Dear Building Community
In my city, we have a massive highway that cuts its way from the south into the northeast. A decade ago this road wasn’t heavily trafficked, and there were hardly any businesses. In 2018, it’s the retail center of a huge swath of Northeast Arkansas from its southern tip to the northeastern city limits. Development on the road started with the additional of our new mall in the mid-2010s, and most recently a massive hospital was finished at the north side of the city that brought even more businesses. But as the rest of the long stretch of highway has been developed, one thing has seemingly gone ignored: sidewalks. This has created a situation where a massive highway with lots of businesses is incredibly inaccessible to people without cars or using mobility devices. It’s dangerous for pedestrians and most parts aren’t walkable at all when it’s raining. It’s additionally puzzling because this same road runs right by a state college; sidewalks leading downtown could promote student interaction with the city, and seems odd that the city would have let this road develop this way. How does something like this happen, besides the obvious thoughtless, ableist nature of city government? What makes sidewalks so hard for cities to grapple with that highways like this develop that are unsafe, inaccessible, and hostile to anyone not inside a car?
Sidewalks are really great so it’s always a shame when they don’t get built. As well as being an important part of accessibility as you mentioned, sidewalks also help reduce car trips, by making it easier and safer for people to walk instead of drive, and help to create a sense of community. Sidewalks are place where people meet by chance, say hello and pet each other’s dogs. Sidewalks are also important to communities with less access to cars like students.
The main reason sidewalks don’t get built is that sidewalks are what economists call a public good — everyone can benefit from them, and one person using them doesn’t take away from other’s ability to use them. Some other examples of public goods in this sense are clean air, knowledge and national defense. Since everyone benefits from public goods and once they exist people can’t be excluded, its is in everyone’s selfish interest not to pay for them but instead to hope that others create them.
In most US cities sidewalks are on private land. The city might own the street but they don’t own the sidewalk, the people who own the lot next to the sidewalk own the land under it. Building and maintaining sidewalks is generally a requirement in the city building code but that doesn’t mean sidewalks always get built. Even though everyone benefits from a good network of sidewalks, the people who own the property don’t benefit very much from that one section in front of their house or business so they are not incentivized to pay for it.
For many public goods, we as a society address the problem by having people pay taxes and then using the tax money to pay for what the public needs. However most cities do not use this model for sidewalks. One of the reasons for this is the US historical prioritization of cars over other means of transportation. Also since sidewalks are technically on private land some people have objected to using public funds to pay for improvements to private lands. Because the Fifth Amendment states that private property cannot be taken by the government without “just compensation” if cities want to own that land they would have to buy it at fair market rate. Very few cities have that kind of money. So sidewalks get stuck in this weird limbo where the people responsible of building them don’t have much incentive to do so.
Having sidewalks paid for by the homeowner is not a red state/blue state divide. My parents who live in the San Francisco Bay Area recently had to pay to repair they sidewalk in front of their house. While they could afford it I’m sure they would rather have paid the same amount in small yearly taxes rather than a lump sum all at once. And for people who are less financially stable than my parents having to pay a big sum like that unexpectedly can be a major problem. So the current system can be really hard on struggling homeowners. However most people don’t think about how sidewalk installation and repair are funded and assume that the city pays for it.
I also want to mention that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) does not require that sidewalks be built, only that sidewalks which are built or upgraded meet certain standards of accessibility. So that makes sidewalks more expensive to build but doesn’t deal with what is a key issue in many communities, the lack of any sidewalk at all. Another common problem with sidewalks is lack of connectivity — where you have sidewalks in some places but not everywhere, for example I’ve seen sidewalks that end in the middle of blocks, and places where the sidewalk is just missing for a block. Things like that make it hard for people to get around on foot and are very challenging to people with mobility issues.
I hope this helps you understand why your city doesn’t have sidewalks in that commercial district. I think the solution is to change the way that sidewalk installation and maintenance are paid for but that it will be tough to overcome years of inertia, fears around raising taxes, and concerns about private property rights. Best of luck!