By Guest Columnist SALLY FLOCKS, founder, president and CEO of PEDS, an Atlanta-based advocacy group for pedestrians.
In Boston, Charlotte, Chicago, and Washington, D.C., tax dollars pay for sidewalk repairs, with substantial amounts budgeted each year. The City of Atlanta, in contrast, makes sidewalk repairs the responsibility of adjacent property owners.
The City’s program is politically unpopular, especially in low-income areas, and has been ineffective city-wide. The annual budget includes no funding for sidewalk maintenance or enforcement, which ties the hands of Public Works officials. Few people voluntarily repair sidewalks, and everyone who walks suffers as a result.
The 2008 State of the City’s Infrastructure report estimates that 18 percent of the City’s sidewalks need to be repaired or replaced, at a cost of $79.4 million.
In 2004 the City launched a campaign to educate property owners about their responsibility to repair sidewalks. During the four years that followed, the City collected just $200,000 from property owners for sidewalk repairs. At that rate, addressing the City’s backlog of broken sidewalks would take sixteen centuries.
Sidewalk maintenance is a basic service of municipalities and should be funded by all taxpayers, not just adjacent property owners. The use of public money to build sidewalks makes sidewalks public assets, just like the streets.
The City doesn’t ask property owners to repair potholes on streets adjacent to their lots. Likewise, it shouldn’t delegate sidewalk maintenance to abutting property owners.
Damaged sidewalks often span multiple properties on the same block. Repairing these sidewalks in a piecemeal way is far more expensive than fixing them on a block by block or neighborhood basis. Trying to get property owners to repair sidewalks also adds significant administrative costs.
Delegating sidewalk maintenance to property owners also is unfair to property owners and to pedestrians. Maintenance costs vary considerably, due to tree roots, illegal sidewalk parking, car wrecks or other factors beyond the control of property owners. People who live on corner lots should not have to pay double.
Most important, pedestrians should not have to endure hazardous sidewalks wherever property owners cannot afford to hire a contractor.
The percentage of Atlanta’s population that is over 65 is expected to double in the next 20 years. If the City fails to implement an effective maintenance program, defective sidewalks are likely to result in an increasing number of falls—a higher percentage of which will result in serious injuries.
The number of people with disabilities is also likely to increase as Atlanta ages, making broken sidewalks an obstacle to more and more pedestrians. Investing public funds in sidewalk maintenance would provide much better returns to the people of Atlanta than payments to victims in court cases.
Under the current system, the big losers are Atlanta’s pedestrians. Nothing gets repaired; and people who walk struggle with numerous tripping hazards. Fixing broken sidewalks should be a priority for the city. Procrastination is not a solution.