National Association of Realtors found that 87% of respondents considered sidewalks and places to take walks “very” or “somewhat” important to deciding where they would like to live. In the aftermath of the coronavirus lockdowns, that figure may be even higher.

As popular and beneficial as a sidewalk investment campaign could be, cities and states have little capacity to mount even a modest one in the midst of the current recession. But unlike most cities and states, the federal government is under no obligation to balance its budget, giving it more flexibility to spend money on infrastructure. Two possibilities would be to include a pot of sidewalk funding in the transportation reauthorization bill (currently under consideration in Congress) or as part of a fiscal stimulus package.

Such funds would be a welcome resource for cities now contemplating more permanent ways to find room for walkers and less room for vehicles. Those ad-hoc street projects that expanded pedestrian access during coronavirus lockdowns were reasonable during an unprecedented emergency, but the very need to undertake them reflected a century of sidewalk underinvestment. The federal government made matters worse by funding street widening projects that curtailed pedestrian space. While lockdown memories remain fresh, it’s an ideal time for the feds to begin making amends.

*CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misspelled Arlie Adkins’ name.

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