Monday, August 23, 2010

A new fix for local sidewalks

You may recall the hullaballoo that ensued earlier this year when the City of Los Angeles considered discontinuing its longstanding practice of paying for sidewalk repairs. Even though state law places the burden of sidewalk maintenance on adjacent property owners, LA took over responsibility in the early 70s after it received a hunk of federal funding for sidewalks. Now that the funding has run out, the City is looking to slither out of the sidewalk repair business.

Not only does this irritate property owners, who have gotten used to the City taking charge (however slowly) of sidewalk fixes, it raises issues related to accessibility under the Americans with Disabilites Act. The federal courts have ruled that ADA regulations, which stipulate equal access to the mobility-impaired, require local jurisdictions to maintain their sidewalks in good repair.

And how will cash-strapped cities like LA afford to do this? Donald Shoup (of The High Cost of Free Parking fame) offers one suggestion in the most recent issue of Access: point-of-sale sidewalk repairs.

The point-of-sale strategy works like this: prior to the sale of any property, owners are required to obtain a Certificate of Compliance proving that the sidewalk in front of their property meets city standards (e.g. isn't unduly buckled or full of dangerous cracks and holes). If a sidewalk isn't up to snuff, the property owner can either choose to repair it prior to sale, or contract with the city to fix the problem. The advantage of this method is that it provides ample cash (from the sale of the property) for the owner to fund the repair, thus eliminating one typical objection to owner-funded repairs (limited cashflow).

Shoup estimates that such a program would ensure that sidewalks in a city like Los Angeles would be repaired about once every 24 years (compared to the 69 years estimated to fix LA's sidewalks under today's sytem). However, if a city wanted to get really sophisticated, it could fund sidewalk repairs prior to the sale of a property (perhaps on a regular, citywide schedule) and require the property owner to pay back the cost of the "loan" for the repairs whenever the owner happened to sell the property. This could allow sidewalk repairs to happen even faster.

Point-of-sale sidewalk repair programs are already in place in at least two California cities (Piedmont and Pasadena). Hopefully with the backing of a rock star like Shoup, they'll catch on elsewhere.


  1. Interesting idea, basically an extension of the way cities often require a home inspection to certify that the building is up to code before it is sold. In my town, home repairs either have to be made before the sale, or disclosed to the buyer so they have the option to negotiate a lower sale price to make up for the fact that they will have to bring the house up to code before occupying it.

    It's kind of hard to feel any sympathy for the people in LA who are complaining about the situation, given that I've always lived in areas where the homeowner was expected to pay for sidewalk repair via extra tax assessments.

    Of course one can argue that placing the burden of repair directly on the homeowner discourages the extension of sidewalks into developing areas, particularly in auto-centric suburbs. People who drive everywhere turn up their noses at the idea of paying for a sidewalk in front of their house, seeing it as something they gain no benefit from, but are on the hook for maintaining, snow clearing and such.

    I wish I had an answer for the problem.

  2. I would divert whatever funds are needed from street repair to sidewalk repair (and same thing for snow removal, building new sidewalks/streets). Either that, or give pedestrians right of way against drivers in the street and enforce the law through huge fines and/or arrests. But if, as is the case almost everywhere in the US now, the government is going to require walkers to give right of way to drivers in the street, then it should have to pay for whatever is needed for walkers to exercise their right to walk without as little interference from drivers as possible.

    Or maybe take Shoup's idea, but apply it to the purchase of a new car -- if you purchase a car, then you have to pay, say, a 10% tax which is devoted entirely to meeting pedestrian (and maybe bicyclist) needs.

  3. Aargh...last line of 1st paragraph should have been "with" as little interference...

  4. What I really like about this method is that it provides an "enforcement" mechanism to help ensure that the repairs actually get done in a timely manner. I think it's fine to put the burden for repairs entirely on the property owner, but without a Certificate of Compliance or something similar required at sale, who's to say the property owner will ever get around to actually doing the repairs?

    @Eileen--I do also think that charging drivers for their external impacts on pedestrian travel makes sense, be that via a tax on vehicle purchases or roadway pricing or fines...

  5. "without a Certificate of Compliance or something similar required at sale, who's to say the property owner will ever get around to actually doing the repairs?"

    I don't know how it is in other places, but where I live the city gets complaints about bad sidewalks, sends out an inspector, and determines that the sidewalk needs repair. After that the city notifies the homeowners, makes the repairs, and adds a special assessment to their tax bills, spread out over the course of the next 20 years to make it manageable. If the house is sold before the assessment is paid off, the remainder is assessed from the profits from the sale.

  6. The City of Ventura used to maintain sidewalks, too, and very quietly cut the program. Most residents have no idea they are now responsible for sidewalk repairs and could be liable for any injury that results.

    Unfortunately, the city's permitting process doesn't help. Pruning a city-owned parkway tree, for example, requires a permit, but it's free. If I want to repair my sidewalk, however, I have to pay over $100 for the proper permit, even if I'm repairing damage caused by a city-owned parkway tree.

  7. Joshua- Wow, what city do you live in? I really like that idea as well...

    Mike- I am immediately going to check through our ordinances to make sure we don't have a similar fee. That just doesn't make sense...

  8. I live in St Louis Park, MN. I haven't had a sidewalk repaired myself as yet, but another resident who has told me that the city's rates were good because apparently they bundle a bunch of repair jobs together and ask for a bulk discount from the contractor.

