The pandemic lockdowns shed light on the state and relevance of our sidewalks. When we could go nowhere, we could walk, exercise, play, paint with chalk, dine, and more on them. Some sidewalks suddenly stop and lead to nowhere, although the streets continue. Others would lead somewhere, if they were not in complete disrepair. Others, while needed, do not exist. While we have paid little attention to sidewalks, they are key to making us healthier, greener, wealthier, and more socially connected. However, municipalities trip on them, as the LA Times put it regarding the City of Los Angeles. Municipalities have often disregarded sidewalks, or have sidewalk policies that fail many of their residents. The City of Los Angeles has historically invested less than 1% of its transportation budget in their construction and maintenance. This post aims at pointing out why we should rethink our sidewalks from environmental and social perspectives.
Environmentally, as previous entries on this blog have shown, cities have been at the forefront of climate change mitigation and adaptation. Sidewalks should be a piece of it. Better sidewalks, particularly those with tree canopies, are a great instrument to both mitigate and adapt. They encourage people to walk, and promote urban vegetation that protects against extreme heat and even hurricanes. Wider sidewalks also can foster narrower roadways, which decreases vehicle speed and may contribute to making cars less attractive, thus reducing emissions.
Socially, sidewalks have an important role to play. First, they are public spaces. While we assign private rights to them, be it to scooter companies, restaurants, or newspapers boxes, it is important that they remain open to everyone. “Everyone” includes homeless people who do not have anywhere else to go, and need a space to perform certain basic human activities, as Jeremy Waldron pointed out. Despite this, sometimes laying down on the sidewalk is a legal infraction, and at other times, hostile urban mobiliary prevents it. “Everyone” also includes food vendors, often representing minorities, whose livelihood depends on being able to sell food on these sidewalks. Food vendors have been often shut down formally or by making regulatory requirements as challenging as possible because cities are captured by brick and mortar businesses. “Everyone” also includes those who push strollers or use a wheelchair. In fact, the not-so-successful 2018 “Safe Sidewalks LA” Plan was prompted by the largest disability-access class action in US history.
Sidewalks should exist everywhere and be in good condition, but particularly in low-income areas where the population depends more on public transportation. Yet this is hardly ever the case. While downtowns managed by Business Improvement Districts have sidewalks that look like they are in a shopping mall, poorer neighborhoods have poorer sidewalks. In many low-income neighborhoods, sidewalks are broken and are planted with fewer trees.
Ownership, governance, and funding structures are the main reasons sidewalk policies have been lagging. Sometimes sidewalks are owned by the street, sometimes by the adjacent property owner. No matter who holds title, maintenance is often delegated to owners, but multiple agencies have a say in the matter. This translates into unequal sidewalks. Owners in low-income neighborhoods have less resources to invest in their sidewalks. Additionally, low-income neighborhoods have a higher number of renters, so landlords have less incentive to invest in repairing the sidewalks or taking care of the trees.
Not only are the duties of maintenance left to private owners, but construction is as well. In many neighborhoods where sidewalks do not exist, cities may require owners to install them if they remodel their property. However, most cities allow owners to get out of this requirement by paying an in-lieu fee. One interesting policy to highlight is Nashville's. Only about 20% of Nashville’s streets have sidewalks. While the municipality offers the possibility of an in-lieu fee when someone remodels her property, if even one neighbor on that street has opted for installing the sidewalk, the option disappears, and subsequent owners must build the sidewalk. Nashville’s approach should be replicated, but more innovation in sidewalk policy is needed.
While we can blame twentieth-century post-war suburban growth for the lack of sidewalks in some neighborhoods, not even all new developments have them. In the same way we are incentivizing developments in dense areas, municipalities should be creative, and encourage developers to think of on-site and off-site walkability. In the same way that we have experimented with technology-forcing environmental regulations (the limits on certain pollutants were set lower than current pollution control technology allowed to force innovations), developers should not just look at projected pedestrian traffic but be required to incentivize it.
Public investment is also essential. Investment in infrastructure has traditionally ignored sidewalks. but it should no longer be considered second class infrastructure, and the high economic, social, and health costs of poor sidewalks must be recognized. President’s Biden Infrastructure and Investment Jobs Act includes $5 billion to make streets safer for all, down from the $20 billion included in the American Jobs Plan. Still, $5 billion is quite the improvement, as the only pot of Federal money municipalities previously could tap for sidewalks and bike lanes was $850 million. Municipalities should invest the funds wisely, if they arrive, but even without them, municipalities should make sidewalk construction, widening, and fixing a priority, all while ensuring sidewalk accessibility and increasing tree canopy.