Putting Sidewalks Front and Center

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Scholars debate how best to regulate to create safe and accessible sidewalks.

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At least 20 pedestrians are killed each day walking along U.S. roadways. The nation’s failure to build accessible sidewalks—and in some areas, any sidewalks at all—is partially to blame.

Thousands of miles of sidewalks are missing along American roads. Even where sidewalks do exist, many are decaying beneath citizens’ feet. And in cities, scenes of chaos erupt daily as pedestrians, electric scooters, and restaurants vie for space next to busy roadways.

These poorly managed sidewalks create hazards for everyone who uses them. They make traveling difficult or impossible for people who use mobility devices such as wheelchairs and walkers. Even as accessibility advocates laud a new federal rule that at last sets design standards for sidewalk accessibility, obstacles to accessibility remain.

But who is responsible for maintaining sidewalks?

The answer changes from place to place. In some areas, governments task private property owners with everything from construction to repair to snow shoveling. Critics, however, note that this model disproportionately burdens poor communities and cuts them off from safe paths to public transportation.

In other jurisdictions, local municipalities fund sidewalk maintenance. Even in those areas, however, governments often split responsibilities across multiple agencies. This fragmentation leads to confusion over agency duties and disagreements over rights to sidewalk use.

When governments invest in sidewalks, the public benefits. Research suggests walkable communities have healthier citizens and experience less childhood obesity. Installations of sidewalks reduce car crashes involving pedestrians by almost 90 percent. And usable walkways help cut down on harmful emissions from cars.

Some pedestrian advocates and planning experts contend that communities should make sidewalks their top infrastructure priority.

In this week’s Saturday Seminar, scholars discuss how best to regulate sidewalks.

  • In an article for Cities, Alexis Corning Padilla of the University of New Mexico and Gregory Rowangould of the University of Vermont propose alternative policies for managing sidewalk maintenance. The traditional property owner responsibility model, Padilla and Rowangould contend, results in discontinuous and inaccessible walkways across the nation. Padilla and Rowangould propose that a more sustainable and cost-effective option would be for municipalities to take responsibility for sidewalk upkeep. To finance this alternative regulation model, they propose several tax-based funding schemes, which they argue would reduce costs and address equity and environmental justice concerns.
  • Local land use and zoning offices are essential players in realizing disability rights, argues Robin Paul Malloy, a professor at Syracuse College of Law, in an article for the Virginia Journal of Social Policy & The Law. Malloy uses sidewalks to explain that achieving accessibility requires cooperation between private property owners and disability advocates. At times, private property rights rhetoric seems to conflict with accessibility advocacy—the former emphasizes the right to exclude, and the latter emphasizes anti-discrimination. Local planning offices, Malloy contends, should serve as a point at which these competing interests resolve by fostering dialogue between advocates, property owners, and experts.
  • Electric scooters and delivery robots are a threat to accessible sidewalks, argues Cynthia L. Bennett of Carnegie Mellon University and several coauthors in an article for the Designing Interactive Systems conference. Scooters and delivery robots are micromobility devices, which are small-scale, networked vehicles that travel short distances, often using sidewalks, explains the Bennett team. Bennett and her coauthors found that transportation regulators have overlooked the needs of people with disabilities who share space on the sidewalk with these devices. Regulators must weigh the convenience and eco-friendliness of these technologies with the rights of disabled people to exist safely in public, the Bennett team urges.
  • In a forthcoming article for the Michigan Law Review, Michael C. Pollack of Cardozo Law School makes the case for local Departments of Sidewalks. Space on the sidewalk, Pollack explains, is increasingly hard-won as populations grow and technologies blossom. The burdens on adjacent property owners to maintain sidewalks, Pollack warns, is becoming untenable, and their incentive to act is waning. While Pollack acknowledges that de-privatizing sidewalk responsibility would be expensive, he counters that local governments already waste taxpayer money by trying to force property owners’ compliance with sidewalk regulations. Instead, Pollack proposes, the more efficient solution is for municipalities to apply their expertise and labor directly to proactively address sidewalk management.
  • If cities want to expand use of public spaces, they must consider the needs of people with disabilities, argues Sarah Schindler of the Sturm College of Law in an article for the Yale Law Journal Forum. Schindler notes the need for greater clarity on who decides how these spaces are used. Schindler points out that political decisions on sidewalk use may center the interests of influential property owners and exclude marginalized citizens, including those with disabilities. Schindler recommends that sidewalk permitting and decision-making should be handled by bodies that are subject to and have experience eliciting broad public input. Local planning offices, Schindler suggests, may be the most apt for the job.
  • In an article for Texas A&M University School of Law, Vanessa Casado-Pérez argues that policymakers should prioritize pedestrians over automobiles. The COVID-19 lockdowns, Casado-Pérez explains, resulted in citizens realizing the benefits of sidewalks for both economic activity and health. Casado-Pérez asserts that the federal government should encourage the expanded use of sidewalks. Casado-Pérez provides examples of federal funding strategies that local governments could use to focus on sidewalk improvement. Casado-Pérez urges municipalities to seek out funds to create sidewalks that are wider and well-maintained and to force developers to adopt plans that increase walkability.

The Saturday Seminar is a weekly feature that aims to put into written form the kind of content that would be conveyed in a live seminar involving regulatory experts. Each week, The Regulatory Review publishes a brief overview of a selected regulatory topic and then distills recent research and scholarly writing on that topic.