Sidewalks are critical infrastructure and should be a civic responsibility

Writing in Strong Towns, Kevin Posey asks “Does it matter who pays for sidewalks?” He tries to see if there is a correlation between walkscores and who pays for the sidewalks, noting that “A city’s walkability depends on the condition and ubiquity of its sidewalks. If there’s no place to walk safely, walking isn’t likely to be very popular.”

But it doesn’t actually work out that way; there doesn’t appear to be any correlation. Atlanta makes owners pay for the maintenance of the sidewalks running in front of their property and has a walkscore of 48, but New York makes its owners pay as well, and it has a walkscore of 89.

Given these results, it is hard to argue that funding mechanisms have a strong impact on walkability. A stronger influence is likely the era in which most of a city’s development took place. As the Federal Highway Administration notes, one of the prime deterrents to walking is, “High-speed, high volume traffic adjacent to schools, parks, shopping, and residential areas.”

Or, it may just be that the Walkscore algorithm, which measures distances to stores and transit, doesn't take the quality of the sidewalk into account, and doesn't actually measure the number of people who are walking, just the distances they have to walk. Because when you look at photos of the sidewalks of Atlanta you know that nobody is using them unless they absolutely have to. Whereas in New York City, where there are so many people walking, the 311 line is going to be working overtime.

sidewalkPEDSpeds/CC BY 2.0

The entire post raises the question about the shocking fact that in America, sidewalks are not considered transportation infrastructure that is maintained as a public service, but instead is a private responsibility even when it is in the public right of way. And a lot of people like it that way; when I previously complained about this, more than one commenter wondered:

..and just how do you propose those sidewalks be paid for? Some magic money bucket in the sky? If cities pay to fix the sidewalks then they'll simply turn around and tax property owners to fund it… For that matter, in communities where some homes don't have the benefit of sidewalks, you'd expect they pay for the sidewalks in front of those homes that do? I don't understand this progressive pipedream that because you're not writing the check yourself, the cost somehow does not exist.

On this American election day, it is an interesting question. Is it a progressive pipe dream to promote walking as a legitimate form of transportation, to make it easy for those who don’t drive to get around? Is that not the whole purpose of taxes, to pay for things like roads and sidewalks that that serve everyone? Another commenter said sidewalks were “a frill.” For whom?

Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes once said “I like to pay taxes. With them I buy civilization.”

Civilized cities invest in infrastructure for everyone, including those who don’t drive. I previously quoted an ARUP report about walking as transportation:

We need to design physical activity back into our everyday lives by incentivising and facilitating walking as a regular daily mode of transport. In addition to the host of health benefits, there are many economic benefits for developers, employers and retailers when it comes to walking. It is the lowest carbon, least polluting, cheapest and most reliable form of transport, and is also a great social leveller. Having people walking through urban spaces makes the spaces safer for others and, best of all, it makes people happy.

The whole idea that sidewalks would be not a common good maintained by the city, like they do the roads, is just bizarre.

Tags: Atlanta | New York City | Walking

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