Bad Sidewalks? City says it’s a YOU problem

By Peyton Gibson and Wes Marshall, PhD, PE

This guest commentary is by Peyton Gibson, a Master’s Student, and Wes Marshall, a Professor of Civil Engineering with the University of Colorado Denver.

Do you know who is responsible for maintaining the roads in front of your home? Sure, that one pesky pothole on your block seems like it grows larger every day, but there is generally no question that it is the city’s responsibility to get out there and fix it. But what about the sidewalks? That is where things start to get complicated.

With fleets of asphalt trucks managed by city maintenance crews, many municipalities pledge to fix reported potholes within a week of the complaint. However, depending on the city you reside in, the adjacent property owner could bear the financial burden and logistical nightmare of repairing the sidewalk in front of the home or business that have turned into a tripping hazard or wheelchair/stroller obstacle (this includes you, Denverites!). 

A recent study by University of Colorado Denver researchers Dr. Wes Marshall and Peyton Gibson set out to see if U.S. cities are managing, maintaining, and financing their sidewalks at anywhere near the same level of care as they do their roads. Peyton interviewed 16 cities from across the U.S. to find out what their road and sidewalk policies were. She started the interviews focused on roads, broadly asking about routine repair, management processes, and budgeting. She then asked the same questions, but for sidewalks. 

Since each interview initially focused on roads, the respondents typically began with the same cut-and-dry answers, as most cities have similar processes and procedures for managing and maintaining their roads. However, when the discussion shifted to sidewalks, we were often met with frustrated sighs and upfront warnings of “it’s complicated.” Why?  Because most of the cities had drastically different approaches to repairing their sidewalks compared to their roads (and compared to each other). 

Most major U.S. cities use a 3-1-1 system to provide non-emergency services (such as leaky water fountains, damaged traffic signals, or garbage complaints) to their residents. So what exactly happens when you call (or text, or e-mail, or fill out a form) for 3-1-1 about a pothole or busted sidewalk? Apparently, politicians care a lot about potholes. Most cities rigorously track how well they meet their “service level agreement” (the time it takes between receiving a complaint and closing it). Of the cities we spoke with, most reported an average actual response rate of one to two days, from notification to repair, and the longest official “service level agreement” period for potholes was only five days. 

In contrast, when it comes to fixing major sidewalk hazards, only three cities had even defined a “service level agreement”—D.C. at 270 days, San Antonio at 75 days, and San Jose at 90 days. Many cities could not even tell us how long it takes to get to their sidewalk requests. The latter two cities’ ideal repair times are requirements property owners must meet after the city tells them  to fix it.

And as you might have guessed, none of the sixteen cities required potholes to be filled or paid for directly by neighboring residents or businesses. In contrast, over half of our cities require property owners to repair their adjacent sidewalk should a 3-1-1 complaint come in or a city inspector notices an issue.

Having a 3-1-1 system is great for providing real-time city services to residents (although which residents it serves raises several equity questions). But shouldn’t cities have a proactive maintenance approach to help avoid as many of these repairs as possible? For that, you’ll need data – and for roads, there is plenty. Most cities gather data about their roads about once every three years (typically hiring contractors that use sophisticated vehicle-mounted technologies). Many of the city employees Peyton spoke to seemed happy with the amount and quality of their roads data, with one telling her they had “no gaps in [their] data and don’t need anything else.”

However, when it comes to sidewalks, three-quarters of the cities Peyton talked to (even the ones that claim they’re in charge of fixing them) know very little or nothing at all about either the location or condition of their sidewalks. They also have no plans to collect this information in the future. 

Obviously, roads and sidewalks, as infrastructure assets, are not an apples-to-apples comparison. While we will never invest in sidewalks at the same dollar amount as roads, it’s also not surprising that the sidewalks in many American cities are eyesores, tripping hazards, and ADA lawsuits waiting to happen. Not only do we rarely collect the data needed to begin to remedy such sidewalks issues, but we also then often tell the adjacent property owner that it is up to them to fix and pay for the repair. Our study showed that the level of ownership the city claims for sidewalks (i.e., does the city or the property owner foot the repairs?) generally correlates with how much sidewalks data is available and how often the sidewalks get fixed (although future research is needed to determine the impact on overall sidewalk quality, pedestrians, and pedestrian safety).  

Citizen responsibility for a public good clearly carries equity and mode choice implications. Regarding equity, even a Denver Department of Transportation and Infrastructure (DOTI) staff member interjected that “if a resident is struggling to afford groceries, how and why should we expect them to spend $5,000 fixing their sidewalk?” For mode choice, better maintained sidewalks can lead to more walking, and more walking can lead to healthier and happier residents. In the wake of emerging public interest in equity-related issues, Denver residents have been challenging city officials to enact meaningful changes. Although sidewalks are just a small piece of the complex municipal issues that broaden systemic inequalities, several of the cities interviewed for this study say that they are looking to step up to the challenge – Denver, here’s looking at you.