There are no Sidewalks; Existing Sidewalks are Blocked or in Poor Repair

One of the key components of a walkable neighborhood is the sidewalk—the roadway for pedestrians. Characteristics of good sidewalks include:

  • They are continuous—there are no gaps in the sidewalk network.
  • They are installed on both sides of a street; while a sidewalk on one side of the street is certainly better than no sidewalk at all, this does not mean that a sidewalk should not exist on both sides of the street.
  • They are separated from moving traffic. A planting strip is a common buffer, and if wide enough can include street trees. Parked cars or on-street bike lanes also provide separation of pedestrians from traffic. For more information on sidewalk buffers, see the article, "Sidewalks placement: What are the advantages of setting back the sidewalk with a planting strip?."
  • They are wide enough to comfortably accommodate at least two adults walking side by side, and are clear of obstructions both horizontally and vertically; this includes overgrowth, parked vehicles, and garbage or recycle containers.
  • They are well maintained and free of cracks or lifted sections that could become tripping hazards and barriers to people in wheelchairs.

Making the case for new sidewalks

To make the case to install sidewalks in your neighborhood, you may need to convince your neighbors and town or city officials that sidewalks are important. Sidewalks are important for a multitude of reasons:

  • Sidewalks provide a safe and level walkway, especially during wet weather and for people using wheelchairs, the elderly, or people pushing a cart or stroller. For these people, it is particularly important that sidewalks have well-designed curb ramps and level driveway crossings.
  • Sidewalks provide safe places for children to walk, run, skate, ride their bikes, and play.
  • Sidewalks significantly reduce pedestrian collisions with motor vehicles: For instance, one study found that in residential and mixed residential areas, pedestrian crashes were more than two times as likely to occur at locations without sidewalks than would be expected on the basis of exposure.1
  • Sidewalks improve the ability for people to get around by providing ways for them to get wherever they need to go: work, parks, schools, shopping areas, transit stops, and home.
  • Sidewalks enhance the appearance of individual properties, neighborhoods, and the entire community.
  • Sidewalks help protect property frontage from damage due to erosion and parking.
  • Sidewalks provide separation between motor vehicles and pedestrians.

Strategies for supporting construction of new sidewalks

The following should be considered when supporting the construction of new sidewalks:

  • Patience is a virtue: It may take some time to get sidewalks installed in your community. Town or city responses sometime take awhile to work their way through the system to review and rank your project, secure funding, project design, as the design and bidding phases.
  • Funding is limited: Sidewalk installation programs are generally limited by available funds. Depending on the topography, drainage needs, and necessity of purchasing additional space (i.e., right-of-way) to construct the sidewalk from property owners, some sidewalk installation projects may be quite expensive. To augment available funds, some planning programs have found a variety of potential sources, both state and federal, which may be used to fund future sidewalk installation projects. The National Transportation Enhancements Clearinghouse has a helpful web site for municipalities looking for funding options. Additionally, some communities have formed improvement districts where residents have agreed to pay for sidewalk improvements over several years through a tax on the property owners who benefit from the improvement projects.
  • Build support within your neighborhood: Your elected officials will be more willing and likely to support a sidewalk project that has wide support from the community. Homeowners associations or a school Parent Teacher Organization (PTO) can often be a formidable and persuasive ally. Some residents may oppose a sidewalk in front of their homes, sometimes for hard-to-understand reasons. Some may think the sidewalk may cause them to "lose" property in front of their homes, when it is often already public right-of-way. Some others may oppose a project if they think the project is proposed and sponsored by the town or city. Sometimes these people can be swayed if they are shown that support for the project comes from the neighborhood via a neighborhood association (instead of the town or city) or if there is a special plea from a nearby school principal or PTO representative.

Request that sidewalks be installed in your neighborhood

Sidewalks should be installed by developers when constructing new buildings or homes and by your town, city, county, or state agencies during roadway improvement projects. Each town or city handles requests for sidewalk installation differently. Call your town or city and ask who you should talk to about installing a sidewalk. The cost of sidewalks is often important in determining how many sidewalk projects a town or city can build each year. A jurisdiction may have a system developed to prioritize sidewalk projects. They may be able to give guidance to you and your neighbors about what type of project would compete best for funds. For instance, priority locations may be those on busy streets, or around schools and senior centers.

There are a variety of different sidewalk designs possible. See the Sidewalk page for more details about sidewalk design. If your jurisdiction is supportive of low-cost walkways, they may provide a faster way to get a pedestrian walking path installed.

If your jurisdiction does not have a sidewalk program in place, read the case studies to familiarize yourself with important aspects other towns and cities consider when determining where to install a sidewalk. These programs represent some of the sidewalk installation programs that exist in cities throughout the nation. If your town does not have a sidewalk installation program, approaching elected officials, being persistent (and polite), and showing that the sidewalk project would have widespread support is the best way to get sidewalks constructed in your neighborhood. You can also suggest that your town or city adopt or change their sidewalk installation program.

