Durable Growth, Transportation

Urbanism and senior living: Getting around on foot

Napa sidewalk, luckily still in good repair

Napa sidewalk, luckily still in good repair

A theme of this election season has been strategic decision-making around the varying approval thresholds for different forms of tax measures.  Is it better to seek a general tax measure, which requires only 50 percent plus one for approval, even if it means battling skepticism about how the revenues will be spent?   Or is better to specify the uses of the revenue, even though that would bump the approval standard to two-thirds when the electorate might not be able to muster a two-thirds majority over whether the sun will rise in the east tomorrow?

Or perhaps the 55 percent rule will apply, although that option is limited to certain types of school bond measures.  (If someone wants a legal summary of the various California approval standards, the Legislative Analyst’s Office provides one here.  The flowchart is nicely done.)

Also, during my years in Oregon, I watched the double-majority standard in action, a rule that was so perverse in its unintended consequences that the voters finally repealed it in 2008.

But what if I wrote that there was a type of infrastructure for which 100 percent voter approval was required?  It may seem surprising, but it’s nonetheless true.  In large areas of our cities and towns, sidewalk upkeep, and therefore walkability, requires 100 percent participation from property owners.

In a carryover from English common law, California homeowners are responsible for the repair and maintenance of the sidewalks in front of their homes.  Originally, English landowners were responsible for the entire roadway.  The government eventually, in the interest of commerce, assumed street repair, but the takeover didn’t progress far enough to include the sidewalks.

(The original road maintenance obligation is one reason why English towns and early American towns are often characterized by multi-story common-wall houses on narrow lots.  The narrow lots reduced the repair obligation.  Coincidentally, the narrow lots also helped communities satisfy Jeff Speck’s “interest” and “usefulness” elements of walkability.  It was only when government took over road upkeep that the lots of the middle-class began sprawling sideways, which also undermined walkability.)

There may be sidewalks, such as in the downtown retail areas, where a city has assumed sidewalk maintenance to preserve commercial activity, but most sidewalks remain the responsibility of the adjoining homeowner.  As a result, as any property liability expert will avow, California homeowners also remain responsible for any personal damages that result from poor sidewalk conditions.

However, even the threat of lawsuits isn’t always sufficient to motivate sidewalk repairs.  With stagnant middle-class wages, the need to save for college educations and retirement, and the desire for the newest electronic toy, sidewalk repairs often fall far down household priority lists, below the point at which funds are exhausted.

In the recently-developed parts of a town, the sidewalks constructed as part of the initial development typically remain in good condition.  But nearly every block in the more mature areas of a town will have a stretch or two where the footing is too treacherous for 80-year-old grandmothers to walk to the store.

Even if a neighborhood is lucky enough to have a Ray’s Delicatessen and Taverna block away, that destination, which should be the hallmark of a walkable neighborhood, may still require a car trip by the less foot-sure residents of the neighborhood.  And the only immediate solution is the impossible expectation that all property owners promptly attend to deteriorating sidewalks, the 100 percent standard I noted above.

Nor is complete neighborhood concurrence fully adequate to support walkability.  In many older neighborhoods, street repairs have often included lifts of asphalt that have raised the centerline elevation by six inches or more, without changing gutter line elevation, resulting in the frequently-seen humped street cross-section.

Even if a mobility-limited pedestrian is lucky enough to encounter an intersection which has been retrofitted with handicap ramps at their mandated 8.3 percent slope, the pedestrian may be faced with grades of 12 percent or more to cross the street.  The only solution to hump-backed street is full reconstruction, a task well beyond the financial capability of most towns.

To highlight the absurdity, my wife and I were recently sitting in our Petaluma parlor when a man in an electrical wheelchair rode by.   A few minutes later, he returned.  Both times, he was in the street, not on the sidewalk.  In a town that disgruntled drivers have dubbed the Pothole Capital of California, wheelchair users still find it safer to ride in the streets than on the sidewalks.  That should give pause.

This overview on the reality of sidewalk maintenance is part of my ongoing discussion about urbanism and senior living.  There is a strong case that seniors can live richer, fuller lives in a walkable urban setting.  But sometimes those downtown residential locations are a block or two from the social opportunities that can enrich a senior life, a distance in which the sidewalks may be in disrepair.

And for seniors who have been relegated to the suburbs by a lack of downtown options or the difficulty of selling suburban homes for an adequate price to fund retirement, good sidewalks can be essential to reaching the occasional neighborhood store or the bus stop from which downtown can be reached.

There are no easy fixes to the sidewalk repair deficiency.  We could impose fines on homeowners who are delinquent with their repairs, but that seems draconian.  We could do government repair on more sidewalks, but that would require more tax revenues.  (Even within the many tax measures on the November ballot, sidewalk repairs are barely more than a rounding error.)   Or we could build communities where the ratio of people to linear foot of sidewalk is pushed upward, making it easier to build a consensus for sidewalk upkeep.  I favor the last.

In any case, it’s ironic that we can build systems that, with the touch of a key fob, give seniors extra time to cross busy streets, but we can’t find a way to maintain the concrete to get them to the street crossing.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thank for reading. – Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)

(Disclaimer: I have a sidewalk in front of my home that is beginning to crack because of a tree root.  It isn’t yet a big trip hazard, but is heading that way.  Repair is scheduled for spring.)

Written by Dave Alden

Dave Alden

Dave Alden is a Registered Civil Engineer. A University of California graduate, he has worked on energy and land-use projects in California, Oregon, and Washington. He was also the president of a minor league baseball team for two seasons. He lives on the west side of Petaluma with his wife and two dogs. The blog that he writes can be found at http://northbaydesignkit.blogspot.com.

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