whose responsibility are sidewalks?

broken sidewalk, Sutterville Road at 24th Street
broken sidewalk, Sutterville Road at 24th Street

Note: As I wrote this post, I realized that some background info was needed, hence two related posts: sidewalk buffers and surprisingly good sidewalks.

This week an article in the Sacramento Business Journal, “Rancho Cordova wants to make sidewalks problem of property owners,” talked about the city’s efforts to shift responsibility for sidewalks to the property owners, both residential and commercial. The city spokesperson, Davis Gassaway, attempts to gloss over the impact by saying that it should only cost $1000-1500 to repair a sidewalk, and that Sacramento, Roseville, and West Sacramento already have such ordinances. I think the costs quoted are on the low side. At about $4 per square foot (significantly more for curbs), $1000 would buy 50 linear feet of five foot wide sidewalk in a residential area, and 25 linear feet of ten foot wide sidewalk in a commercial/mixed use area. And just because another city is doing it doesn’t make it a good idea. So, what’s wrong with the idea?

Why do we think that sidewalks should be the responsibility of the property owner rather than the responsibility of the city? Do we expect property owners to pay their share of the roadway in front, or the parking spots, or the water lines, or the sewer lines, or the power lines, or the telephone lines, or the cable lines? No, that would not make any sense. These costs are spread over everyone who benefits from them, either through taxes or as part of service fees. I suspect that sidewalks are seen differently because sidewalks, and their users, pedestrians, are less important than anything else. It is as though we think, “If property owners want people, themselves or anyone else, walking in front of their property, well then they should have to pay for that.” That makes no sense. The public right of way, which may or may not include the actual sidewalk, is the area where the public travels and has a right to travel. Sidewalks are part of that public travel way, and should be maintained by the public.

The biggest problem that I have with putting the responsibility on owners is that it often doesn’t get done at all. Sidewalks are broken, humped, sagging, all over the place, making it hard for everyone, and particularly elderly and disabled people, to walk. Since I see the right to walk as a most basic of human rights, sidewalk maintenance should be the first thing cities fund, and not the last.

If a sidewalk is poured and cured properly to begin with, it should not deteriorate much in this climate. The main issue in the “city of trees” (one nickname for Sacramento) is tree roots humping and breaking sidewalks. Sometimes the trees have been planted by the city, particularly when there are sidewalk buffers, also called planting strips, but they have also been planted by the property owners (see sidewalk buffers). When the property owner has planted the wrong species of tree in the wrong place, too close to the sidewalk, then I agree that sidewalk maintenance to repair root damage should be the responsibility of the property owner. But if the tree is the city’s, then it is the city’s responsibility. This issue is easy to handle by setting guidelines about how close to the sidewalk common species of trees can be planted. We been growing trees in urban and suburban areas long enough that we have this information.

The City of Sacramento’s sidewalk policy is available, though it is not completely clear.

8 thoughts on “whose responsibility are sidewalks?

  1. One of the problems that most cities and communities have is that the sidewalks aren’t well maintained because cities have more pressing budget priorities, often underfunded positions for police and fire departments. In that environment budgets for sidewalk maintenance and upkeep get raided. Far better to the turn responsibility over to property owners and make sidewalk inspection a condition of property sales. Most homes are sold every 7 years. Moreover pedestrians can complain to code enforcement when properties where sidewalks aren’t maintained. The cost of sidewalk repair isn’t huge. It allows municipalities to spend limited tax dollars money on other projects.


    • Sometimes government responsibility works, sometime property owner responsibility works, sometimes neither. As I acknowledged in a previous post, the sidewalks in the City of Sacramento, at least the parts I frequent, are in good condition, with property owners having at least the majority of the responsibility. Sidewalks in the County of Sacramento are a good argument for why government responsibility doesn’t work, many being in very deteriorated condition.

      Nevertheless, it still does not make sense to me that the roadway part of the street is maintained by the government (well, more or less) for the benefit of us all, but the sidewalks, which benefit us all, are not.


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