This article appeared in the February 2019 issue of the Georgia's Cities newspaper.
cross the U.S., more communities are vying to become “walkable” places, where residents and visitors alike can access key services and opportunities on foot, and reap the health, safety and economic benefits that active travel provides. Though many factors influence walkability in a community, arguably the most important is the presence of sidewalks. Sidewalks are dedicated spaces for pedestrians, providing a safe and comfortable place to walk. A continuous and cohesive sidewalk network can increase opportunities for active transportation, enabling pedestrians of all ages and abilities to get where they want to go.
Improving walkability often means improving the network of sidewalks by prioritizing and implementing new sidewalks, while also improving the quality of existing sidewalks. As vital arteries in the transportation network, sidewalks have many measured benefits: they have been shown to substantially reduce crash risk for pedestrians, increase rates of physical activity, raise property values and support and enhance local economies. A lack of quality sidewalks can also have important consequences, including denying civil rights for pedestrians with disabilities to access key buildings and destinations.
The responsibility for developing sidewalks varies widely. Many communities require developers to build sidewalks when constructing or redeveloping properties. Typically, city administration and government staff inspect and regulate sidewalks to ensure that they are maintained, accessible and clear of obstructions, per standards established by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
Responsibility for improving or maintaining sidewalks also varies. In many places, property owners are responsible for maintaining and clearing sidewalks on their properties. If neglected, the city can hire contractors to repair or replace the sidewalks and bill the property owner. This model works well in affluent areas but can be problematic for residents who are not financially capable of ongoing sidewalk maintenance. In other cities, local government takes full responsibility for installing and maintaining sidewalks and necessary repairs.
Other models blend these approaches. In certain cities, property owners are financially responsible for sidewalk repairs unless they are burdened by economic hardship, in which case the city will assist with funding. The city of Ithaca, N.Y., for example, collects an annual fee from property owners to repair sidewalks and then uses the fee-generated funding for sidewalks across the community. Established districts determine the amount of funding provided by the city or property owners. Districts with higher economic hardships with a demonstrated need for sidewalks receive a greater amount of funding. It’s a model that prioritizes equity when distributing funds for sidewalks.
Many cities are beginning to take a closer look at completing their sidewalk networks and increasing the pace of building new sidewalks. The city of Austin, Tx., serves as an example for others interested in developing a long-term strategy for increasing sidewalk coverage. Guided by their Sidewalk Master Plan, the City’s Sidewalk Program is responsible for installing miles of sidewalks using a variety of factors to prioritize new sidewalk construction. An interactive sidewalk program project map showcases active sidewalk projects and completed or scheduled segments. These activities tie into and support the City’s Pedestrian Safety Action Plan and other transportation goals, an approach that ensures that sidewalk construction remains a priority among other transportation decisions.
Community members interested in repairing or expanding sidewalk facilities in their neighborhoods can help local officials by conducting a walk audit in their area. Walk audits usually entail walking a path to a desired location while rating overall conditions, accessibility, safety and comfort. Ultimately, strong communication and coordination between local governments, community groups and developers is needed to advance sidewalk improvement plans and lead to more walkable, vibrant places. Visit the Pedestrian and Bicycle Information Center and Walk Friendly Communities to learn more about sidewalks and other pedestrian facilities and how communities prioritize walkability.