Thursday, November 17, 2016

Does It Matter Who Pays For Sidewalks Or Is Walk Score Useless?

Some advocates for pedestrian access claim that the source of funding for sidewalks strongly affects a city’s walkability. Groups such as Atlanta’s PEDS argue that if cities fully fund sidewalk construction without any cost placed on adjacent property owners, walkability will be higher.

Measuring walkability is fraught with controversy. Walk Score is a popular tool that measures how pedestrian-friendly a city and its neighborhoods are. However, it is dependent on the proximity of residences to businesses. Their focus appears to be that it is more important to have somewhere to walk to than to have a clear path to get there. Such an assumption is a great way to start a bar fight among urbanists.

Let’s compare how the walk score for a few select cities varies under the following two circumstances: 

1.      1. The city spreads the cost of building sidewalks among all taxpayers, as with streets and highways via taxation.

2.      2. The city puts the onus of paying for sidewalk construction on the adjacent property owners.

The possible walk score range is 0-100. Higher scores reflect better walkability using this metric. Note that I am focusing on city policies for new construction to fill in sidewalk gaps.

Georgetown, a section of Washington, DC, features a dense grid, small blocks, and extensive sidewalks.
Washington, DC, updated its sidewalk installation policy in 2015 to ensure that gaps in sidewalk coverage were filled even when no new construction projects, such as road improvements or development projects, were planned. New sidewalk construction in gaps is prioritized as follows:
1.       School areas
2.       Routes that provide access to parks and recreational facilities
3.       Transit stops
4.       Locations where the absence of a sidewalk creates substantial pedestrian safety risks
5.       Roadway segments for which residents have petitioned to have sidewalks
The process is primarily staff-driven until the last criterion. It requires property owner input, but not their contribution of funds. Washington’s walk score is an impressive 77.

Fairfax City, VA, a city in the northern Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C., reserves the authority in its Residential New Concrete Sidewalk Policy to build new sidewalks via its tax-funded Capital Improvement Program. Neither payment nor permission from adjacent homeowners is required, though notice to them and nearby civic associations is. The city has a lackluster walk score of  52

Sure, Fairfax City will pay for sidewalks, but is this highway-choked sprawl really walkable?
Los Angeles, CA is often thought of as the stereotypical, car-centric American city, yet its walk score of 66 indicates that perception may no longer be accurate. Thanks to the settlement of a lawsuit over the city’s failure to make miles of broken and missing sidewalks comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, L.A.  must commit $1.3 billion to pedestrian projects over the next few decades. That enormous commitment led the city to embrace a “fix-and-release” policy for sidewalks. 

Under this scheme, L.A. will pay to build new sidewalks, as well as reconstruct damaged ones, next to commercial, industrial and residential properties. It will then offer a limited warranty period that guarantees only one repair in the future. The duration of the warranty is twenty years for sidewalks next to residences and five years for those next to commercial properties. 

Nobody walks in LA, especially if they close off the entire street.
On the day the plan passed, L.A. Councilman Paul Krekorian claimed, “This fear that seems to be out there that suddenly people are going to have a burden dumped upon them – that just isn’t the case.” But, that’s exactly what will happen once the warranty’s clock runs out. For those of limited financial means, fixing a city sidewalk could be a heavy burden. 

Atlanta, GA mirrors Los Angeles by shunting the cost of sidewalks squarely on the shoulders of adjacent property owners, though without L.A.’s limited warranty. Sidewalk gaps in Atlanta are common and building new sidewalks can be costly, thanks to Atlanta’s use of hexagonal blocks instead of poured concrete. Atlanta’s walk score is a poor 48

Few would argue that Atlanta is a pedestrian-friendly city today, but that may be about to change thanks to T-SPLOST.
In response to this poor environment for walking, the city leadership backed a referendum on a special local option sales tax for transportation, commonly known as T-SPLOST.  Now that it has passed, $300 million in revenue will be generated over a five year period. Sidewalk projects will receive over $69 million of that amount.

Alexandria, VA, has a sidewalk policy that spreads the cost of sidewalks among all taxpayers, while effectively allowing adjacent property owners to veto a new sidewalk. Applications to the Residential Sidewalk Program require the signatures of five residents within that project area in support of the sidewalk. Those commuting through the area to reach a transit hub like King Street Metro station won’t be counted. Additionally, Alexandria “requires the identification of a project champion, who will be the main point of contact for the City.” That champion must then: 

…notify each household in project area with flyer distribution and provide signatures noting support for or against the project from 80% of addresses in project area. Property owners directly adjacent to proposed sidewalk MUST sign the petition and note if they support or do not support the project.
There is no exception if an adjacent property owner refuses to sign and indicate support of opposition. Conceivably, that conveys a veto power to those who don’t cooperate with the process.