    Minneapolis, one of the nearby cities, has a similar program, only real difference being that the time frame to pay the assessment off varies depending on how much the bill is.

    Another nearby city, St Paul, just assesses everyone a yearly "Right Of Way" fee based on property type and how much frontage you have, and then handles any repairs themselves.

    The one big issue that keeps the system from being perfect is that the city often depends on people contacting them to report damaged sidewalks before they send out an inspector. It's obviously cheaper then having someone inspect every sidewalk in the city every year or so, but sometimes people don't know that you can contact the city about such issues, or they just figure it's none of their business.

  9. I'm filing those ideas away in my "best real-world fixes for walkability issues" file. I especially like the Right of Way fee, because it could be used to maintain more than just sidewalks. I wonder if I can convince the powers that be over on this coast to adopt one...

  10. YJ Draiman said

    sidewalk and driveway repairs

    Let us look at these facts.

    Is the sidewalk private property?

    Answer: NO

    Can a homeowner’s fence off the sidewalk like his own private property?

    Answer: NO. (It is a statute that a sidewalk is for the public use).

    Can a homeowner control who walks on the sidewalk like his own property?

    Answer: NO

    Can a homeowner cut a tree in the sidewalk.

    Answer: NO

    Many of the problems are caused by tree roots! Who planted those trees?

    Answer: The City of Los Angeles.


    Therefore, it is the City of Los Angeles responsibility.

    There are numerous other reasons, this is a good start.

    YJ Draiman, NENC Member

    PS. Any one who has any additional input or suggestions, please let me know.

  11. Council File: 05-1853Title
    Motion - The City should explore creative approaches to solving the backlog of our sidewalk repair needs. While many and varied approaches are helping, miles and miles of sidewalks heave and buckle. Tree roots must be pruned. Root barriers must be installed to protect new sidewalks, and more trees - species appropriate to planting next to new sidewalks - must line our City's streets. The Bureau of Street Services is budgeted to replace 52 miles of the 6500 miles of sidewalks this year. A customer calling in for sidewalk service today can expect the work to be done in 83 years. The City's 2005-06 budget did expand the successful pilot 50/50 sidewalk repair program, but this still leaves 98% of the sidewalks in need of repair yet unfixed. Urban planners have long advocated a point-of-sale plan similar to what is done in other cities and what is done currently to ensure the safety of water heaters and the water efficiency of toilets. This approach acknowledges that it is the property owner who is responsible for the repair of their sidewalk and then offers a simple and efficient way of getting sidewalks fixed: before real estate is sold, the City inspects the sidewalk fronting the property. If the sidewalk is in good condition, the owner is not required to do anything. If the sidewalk is damaged, the owner is required to repair it before the property is sold. City workers will fix sidewalks, affordably, and homeowners can pay for these repairs when they sell their homes. Beyond improving sidewalks, the point-of-sale strategy has several advantages. Owners don't have to do anything until they sell their property. The sale provides the cash to pay for required repairs. Owners fix only the sidewalk on their own property. Improved sidewalks increase the value of property and this may persuade owners to make repairs early. Half of all properties in Los Angeles are sold at least once every decade. Because the turnover rate is about the same all over the city, sidewalks will be repaired at about the same rate. These repairs would cost the City nothing. In fact, the City would save money because better sidewalks reduce the number of trip-and-fall lawsuits. Half of what the City will spend this year paying for trip-and-fall lawsuits can serve as seed money to start this program. Given the rate at which houses change hands in Los Angeles, a revolving fund could build quickly. In addition, there is a clear economic development benefit to this proposal. It is estimated that in the first year of a point-of-sale program, 460 miles of sidewalks would be repaired, total local wages would increase $102 million, and 2,600 new jobs would be created with average annual wages and benefits of $39,000. Los Angeles City workers strive to provide high quality cost effective services. This approach could provide benefits to all sectors. This pay-as-you go proposal promises to fix an unfixable sidewalk problem, to create many good jobs which would in turn pump millions into the local economy, enhance individual property values and neighborhood beauty and safety - and with no expense of public funds. THEREFORE MOVE that the Bureau of Street Services, with the assistance of the City Administrative Officer and the City Attorney and in consultation with affected stake-holders such as realtors associations, apartment associations, homeowner groups, and others, be directed to report with recommendations relative to a point-of-sale plan for fixing the City's sidewalks whereby property sellers would be assessed the cost of fixing the sidewalks in front of their property, as further described in the text of this Motion.Date Received / Introduced
    09/06/2005Last Change Date
    12/14/2010Expiration Date
    04/19/2012Reference Numbers

  12. This sounds like another hinderance to rejuvenating neglected downtown neighborhoods. I would suggest instead that in such neighborhoods, the streets be narrowed using floating parking ,and the resulting protected lanes used as a sidewalk.

    Shifting the burden to the landowner because the city lacks the political will to raise taxes, or because the improvements are viewed as too onerous, is not the solution. A financially sustainable solution needs to be found.

    The overwide streets that plague American cities are a resource that begs to be used constructively. If landowners are not willing to fix the sidewalks, it means expensive infrastructure is probably not financially viable in that neighborhood. The most expensive infrastructure is the street, so use the pst investments to solve the problem, instead of investing in even more infrastructure.

    If landowners don't like their street being narrowed down, they can fix the sidewalks, or eliminate on-street parking.

    In the end, there should not be a blanket solution.