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Sunday, November 17, 2013

The Stupidity of Sidewalks

Sidewalks are vital public spaces, but we hardly treat them that way. Instead, we rely on private investment in an absurdly inefficient waste of resources. It is unsurprising that the result is an ineffective, fragmented network. One way or another, homeowners are going to end up paying for sidewalks. The question should be how we can get better sidewalks without wasting money.

What we currently have are marginally lower taxes, a deficient pedestrian network, and higher out-of-pocket expenses for homeowners.  What we need is a system of public investment in public infrastructure.

The largest problems I see with the current system are the strain on the personal finances for some property owners when sidewalk work becomes necessary, the lack of provisions to address gaps in the pedestrian network, and the inequitable outcomes of the investment pattern. It can be painful for the expenses to hit all at once. After paying so much money, there often isn't much to show for it. And the people who need sidewalks the most are the least likely to get them.

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The most egregious cases are when owners of modest homes in neighborhoods originally built without sidewalks are required to install the sidewalk in order to take out a building permit for work on their home. This can significantly increase the cost of home improvements, and leave the homeowners steaming every time they look at the isolated strip of concrete in front of their home that nobody uses. There doesn't seem to be much point to installing it, if it will remain the only section of sidewalk on the street for the next decade or more. In some cases, the first such sidewalk segment may need to be replaced by the time enough properties have been upgraded to create a usable walking path, rendering the original investment worthless.

It is also important to understand the way this system puts lower income residents at greater risk. It is precisely the neighborhoods with less disposable money where sidewalk work happens least, since the poorer property owners are not making improvements to the house that trigger requirements to install a sidewalk. Yet in auto-centric areas, these lower-income residents are those who are most likely to end up walking as their means of transportation. As a result, the current system channels investments into areas where it is less likely to be used and leaves the people who need the improvements exposed to more hazardous conditions.

Piecemeal work from individual construction and maintenance of sidewalks is inherently wasteful and is frequently unattractive due to the lack of consistency in materials. I recently watched while adjacent property owners hired different contractors to replace their aging sidewalks all within a short period of time. Each contractor brought out a crew to break up the existing concrete, only partially filling the truck or dumpster used to dispose of the rubble. They each brought a partial batch of concrete to lay the new sidewalk. 

All the work could have been done with much less transportation, fewer workers, and the concrete could have been purchased in more economical batch sizes. Extended to the size of a municipality, costs could be driven down further with increased purchasing power. Consolidated work areas, rather than disparate, individual sites would reduce the staffing required to perform inspections on completed work. (Performing the work all at once would also minimize the impact to pedestrians who use the sidewalk.) By continually constructing small adjoining sections separately, there is probably an increased risk of uneven settling too.

But what about the free market's ability to reduce costs through competition? There is little doubt that contractors would be motivated to complete more work to maximize their profits, whereas municipal workers would not feel this pressure. However, the productivity gains from this personal drive are offset by the extra workload associated with finding jobs and the inefficiencies of administering many smaller businesses. Finally, this profit motive also introduces an additional motivation for cutting corners on the quality of the work, and given the nature of sidewalk construction, inferior work is difficult to detect. I suspect a comparison study of sidewalks built by private contractors and municipal workers would find that on average the government work lasted longer.

The one real source of lower costs probably comes from the level of the wages paid to the workers. While municipal employees are generally union members, contractor labor often may not be. Thus the main form of "savings" comes at the expense of the laborers who do the real work. Fundamentally, there is a difference between more efficient work and union busting.

In addition to these basic matters of cost effectiveness and equity, liability is also a consideration when assigning responsibilities for construction and maintenance. In theory, it does make sense to make the party with the best ability to discover hazards responsible for addressing them. In practice, most homeowners put off fixing the sidewalk until given notice by the City, or somebody trips and falls.

Homeowners' insurance ends up covering the liability, with the insurance companies spreading the risk across their policy holders. Of course, there is no reason the City could similarly spread the risk among the taxpayers, or even more specifically among property owners, without skimming off a profit in the process. Moreover, homeowners might be somewhat more inclined to act promptly if they were held responsible for reporting, rather than for the reconstruction, since it would not affect their family budgets.

Now, when it comes to cleaning the sidewalk, it is hard to argue against making the homeowner responsible. Ultimately, the property owners will shoulder the responsibility, whether they do it themselves or hire it out to a private contractor or the City. In the case of shoveling out the sidewalk, it makes more sense to rely on the aggregation of individual actions. Given the heavily peaked nature of sidewalk cleaning (mostly leaves and snow), and the inordinate number of bodies that would be required, it does seem more cost effective for the homeowners to mobilize the effort themselves, instead of paying taxes to the City to hire out a lot of temporary workers and authorize extensive overtime hours. The work can be done more quickly by the homeowners than it could be performed by the additional, temporary City workers. Unfortunately, this system breaks down too due to municipal neglect, since there is almost never any provision for clearing the portions of the network at vacant or abandoned properties.

We should not be dropping unusable sections of sidewalk into isolated locations fully at the expensive of the homeowner unfortunate enough to need to perform some work on the house. We should be systematically extending sidewalks as a usable pedestrian network, with the costs spread more equitably. Rather than the boom or bust financing, it would make more sense to include an additional amount of tax every year, which would be a very small and predictable expense. The cost savings that would result from rationalizing the work could be split between completing more sections of missing sidewalk, reducing overall expenses for property owners, and maintenance for vacant and abandoned properties. This is a case where we can get more for less with just a little planning and responsible government action.

1 comment:

  1. The use of liens against the property for failure to correct sidewalk violations is an additional issue. The lien itself may not correct the problem in a timely manner, and if the property goes into foreclosure, the additional encumbrance on the property only makes it that much more challenging and time consuming to bring a new family into the vacant (and likely abandoned) property.