Require developers to construct new sidewalks

New construction and redevelopment of existing buildings in many jurisdictions leads to the construction of most new sidewalks. This requirement may be based on how many dwelling units are being constructed or the size of the total development. However, even in locations that require developers to build sidewalks, developers are sometimes exempted from this requirement. Some common excuses:

  • The adjoining properties do not have sidewalks
  • No one walks in this neighborhood
  • The cost is too high

Citizen pressure may be required for the sidewalk construction requirements to be enforced. Active and aware neighbors can be an asset in monitoring new development in their neighborhoods. If there is a certain threshold that developments must meet to require significant off-site improvements (such as sidewalks), you may notice that many developers will make sure to stay under these thresholds. Consider lobbying your local government to change its policies if new construction in your neighborhood does not result in better walking conditions.

Problems/obstructions on existing sidewalks

A variety of problems may make walking on the sidewalks in your neighborhood difficult, if not impossible. These include:

  • Sidewalks are buckled, lifted, or cracked due to tree roots or other causes
  • Sidewalks are blocked due to the placement of utility poles, sign posts, pot holes, fire hydrants, bus benches, newspaper racks, snow, parked cars, or other obstructions
  • Sidewalks are blocked by bushes or low tree branches
  • Sidewalks lack curb ramps at street corners, crosswalks, and driveways
  • The driveway side-slopes are steep and hard to cross

These situations can make walking difficult or impossible, especially for people pushing carts or strollers, older pedestrians, those with impaired vision and people with mobility difficulties who may be using walkers, canes, wheelchairs, and crutches.

Read through the following points to see how to best address the problem with sidewalks in your neighborhood and get more people walking.

Buckled, lifted, or cracked sidewalks

Most communities have policies that require adjacent property owners to be responsible for sidewalk repair. However, there may be a need to educate property owners about the requirement to maintain their sidewalks. Not only are smooth sidewalks a necessity for pedestrians with limited mobility, but keeping sidewalks well maintained may prevent someone from falling and becoming injured and may prevent a claim or possible lawsuit against the homeowner.

Sidewalks can fall into disrepair because of tree roots, plowing operations, erosion, heat buckling, damage by heavy vehicles, and simply time. Many towns or cities have programs that respond to requests for sidewalk repair generally in the public works, transportation, traffic, or street maintenance departments. For towns or cities without such programs, it may be necessary to report sidewalk problems to your town or city council or manager. A community may have a special program for major repairs and damage caused by heat expansion or winter frost damage.

The repair process

Sidewalk repair reporting methods will vary by town. After a report is made, the town or city will likely send someone to assess the scale of the problem and will estimate the cost for the repair. An asphalt patch may be applied until the concrete replacement can be made. In the case of minor sidewalk heaving, town or city officials may choose to grind the concrete so that no uneven lip protrudes. Repairs may be performed by the town or city, or the adjacent property owner may be asked to contact a private contractor. Sometimes the town or city will pay for all of the necessary repairs, but often the town or city will split the bill with adjacent home or business owners. Occasionally, and if the damage is not caused by adjacent trees, frost damage, or heat buckling, the cost of the sidewalk repair may fall squarely on the property owner. Sidewalk removal and replacement can cost between $5.00 and $8.00 per square foot.

Since tree roots are often the culprit in breaking sidewalks, a number of solutions to this problem have been devised. While the trimming of tree roots is most common, the trimming may be harmful to the tree and is only a temporary fix. The installation of root barrier and the planting of appropriately sized trees in the right-of-way are other approaches.

Sidewalk obstructions

Obstacles on sidewalks can make walking difficult and sometimes dangerous, especially when a pedestrian has to walk into the street to get around the barrier. It is difficult, if not impossible, for people using wheelchairs, canes, crutches, and walkers as well as people pushing strollers to contend with obstacles in sidewalks, especially if they cannot be easily moved. Pedestrians who are visually impaired can be injured by low-hanging branches and may not be comfortable going around a barrier.

Sidewalk obstructions can generally be divided into those that must be fixed by the town or city, and those that property owners and other citizens are responsible for preventing.

Utility poles or other permanent obstructions

When you become aware of an obstacle for which the town or city is responsible, contact your town or city officials and ask them to remove the obstacle. Many fixed objects often can easily be moved, especially sign posts, bus benches, mail boxes, newspaper racks, and tripping obstacles such as old sign post stubs and valve or meter covers that may not be flush with the sidewalk. Sign posts, in particular can often be moved to another location or the signs can be mounted on a nearby utility pole. They should never be installed on sidewalks when there is an adjacent planting strip. Utility guy wires or tie downs that a pedestrian could hit should be reported to the town or city or the utility company. In some instances where the wire is close to—but not immediately adjacent to—the sidewalk, a bright yellow plastic covering can make the tie down wire more visible to pedestrians.

Some communities provide mail-back cards to disabled citizens and neighborhood advocates to help report sidewalk blockages for repair and removal. Encourage your community to start this type of program if you do not already have one. It can make walking easier and minimize potential claims and lawsuits against your community.

