I love sidewalks. For those of us steeped in sustainable development, the humble concrete walkway is the symbol of our cause—it protects us from traffic, connects us to neighbors, and proclaims our commitment to a healthier lifestyle. It’s what makes a walkable community walkable.
Then, I had to pay $3,000 to fix mine.
My wife and I live in Jenkintown, Pennsylvania—a borough north of Philadelphia with easy train access, a good school, and sidewalks along every street. In April, 2015, we received a letter from the borough stating that several concrete blocks in front of our houses needed to be fixed, “for the safety of the general public.” And it was our responsibility to get it done.
This came as a shock. In my former home state of Massachusetts, as in most of New England, municipalities maintain the entire public right-of-way, which usually encompass abutting pedestrian infrastructure as well. But not in Pennsylvania, or California, or in many other towns and states. A quick survey of sidewalk ordinances around the country reveals of patchwork of policies, with no regional or political patterns. Progressive Portland, Oregon, requires homeowners to fix, while Portland, Maine assigns the job to public works. In red state Tennessee, Knoxville pays, while in blue state Minnesota, Minneapolis put homeowners on the hook. And so it goes.
The politics of sidewalk funding rarely make headlines, but the issue surfaced in Los Angeles recently, when the city announced a new policy dubbed “fix and release.” L.A. assumed responsibility for sidewalks in 1973 and received a $2 million federal grant to fix crumbling walkways; today, having failed to create a dedicated funding stream to continue the work, the city is trying to shift the repair burden back upon homeowners. L.A. also recently pledged $1.3 billion for sidewalk repairs as part of a settlement in a lawsuit brought against it by ADA advocates. “This is a problem that has been 40 years in the making,” L.A. city councilman Paul Krekorian told the Los Angeles Times in March.
It might seem like a minor issue to complain about cracks in the sidewalk when buckled bridges, crippled subways, and other, flashier infrastructure woes dominate headlines. But sidewalk funding matters. I balked at the principle (and the pocketbook hit) of my $3,000 repair bill, because the policy struck me as yet-another example of how towns and cities subsidize automobile usage and neglect walkability. Asking homeowners to pay directly for pedestrian infrastructure also exposes residents to legal liabilities, encourages builders not to include walkways for new housing developments, and hurts the area’s overall aesthetics.
I can speak directly to that last issue here in Jenkintown, which now boasts a Band-Aid streetscape of mismatched surfaces and patches. A recent mass inspection of our borough’s sidewalks triggered a frenzy of repair activity: Homeowners had four months to comply or face fines of $185 per day. All summer, small bands of itinerant contractors roamed the streets, presenting wildly varying estimates. The imbroglio—and my own looming repair bill—inspired me to launch a website, Walkable Jenkintown, and lead an effort to change the borough’s sidewalk funding policy.
So far, this campaign has proved futile. “This is the way we've always done it,” one councilman declared in a community meeting. “This is the way everyone else does it. I see no reason to change this now.” Some residents, fearing a property tax hike, take out a loan to get the job done and move on. One neighbor stated before Borough Council that he would delay the installation of new windows to pay for his sidewalk. “I guess my kids will have to sleep in drafty rooms for one more year,” he shrugged.
Contractors know that homeowners face hard deadlines, allowing them to present inflated estimates. According to figures presented by our borough manager, almost everyone ends up paying more than what the DPW pays. Freed from responsibility for its sidewalks, the town spends the money elsewhere, often on pedestrian-unfriendly projects. In 2008, Jenkintown borrowed $2.4 million to construct a new parking lot for its commercial district. This subsidy for the business district and its car-driving customers could have rebuilt roughly one-third of our sidewalks and curbs. It’s an inefficient solution that breeds both substandard sidewalk repairs and resentful residents.
After an lengthy ordeal that involved speeches before the borough council, letters and emails to all our representatives, a GoFundMe campaign to help defray the cost, and two appearances in court, my own household’s contribution to the local pedestrian infrastructure is finally complete. But instead of feeling civic pride when I see my six new sidewalk blocks and 40 fresh feet of curb, this walkability advocate instead feels the stab of our intransigent government exacting its pound of flesh.
While I once loved Jenkintown for its location, charm and sense of community, it’s starting to feel as if my pet cause has come to bite me in the ass. I never saw sidewalks as a burden until I moved here. Now, I understand for the first time why many might opt not to live in a walkable community.