Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Friday, February 19, 2016

A walking (or sustainable mobility prioritized) city should take responsibility for constructing sidewalks

Samantha Powell and her children, Ford, 5, and Chloe, 7, walk between sections of sidewalk during their daily trek to Cory Elementary School on Thursday. Powell says the inconsistency of sidewalks in the neighborhood has her and her children crossing the street at intersections that don't have crosswalks and going through the alleyway behind their home just to make the roughly three-block trip each day. (Aaron Ontiveroz, The Denver Post)

In a majority of jurisdictions, property owners are responsible for paying for sidewalks, because the sidewalk is considered an improvement that primarily benefits the property owner.

However in the biggest cities, usually, the city government is responsible.

Denver must not be a big city.

According to the Denver Post ("Denver residents push city to take charge of needed sidewalk fixes") in some neighborhoods, residents are calling on the city to take responsibility for installing sidewalks in the gaps that exist, rather than waiting on individual property owners. From the article:
The neighborhood is among several pockets of the fast-growing city, including both working-class and well-to-do areas, that still lack sidewalks along hundreds of miles of streets. Elsewhere, pedestrians in places with aging sidewalk networks — from downtown to the Capitol Hill neighborhood and most older areas — often face cracked or disjointed pavement and stone walks.

This bus stop near Madison Street and Martin Luther King Boulevard has no sidewalk. Denver leaves the responsibility and liability to adjacent property owners for maintaining and building sidewalks, which has many neighborhoods lacking consistent walkways. (Patrick Traylor, The Denver Post)

Neighborhood and walking advocates and City Council members point the finger for both problems at a decades-old city ordinance that makes adjacent property owners responsible for building and maintaining sidewalks. The result has been widespread deterioration, minimal city enforcement unless people file complaints and frustration from homeowners who often can't afford needed fixes.

But appeals from the advocacy group WalkDenver and residents across the city are gaining new traction at city hall. Officials have resisted big changes in the past, in part because of concerns over liability and costs that potentially could run into the hundreds of millions of dollars.

"There's simply no way to get from A to B without being in the middle of the street at some point," said Powell ...
For communities with Vision Zero agendas, like Denver ("Denver working toward zero traffic-related deaths," DP), as much attention needs to be paid to extending the infrastructure for sustainable mobility--walking, biking, transit--and strengthening the urban design around "Walking City"/"Transit City" spatial conditions, as will be spent on dealing with motor vehicles. (To its credit, Denver's Vision Zero agenda will focus on improving physical infrastructure.)

This is complementary to the "Maintenance of Way" argument about rebalancing priorities for "street" maintenance to include pedestrians and transit users.

Probably the solution would be to do a bond referendum, with the money to be used for eliminating gaps in the sidewalk network as well as other improvements to the sustainable mobility infrastructure. From the article:
Writ large, Public Works estimates that concrete costs alone to build sidewalks where they're missing could run from $50 million to $75 million — before considering expenses to relocate utilities, regrade land and buy strips of land where the city doesn't already have right of way.

Unlike some smaller suburban neighbors, including Westminster and Englewood, Denver doesn't assess homeowners a regular fee of some kind to pay for sidewalk maintenance. Instead, the city tackles the sidewalk problem selectively, leaving most of the problem alone and springing for new ones when money becomes available, with a focus on transit corridors and school routes.

Meanwhile, city parks and golf courses often lack sidewalks along their perimeters. Bus stops are planted in the dirt or grass, and riders trudge what advocates call "desire lines" into the ground leading to them. Along major transit routes, including Sheridan and Colorado boulevards, there still are notable stretches lacking sidewalks.
Being able to successfully win bonding referendums to improve streets, sidewalks, biking environments, and transit connections is the point of my "Signature Streets" concept, which positions sustainable mobility as a key element of a community's infrastructure, brands it, and uses the brand and position to justify and win the vote on bond referenda to pay for it.

As an aside, I've found one of the reservations by property owners in snowy climes to adding sidewalks is that they don't want the responsibility for snow clearance.  It is possible to set up systems, like in Rochester, New York, to clear neighborhood sidewalks in a systematic way at a relatively low cost.  Rochester does this only for snowfalls greater than 4 inches.

When it snows 4 inches or more, residents are only responsible for clearing sidewalks and driveways on their property, and digging out their cars if they are on the street.  But they are also responsible for snow shoveling "public" sidewalks when the snowfall is less than 4 inches.

Note too that WalkDenver is likely a community organization we need to pay more attention to as an example of national best practice examples.  Check out this infographic on the West Colfax neighborhood, calling attention to gaps in sidewalk network there.

-- West Colfax Walk Audit final report

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At 4:09 PM, Anonymous Christopher said...

Oddly here in the biggest (US) city, the city isn't responsible for sidewalks. Which I still can't believe there isn't more clamoring to change. Right now the property owner's are responsible for care and upkeep of sidewalks in a parts of NYC. There are admittedly lost of requirements in terms of not blocking those sidewalks as well as their construction, but older neighborhoods like mine can be treacherous for walking in the evening: tree roots cracking through, changes in materials (some parts of the neighborhood still have slate sidewalks). From a use perspective, it's a mess.

At 9:44 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

Historically, improvements beyond the curb were considered to be a 100% benefit to the property owner, so it was illegal to subsidize them -- like how people are responsible for water pipes between the meter and inside the house, and not for the pipes beyond the meter.

Obviously, with the aim of sustainable mobility, sidewalk provision and sidewalk networks need to be seen as the responsibility of the local government more generally.

I am not sure that I believe that cities should take on responsibility for snow clearance, like how Rochester NY does and I think Forest Park IL too.

But I think people wouldn't mind cities organizing this at the collective scale at least for sidewalks and charging it back as an "embellishment fee."

At 9:59 PM, Anonymous Christopher said...

I know that Evanston when my mom was a kid would clear the sidewalks. She always thought that other cities should do the same. In parts of Illinois the median (whether there is an actual sidewalk there or not) is actually owned by the city. Street trees are often then considered the property of the city or village.

I noticed that Chicago has a shared sidewalk cost program for repair and construction, so I guess the sidewalks there might not city owned either. The consistency of the sidewalks in Chicago is much higher however than it is NYC. But who knows where that comes from politically.

At 10:59 AM, Anonymous charlie said...

@Christopher. the history of snow and NYC law is a long a interesting one.

(the change in 2003)

Fascinating from a legal perspective. A pain in the ass from the sidewalk user.

Private tort action is clearly part of it. Under one of the regimes above plaintiff lawyers would hire people to patrol sidewalks and report them, so you could collect a slip and fall.


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