If you are told that a removal or relocation is too difficult and expensive, try to persuade your town or city officials to remedy the situation or at least not make the same mistake in the future. See if the town or city can provide extra space around the obstacle, perhaps by widening the sidewalk in an area adjacent to the obstacle such as utility pole. If a sidewalk obstacle creates an ADA violation, it has to be remedied. Cost is not an excuse for not making a sidewalk accessible.

All walkways must be in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, which mandates the establishment of minimum walkway clearance widths, most recently updated to 48 inches. This clear width minimum is the minimum width for passage and not a sidewalk width recommendation. There are a variety of organizations that offer sidewalk width recommendations (Guide for the Planning Design and Operation of Pedestrian Facilities from the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials [AASHTO], the Design and Safety of Pedestrian Facilities from the Institute of Transportation Engineers [ITE], and the FHWA Designing Sidewalks and Trails for Access: Best Practices and Design Guide Part II). For more details, review the above documents or visit ADA-ABA Accessibility Guidelines for Buildings and Facilities and the Accessible Rights-of-Way: A Design Guide.

Bushes and low tree branches

Bushes and low tree branches encroaching upon the walkway make walking difficult along sidewalks. Most municipalities require that trees have an 8 foot minimum clearance above the sidewalk and that shrubs should not encroach into the sidewalk.

Trees or bushes along an arterial or major street are usually maintained by either the city or the adjacent property owners, while trees or bushes inside neighborhoods are maintained by a homeowners association or the adjacent property owners. Accordingly, if you encounter stretches of sidewalk in your neighborhood that are overhung by low-growing tree branches, contact your homeowner's association (if there is one in your neighborhood) and they will likely take care of the problem, either by trimming the tree or bush themselves or by informing the responsible property owners that they need to trim their landscaping. If there is no homeowner's association in your neighborhood, you may need to contact the town or city and inform them of the problem. If the property owner does not fix the problem after being given, the town or city can take legal action if need be and/or they can send someone to prune the trees at the owners' expense.

Snow removal

Where snowfall is common, most communities have policies that require that property owners remove snow from sidewalks adjacent to their property. Though policies vary, most require that any snowfall greater than a certain amount, usually two inches, must be removed within a certain time period after the snow initially falls, usually 12 to 24 hours. If you're concerned that snow is not being cleared in a timely fashion, contact your town or city to find out about your town or city's snow removal policy. If people in the neighborhood consistently neglect to remove the snow from the sidewalk on their property, then you may need to take action. First, try contacting your homeowners association. If you do not have a homeowners association or if they are unable to help, you may need to call your town or city to inform them that there is someone in your neighborhood who is in violation of the snow removal policy. The town or city may then contact the property owner and take legal steps if necessary.

If you know that your neighbor is unable to shovel snow, recommend that they hire a neighborhood teen or snow removal service to do it for them, or if you're feeling really kind, offer to do it for them for free! Check with your community to see if there is a volunteer snow shoveling program. If your community doesn't have such a program, suggest that they start one and help them make it so. As an example, Boulder, Colorado, has a city-run volunteer snow removal program called "Icebusters."

Illegally parked vehicles on the sidewalk

In most jurisdictions it is illegal to block the sidewalk. On a neighborhood level, distributing flyers letting offenders know that this practice is illegal may be enough of an education effort to solve the problem. Call your local parking enforcement officials to request ticketing of repeat offenders.

Curb ramps

Curb ramps provide access between the sidewalk and roadway for people using wheelchairs, strollers, walkers, crutches, handcarts, and bicycles as well as for people who have trouble stepping up and down high curbs. For detailed technical information on curb ramps, visit the Engineering section.

Where should curb ramps be installed?

Curb ramps must be installed at all intersections and midblock locations where pedestrian crossings exist, as mandated by federal legislation (the 1973 Rehabilitation Act) and must be designed in accordance with the Americans with Disabilities Act guidelines (to view the curb ramp guidelines, click here). All newly constructed and altered roadway projects must include curb ramps. Additionally, municipalities should try to upgrade existing facilities by conducting audits of their pedestrian facilities to make sure that transit services, schools, public buildings, and parks are accessible to pedestrians who use wheelchairs. While curb ramps are needed for use on all types of streets, priority locations are in downtown areas and streets near transit stops, schools, parks, medical facilities, shopping areas, and near residences with people who use wheelchairs.

Many towns and cities have funds set aside to install curb ramps in older areas, specifically targeting areas where the needs are the greatest, but it may take many years to retrofit an entire neighborhood or community with curb ramps. Some towns and cities also have special programs or funds to provide immediate relief where a special curb ramp is needed for a wheelchair user. If you have a special problem, ask your town or city officials if such a program exists. If not, encourage your town or city council or manager to create one. Agencies are required to install accessible curb ramps on all new construction projects and upgrades to a street, including street resurfacing projects.

How should curb ramps be installed?

At intersections, separate curb ramps for each crosswalk should be provided where feasible as opposed to having a single ramp at a corner for both crosswalks since this improves orientation for visually impaired pedestrians. Similarly, colored pavement and tactile warnings (truncated domes) help alert pedestrians to the sidewalk/street edge. Please see the engineering section for further design details.