In Ithaca, New York, the change in sidewalk policy came after the mayor heard directly from residents who were concerned about the condition of sidewalks and the city policy around them. Shortly after he was elected, Mayor Svante Myrick hired Eric Hathaway to serve as the city’s new sidewalk program manager.
“When I first started with the City, the Mayor and I took a walk together to discuss the vision for the program. He mentioned that, as he campaigned door to door, sidewalks were an issue that residents frequently mentioned to him as an area for improvement. Not only were the sidewalks in poor shape, but the system of reporting defects created division among neighbors, since residents were responsible for repairing the sidewalk in front of their property,“ Hathaway says.
The mayor created a task force, made up of a diverse group of stakeholders from the community. They helped create a new sidewalk policy other cities are now studying as a model.
The Ithaca policy deals with a major issue identified by the task force. The city’s old policy – and the policy followed by most cities including Kansas City – put the responsibility for sidewalk repair on individual property owners.
“The policy didn’t work within communities themselves,” Hathaway says. “It caused interpersonal issues.”
Many people, including those who responded to a MidtownKC Walks survey, say they feel it is unfair to burden some property owners, especially low-income and elderly ones, with the cost of repairing sidewalks while their neighbors pay nothing.
People also are reluctant to complain to the city about neighbors’ sidewalks because of the cost to the property owner. A 2006 Kansas City audit found that even some members of the public works department said they didn’t want to become the “sidewalk police” because of concerns about the cost to homeowners.
In Ithaca, the solution the task force found was to spread out responsibility for sidewalk maintenance and make costs more predictable. The city created five sidewalk districts funded by an annual sidewalk assessment fee paid by all property owners.
Now each year, Hathaway works with the residents of each district to make a plan for their neighborhoods.
“People appreciate that they don’t have to shoulder the cost individually,” he says.
The new program also allows the city to be more strategic in its sidewalk efforts.
“I think the new policy has allowed us to think more strategically and to think about the whole block rather than individual properties. It is also an opportunity to listen to the entire community as we consider how the work gets done,’ Hathaway says.
In Los Angeles, the city’s attention to sidewalks was spurred by a $14 billion 2010 lawsuit by Californians for Disability Rights against the state Department of Transportation. The class-action lawsuit alleged the city didn’t keep up the maintenance of sidewalks so they were sometimes unusable by people in wheelchairs, scooters and other assistive devices. Under an agreement, the city is now investing $31 million a year for the next 30 years to fix its broken sidewalks.
Sacramento also settled a class-action lawsuit by agreeing to spend 20 percent of all transportation dollars on curb ramps and sidewalks. Other lawsuits are pending in New York City and Long Beach, Ca.
Kansas City settled an ADA compliant in 2012 by agreeing to make improvements in its parking, restrooms, and routes into buildings, among other things. According to Sheila Styron of The Whole Person, that has led to some improvements in accessibility to city programs, facilities, communications and activities, and the city has hired an ADA compliance officer to help the city move forward with compliance.
But she says there’s still a way to go. One frustration has been the long wait for final guidelines for sidewalks, pedestrian street crossings and other pedestrian right-of-way issues.
“The specifications for accessible sidewalks come from the Access Board, and we are still not so patiently waiting for the latest requirements to be adopted as laid out in the Pedestrian Rights of Way Accessibility Guidelines, known as PROWAG” she says.
In Atlanta, pedestrian advocacy group PEDS has been pushing for a change in city policy that puts the burden of sidewalk maintenance on homeowners. They point out that Atlanta has a high poverty rate, and damage to sidewalks is often caused by things outside a property owner’s control, such as car crashes and street trees. They call for a shared responsibility between the city and property holders.
“The people who suffer the most is not the property owners. It is the people who walk,” Sally Flocks of PEDS says.