Sidewalks Are Critical Infrastructure, Not a Frill

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A few years ago I was shocked to learn than in much of the USA, homeowners are responsible for the maintenance of the sidewalks in front of their property. I wrote at the time about Atlanta:

Some would consider sidewalks to be a pretty important part of urban infrastructure. Others might think that promoting walking as an alternative to driving might be good for cities clogged with cars full of mostly overweight people. It would seem logical that since sidewalks are on city property, they would get the care and attention that the roads get.

But they don’t. Randy Garbin writes in CityLab about where he lives, Jenkintown, Pennsylvania, where he just got hit with a $3,000 bill to fix the sidewalk in front of his house. He recognizes the importance of sidewalks:

For those of us steeped in sustainable development, the humble concrete walkway is the symbol of our cause—it protects us from traffic, connects us to neighbors, and proclaims our commitment to a healthier lifestyle. It’s what makes a walkable community walkable.

Sidewalks are taking on increasing significance as planners and engineers recognize that getting people walking in sidewalks actually is a great way of getting them out of cars. Recently we wrote about a report from ARUP that stressed the significance of 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.

Back in Jenkintown, Randy Garbin has been running a campaign to change the rules so that sidewalks become a municipal responsibility. He is getting nowhere.

So far, this campaign has proved futile. “This is the way we've always done it,” one councilman declared in a community meeting. “This is the way everyone else does it. I see no reason to change this now.” Some residents, fearing a property tax hike, take out a loan to get the job done and move on. One neighbor stated before Borough Council that he would delay the installation of new windows to pay for his sidewalk. “I guess my kids will have to sleep in drafty rooms for one more year,” he shrugged.

I think it is crazy, particularly as we begin to comprehend the benefits of walking and the impact it can have on our cities. But then most northern cities in the US and Canada plough the streets in winter but put the legal responsibility for clearing sidewalks on the homeowners, which is really no different. So pedestrians end up walking on the road because the sidewalk is essentially broken. As Franke James notes in her wonderful visual essay, Let them walk on the Road! this is not an issue of poor people who cannot afford to have their sidewalks ploughed, they just don’t care. It is a problem everywhere.

It’s time to recognize that sidewalks are urban infrastructure, as important as roads and transit, and if are going to get people out of cars (and out of the roads) we need well maintained and clear sidewalks year round.