Ever since president Bush signed into law the Americans with Disabilities act of 1990, we have seen countless entities in the private sector fall to lawsuits claiming that their facilities were discriminatory against the disabled. Over two decades later, we are seeing frustrations shift against those who are supposed to keep the best interests of the people in mind: government and municipalities.

The city of angels estimates that roughly 4,500 miles of sidewalk are in need of dire repair, and as a result people have come forward filing multiple class action lawsuits over the years. The official estimate to fix all those miles of sidewalk is a whopping $1.5 billion.

Meanwhile, the city claims they are working on the problem, with the LA Times reporting that a comprehensive plan is in the works to fix the sidewalks but residents see this as a second class problem, where does that leave the residents of Los Angeles? Or the rest of us for that matter?

For those of you who are lucky enough to attend the APA national conference in Los Angeles in April, I encourage you to take a look at the sidewalks. Take a walk to a few places and see what you think of the sidewalk situation. Are the sidewalks in your home community better or worse than the ones in Los Angeles?

While their legal team feels confident that many of these suits will be dismissed, there’s a good mix of grandstanding and sincerity here: there is a possibility that these could be thrown out of court, but it’s also very possible that they won’t be. With the shrinking tax base and overall decline in funding for cities in the United states, we are already thinking along the lines of “how do we do the same with less” and the idea of doing more with less seems like pure fiction.

For planners, here are some questions to consider:

  • How old are the sidewalks in my community?
  • What is the current state of sidewalks in my community? Divide them up, perhaps along the lines of “Acceptable, mild decline, heavy decline and needs repair”
  • Who uses your sidewalks? Is it primarily cyclists, pedestrians, kids walking to school or retirees walking to the grocer?
  • Analyze your numbers and see how many miles of sidewalk need to be fixed immediately. Analyze those neighborhoods more closely.
  • Look into alternative funding sources. Are there ADA specific grants which your city could apply for that would help cover costs?

The bottom line here, is that nobody wants to have their hands up in the air saying “we have no idea” when someone starts with the fire and brimstone over the quality of your local sidewalks. As baby boomers keep getting older and younger generations not sharing the same love for the automobile as their forefathers, there are many communities where we can expect an increase in pedestrian traffic. Sidewalks will be just as important as roads, and if someone deems it necessary to file suit against your city, you want to be able to say that you are doing everything you can to address the problem.

This is simply another example of how government can be proactive and look at the concerns of citizens before they make them (or before anyone gets served). As planners, this is a small step we can take to make sure that the small steps taken by others won’t result in twisted ankles, or worse.

  • Peter Schmiedeskamp

    I’ll add a couple questions here:

    – Who finances your sidewalk maintenance? Are property owners expected to fix “their” sidewalks?

    – Is your pavement management department talking to your city arborists? (Age of the facilities means nothing if it’s a tree that’s heaving the pavement)