Infrastructure & Environment

Sidewalk Cachet

Cracked concrete and calls for walkability are pushing cities to focus on long-neglected pavement.
by | January 2005
 

It's a common phenomenon in Houston: a sidewalk suddenly ends, sometimes to resume a block or two later. Continuous stretches of pavement are rare, and where sidewalks do exist, they often are in terrible condition--cracked and rising at awkward angles out of the ground.

Houston's sea-level location, with its soft and shifting soil, doesn't help matters. But the real issue is that for the past century this sprawling metropolis of 2 million people has focused on building more and better roads; little thought or money has been poured into either the construction or maintenance of sidewalks for pedestrian use. "It's not a priority," laments Glenn Gadbois, of Just Transportation Alliances, a nonprofit advocacy group based in Austin, Texas.

In fact, that's the case for many fast-growing cities and suburbs nationwide, where the car culture has driven urban design and development. But change is afoot. The combination of crumbling infrastructure, which can result in injury lawsuits and lower property values, and the recent trend toward creating "walkable communities" is causing local officials to take sidewalks seriously.

Not that the situation is dire everywhere. In some cities, sidewalks are especially well maintained. Unlike most municipalities that hold property owners responsible for fixing cracks and holes, Chicago pays for both installations and repairs as part of a multi-faceted approach to enhancing pedstrian life.

In 2004, Mayor Richard M. Daley and the city council budgeted $136 million for the Capital Improvement Program, which includes sidewalk improvements along with curb and gutter replacement, street resurfacing, lighting and traffic-signal modernization. Since 1989, CIP has funded 3,500 blocks of new and repaired sidewalks. This year, the Chicago Department of Transportation plans to build or repair 300 additional blocks of sidewalks.

The also city runs the 50/50 Sidewalk Program, which encourages citizens to be proactive. If a sidewalk in a residential neighborhood needs repair, rather than waiting for the city to get around to it, residents can arrange to have it fixed privately and then split the cost with the city. This significantly reduces the backlog of projects.

Finally, Chicago has a streetscape program that has improved and updated more than 75 neighborhood commercial districts. The program installs new sidewalks, lighting, community identifiers and street furniture. "We invest so much into non-vehicle related infrastructure through so many different programs," says Brian Steele, assistant commissioner of CDOT. "More than sidewalks, which is the first and foremost thing you can do to promote walking, we invest in our entire pedestrian program."

THE MISSING LINK

The problem in many suburban areas isn't that sidewalks are in bad shape but that they simply don't exist. Over the years, building codes evolved to the point that developers either were not required to construct them or could easily get out of doing it. Increasingly, though, residents are demanding sidewalks--especially around neighborhood schools and parks.

In Clive, Iowa, a town of about 13,000 just outside of Des Moines, this issue spurred the city council to authorize a massive sidewalk installation. In 2002, the city created the Sidewalk Safety Program. "Sidewalks have really been an issue for 20 years," says Doug Ollendike, Clive's community development director. "There was just never a big effort to get it done. We decided to put our money where our mouths were." The city was lacking more than 25 miles of public sidewalk, and some of the missing pavement fell within the walk zone of the community's schools. Residents also lobbied for sidewalk connections to city parks and a bike trail. Over a three-year period, Clive will install 134,000 feet of sidewalk. The price tag is expected to be $1.7 million, down from the original estimate of $2.7 million, because most property owners have agreed to pay half the cost.

Although the expense is much greater, a number of big, sprawling cities are also making sidewalks a priority and reincorporating them into their budgets. In Los Angeles, residents regularly navigate sidewalks that are broken up by seismic movements and tree roots. Problems from the latter started back in the 1950s and '60s, when the city planted ficus trees to help keep urban neighborhoods cool. Although California's 1911 Improvement Act makes property owners responsible for repairs, the city amended the code to pick up the tab for sidewalks damaged by trees. The Department of Public Works runs an $8 million-a-year sidewalk repair program. Since 2001, the program has saved 7,000 trees that would otherwise have been destroyed and repaired 262 miles of sidewalks.

Separately, 324 miles of public sidewalks suffering from longtime neglect have been repaired over the past four years, at a cost of $64.8 million. Last March, despite a projected $300 million shortfall for the coming fiscal year, the Los Angeles City Council not only rejected a proposal to eliminate funding for sidewalk repairs but voted to spend an emergency $2.2 million to fix 23 miles of cracked and potentially dangerous sidewalks promised to residents and businesses. Nevertheless, a 40-year backlog of 4,300 miles remains.

Atlanta, one of the nation's fastest-growing metropolitan areas, has its eye on being a "walkable city." Through a public campaign complete with a mascot, Sidewalk Sam, the city seeks to help property owners understand that the responsibility for maintaining sidewalks lies with them. Holding a "Walk for Sidewalks," city officials urged compliance and put residents on notice that they intend to enforce it the standard way: inspect, notify and fix. "We are trying to get people out of their cars," says David E. Scott, commissioner of Public Works, "and we need to make sure it's safe first."

FAR TO GO

Houston has yet to embrace that philosophy. But calls for a culture change with regard to the use of vehicles are increasing all across the Lone Star State. "We need to examine how livable our cities are," says Glenn Gadbois, an advocate for equitable transportation policies. "If we don't start with that, we will never prioritize sidewalks."

Currently, Houston spends a paltry $4.5 million a year on its Capital Improvement Plan for design, construction and repair of about 52 miles of sidewalks. Houston also funds a Safe Sidewalk Program to repair sidewalks near schools, major thoroughfares or to assist the disabled. But the small percentage of residents who qualify under the program can expect to wait up to two years for sidewalk repairs once approved.

Ironically, given its long-time emphasis on streets and highways, the loudest voice for sidewalk maintenance and construction in Texas is the state Department of Transportation. Since the mid-1990s, TxDOT has been encouraging the construction of sidewalks. In 2003, the agency sent out a memo providing additional design guidance on when it would be appropriate to include the construction of new sidewalks as part of any particular project. TxDOT spent $20 million in FY2004 to fund sidewalk construction. The department earmarked $5 million, some of which was spent on sidewalk improvements, to enhance safety around schools for children who walk or bike to class. The agency also spends money on sidewalk improvements and construction through its Americans with Disabilities program and its "Partnership for Walkable Texas," a grant given to groups of community representatives who have identified pedestrian safety issues in their area.

"It's big challenge," Gadbois says. "We're talking about a lot of communities with no sidewalks or sidewalks that are dilapidated. But once cities start spending a lot of money on sidewalks, it's a clear indicator a city's trying to create better places."

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