It might surprise people outside the U.S. to learn that, in many American cities, property-owners are often responsible for the upkeep of the sidewalk outside their front door. While some cities pay for the building and maintenance of these pedestrian walkways, just as often the costs fall on private citizens and companies.
But does it matter? If you’re one of the folks paying, then you’d probably prefer that the city foots the bill, but for pedestrians, does it make a difference who pays for sidewalks? Are they better or worse in towns where local government takes care of this essential infrastructure? To find out, sustainable transport writer Kevin Posey compared the walkability scores of various cities with differing sidewalk policies. Walk Scores come from the website of the same name, which quantifies the walkability of a city or neighborhood based on how easy it is to get your daily business done on foot. A 90-100 is a “Walker’s Paradise,” where daily errands don’t require a car. A score of 0-24 means you will need a car to do just about anything.
Posey picked Alexandria and Fairfax City, Virginia, Los Angeles, Atlanta, and New York City. The result? It doesn’t make much difference who pays for the sidewalks. L.A. opts for a mixed approach to funding sidewalks. “Thanks to the settlement of a lawsuit over the city’s failure to make miles of broken sidewalks comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act,” writes Posey, “L.A. must commit $1.3 billion to pedestrian projects over the next few decades.” Regarding sidewalks, it will fix them up, and offer a warranty lasting up to 20 years, but after that the adjacent property owners will have to pay for upkeep. Atlanta also makes its residents pay for sidewalk upkeep, and has a pathetic 48 Walk Score.
Alexandria pays for sidewalks, but requires the signatures of five residents to support building a new one. Crucially, those passing through get no say in the matter, so nobody can whine about “their” road space being given over to pedestrians. One wonders what kind of resident would veto a new sidewalk. Alexandria has a Walk Score of 61.
New York City wins on walkability, with a score of 82. It, too, makes residents and business owners pay for the sidewalk, and if they refuse to do repairs, the city will take care of it and then send them the bill, which seems like a rather pragmatic and New York-ian way to do things.
Overall, then, the assignment of sidewalk responsibility has little to do with a city’s walkability. The real factor seems to be sprawl, which is why somewhere as dense as New York has such a good Walk Score, despite the problems of forcing citizens to pay for their own sidewalk repairs.
So does it really matter who pays for sidewalks? Looking at these figures, no it doesn’t. But walkability isn’t the only measure of how easy it is to ditch your car in a city and still get things done. A potholed, cratered sidewalk, maintained to the bare minimum, is hardly an invitation to walk. Also, if a city takes charge of the planning an maintenance of its sidewalks, roads, transit, and bike lanes, it can better deploy holistic transportation plans. Forcing begrudging citizens, and equally reluctant businesses, to build and maintain public infrastructure is what you do when you can’t be bothered to do the job properly. Better to tax everybody a little more and use the money to do the job properly. You’ll end up with better sidewalks, and it’ll probably be a lot cheaper to boot.