This is close to a schoolbus stop and along a busy pedestrian route to a Metrorail/Commuter rail/Bus transit hub. Pedestrians are forced into the street because the city gives homeowners a veto on sidewalks.
Alexandria maintains Silver level status as a Walk Friendly Community, a designation made by a coalition that includes the Association of Pedestrian and Bicycle Professionals, the League of American Bicyclists, and multiple federal agencies. However, that status appears to derive from a combination of staffing and a city Complete Streets policy, rather than sidewalk conditions. The city’s overall walk score is a mediocre 61

New York City, NY, puts all responsibility for construction of missing sidewalks onto adjacent property owners. That includes both installation and subsequent maintenance. If a property owner refuses to comply, the city will do the work, send them an invoice, and place a lien on the property, if necessary.  As with Los Angeles, this approach could be a burden on property owners in low-income areas.

Is a city walkable if the sidewalks are so crowded that pedestrians walk in the street? That's happening in NYC, but Walk Score rates them highly.
New York faces a serious pedestrian congestion issue in the city. Sidewalks in extreme high-density areas such as Manhattan simply aren’t wide enough to handle the traffic. The New York Times refers to this situation as “Sidewalk Gridlock.” However, despite this apparent infrastructural shortcoming, the city still has a high walk score of 89.

The funding source of new sidewalk construction does not appear to track with walkability as measured by Walk Score. That would indicate that either Walk Score’s methodology is utterly useless or that the importance of sidewalk conditions is overrated. Until a metric is developed that directly accounts for sidewalk conditions across multiple jurisdictions, this is a debate that will be impossible to settle, as measurement of walkability will remain largely subjective.


  1. Just to be crystal clear, if BOTH advocates for tax-based funding of sidewalks AND Walk Score were correct about the validity of their approaches, I would expect to see some convergence. Those cities that bill adjacent property owners for sidewalks would have low walk scores and vice versa.
    There is no convergence, so somebody is wrong. Either tax-based funding advocates have overstated their approach's validity or Walk Score's metric is useless.
    Given the fact that Walk Score's reps gave me two wildly divergent answers when I inquired as to what they measure, I am leaning towards the latter as being the case. Given that Google has found a way to detect bike paths in its Maps app, albeit with some errors, it seems like it should be possible to detect and account for sidewalks in a new and more valid metric.

  2. The value of walk score is far higher if used to evaluate specific parts of a city rather than the city as a whole. In Atlanta, walk scores range from the teens to the mid-90s, depending on location. The quality of sidewalks in Midtown, where scores are in the mid-90s is excellent, thanks to the business district's decision to increase the millage rate (i.e. taxes) in that district -- with the funds allocated primarily to sidewalks and other infrastructure, as well as program management.

    Comments about Atlanta -- and PEDS' position contain several areas. PEDS position regarding who is responsible for covering the cost of sidewalks refers to sidewalk repairs, not new construction. In Atlanta, developers are required to install sidewalks on streets in all new subdivisions. Tax dollars cover the cost of new sidewalk construction, but this tends to be on transit routes, near parks, schools or in business districts. Gaps in residential areas remain problematic. With regard to cost of sidewalk construction, the City of Atlanta stopped using hexagon pavers during the 1970s. Sidewalks adjacent to property in some historic areas still have pavers, but people can choose to reduce maintenance costs by using brushed concrete.

    Walk score isn't perfect, but its measurement of destinations within walking distance of a particular address is important. Nothing encourages walking more than having destinations worth walking to. The condition of sidewalks is especially important to people pushing strollers, seniors and people with disabilities. For them, broken sidewalks and gaps both have a negative impact.

    Your blog raises important questions - but it's important to avoid over-generalizing. For people who walk, details matter.

    1. Thanks for the info. Has PEDS developed a policy on situations in which a pre-existing sidewalk gap exists and the adjacent property owner is opposed to a sidewalk being constructed?

  3. Kevin, I'm leaning toward "Walk Score's metric is useless", at least in this case. It's hard to tell from the limited description of their methodology how they arrive at the walk score, but it seems to be mostly based on proximity to and potential routes to destinations. Nowhere do they reference the presence or connectivity of the sidewalk network or its condition, so I'm left to wonder if sidewalks are even factored in or if they just look at the street grid as a proxy for the walking network. Since you've been in contact with the Walk Score people, maybe you can shed some light on this?

    As a side note, I came across your article via the following link. I think the author there really missed the points you make in the last paragraph and jumps to conclusions that aren't terribly sound.

    1. A Walk Score rep initially claimed that they do take whether a sidewalk exists into account. However, after further questioning, they backtracked.

      I just read that Apple is using drones to update its maps. Hopefully, they will capture sidewalks as well as roads in their data. That would really improve walkability measurements, which clearly are lacking in accuracy.