SacCity sidewalk responsibility

Before delving into street design, I must come back to the question of whose responsibility it is to maintain sidewalks. I’ve talked about this before, Sacramento and sidewalks, but it bears repeating. It also deserves a citizen movement to force the city to change policy.

photo of deteriorated sidewalk, 24th St near Capitol Ave
deteriorated sidewalk, 24th St near Capitol Ave, Sacramento

Take a look at the city’s Sidewalks, Curbs & Gutters page. Unless you are a confirmed windshield perspectives, cars-first and cars-only person, I think it will strike you as strange.

Start with the opening paragraph, which tells a lie. “Within the City of Sacramento, there are approximately 2,300 miles of sidewalk. Sacramento City Code, section 12.32, and California Streets & Highway Code 5610 requires that the maintenance and repair of public sidewalks be the responsibility of the property owner.” Streets and Highways code does NOT require that maintenance be the responsibility of the property owner. It simple allows a city to try to make it the responsibility of the property owner. Not all cities do that. But Sacramento has decided that shifting responsibility for transportation infrastructure in the public right-of-way to property owners fits the model of car dominance that is essentially city policy.

Let me offer some paragraphs, with the only change being replacement of ‘sidewalk’ with ‘street’.

“…requires that the maintenance and repair of public streets be the responsibility of the property owner.If the property owner does not take action in one of the above three ways, the City will make repairs under default and the cost will be collected from the property owner. Unpaid collection will ultimately lead to a lien on the property.”

“As the property owner may bear civil liability for a person suffering personal injury or property damage caused by a defective street: it is in the property owners best interest to maintain the street and reduce the risk of a lawsuit.”

“City ordinance requires property owners to take responsibility for street repairs, regardless of whether or not the tree’s roots causing damage is City owned.”

“An owner shall maintain and repair any defective street fronting such owner’s lot, lots or portion of a lot. Where a defective street is caused in whole or in part by a tree root or roots, the owner shall nevertheless have the duty to repair the street.

Sounds absurd, doesn’t it? And it is absurd. Sidewalks are an integral part of the transportation system in the city. In fact, for people with disabilities who use mobility devices, they are the ONLY way of travel in the city. So trying to force responsibility for sidewalks onto property owners is a violation of at least the intent of ADA regulations, and perhaps the actual legal force of ADA regulations.

Beyond the arguments of fairness in sidewalk policies, there is the real issue that it simply does not work. There are broken sidewalks all over the central city, and the further out one goes, the worse they are. There are sidewalk defects that have been there the entire 12 years I’ve lived in the central city. There is a clear pattern that sidewalks in front of residential property are much more likely to get repaired than in front of commercial properties, reflecting a bias in enforcment.

Some lower income neighborhoods have such poor sidewalks (not to mention narrow sidewalks of 3-4 feet) that everyone walks in the street instead. If the city’s bias against walkers and the disabled is clear, its bias against lower income neighborhoods is glaring.

Even if the city’s policy on sidewalk repair were morally right, which it clearly is not, it is a failure to serve citizens of the city. And it is as clear a statement of bias in favor the drivers of motor vehicles as one can find. It is time for it to end.

Sacramento and sidewalks

The draft City of Sacramento Climate Action Plan (CAAP) section MEASURE TR-1: Improve Active Transportation Infrastructure to Achieve 6% Active Transportation Mode Share by 2030 and 12% by 2045, includes the performance indicator “Deploy 20,000 feet of new/repaired pedestrian infrastructure by 2030”. The final CAAP will become part of the city’s 2040 General Plan.

This is less than four miles of sidewalk repair. The city has approximately 2300 miles of sidewalk. At this rate, 8 years to repair 4 miles of sidewalk, it would take 4600 years to address the sidewalks in the city. What does the city intend instead? That private property owners repair sidewalks, even though the sidewalks and the land they sit on belong to the city (in most cases, though some wider sidewalks in the central city are a mix of city and private). From the city’s Sidewalks, Curbs & Gutters page:

Q: Isn’t it the City’s responsibility to maintain the sidewalk? Isn’t it public property?

A: The sidewalk is in the City’s right-of-way. However, California Streets and Highways Code sections 5610 through 5618 allow cities throughout California to require property owners to maintain the sidewalks in front of their property. Sacramento City Code section 12.32 sets forth the City’s procedures under these sections.  Sacramento is not the only city to require sidewalk repairs to be the property owner’s responsibility. However, curb and gutter maintenance is the City’s responsibility. As the property owner may bear civil liability for a person suffering personal injury or property damage caused by a defective sidewalk: it is in the property owners best interest to maintain the sidewalk and reduce the risk of a lawsuit.

Note the word ‘allows’. Nothing requires that the city shift the burden of sidewalk maintenance to private property owners. The city has simply decided to do so, so that it may shift responsibility of a critical part of the transportation infrastructure off the city and onto adjacent property owners (so that it may spend more on roadway capacity expansion, in case you were wondering). Though it would make sense to require property owners to repair sidewalk damage from root heaving due to trees on private property, it is ridiculous (and criminal, in my opinion) for the city to demand that private property owners repair sidewalks when the trees are in the city-owned sidewalk buffer area. This is the sort of action one would expect in a dictatorship, forcing citizens to take on individual responsibility for city actions.

See previous posts: Walkable Sacramento #4: sidewalks and whose responsibility are sidewalks?.