FINDING THE RIGHT WORDS TO TALK THROUGH HOUSTON’S RELATIONSHIP WITH SIDEWALKS Taking together a recent rash of of essays complaining about Houston’s walkability, public transit, and sidewalk situation, Joe Cortwright over at City Observatory offers some thoughts on why it might be harder for city planners to buff up the city’s walking infrastructure than focus on its car standards: planners, both locally and nation-wide, don’t have as many ways to measure unpleasant walking experiences, or sufficient language to describe them. Cortwright writes that the anecdotes and narratives put forth by Houston’s frustrated would-be walkers are “rich and compelling in their detail, but lack the technocratic throw-weight of quantifiable statistics or industry standards to drive different policies and investments in our current planning system. [ . . . But] this isn’t simply a matter of somehow instrumenting bike riders and pedestrians with GPS and communication devices so they are as tech-enabled as vehicles. An exacting count of existing patterns of activity will only further enshrine a status quo where cars are dominant. For example, perfectly instrumented count of pedestrians, bicycles, cars in Houston would show — correctly — little to no bike or pedestrian activity. And no amount of calculation of vehicle flows will reveal whether a city is providing a high quality of life for its residents, much less meeting their desires for the kinds of places they really want to live in.” [City Observatory] Photo: Flickr userbpawlik
Lack of walkable sidewalks is codified in the Houston Code of Ordinances: maintenance of a sidewalk is the responsibility of the owner of the property in front of which the sidewalk lies. The city isn’t going to do the work.
Google: I did it in front of one of my buildings, and got a red tag for not getting a permit first. So I decided I wasn’t going to bother anymore.
I find it so odd that, as GoogleMaster points out, sidewalks are the responsibility of the adjacent property owner, NOT the city. That’s a practical guarantee of failure…not to mention the lack of setbacks that have vehicles parked in driveways that block the sidewalk. I remember Mayor Bob Lanier spent a lot of money creating and improving sidewalks in many neighborhoods, but those funds are long gone. Most large cities are responsible for sidewalk maintenance.
The property owner isn’t going to fix that as a matter of practice. That sidewalk in particular would be a really cheap fixed for public works to fix it. They could either drill some holes and insert a special fluid or they could rip out the jacked up concrete and replace. The first option costs a few hundred bucks in the private sector and the second option like 500 bucks. The city needs to do this. Waiting around for property owners to do it is a joke. A bunch of town home owners are not going to fix the sidewalk in front of their townhome. Obvi.
Further exacerbating the problem is the city’s very strict and excessive building code, which requires sidewalks to meet a slew of expensive and burdensome requirements. There are criteria for minimum width, slope, drainage, curb cuts, handicap access, visibility triangles, property boundary surveys, etc. On top of it, there is the city’s permitting and fee process, which adds several hundred dollars, several hours, and anxiety about the inspector’s whims that day, to any homeowner’s project. The city [and gov’t in general] is very good at mandating expensive requirements, then throwing all the responsibility and cost onto the property owner. We don’t need Cadillac sidewalks in Houston – we just need them to be useful. I have been thinking about fixing the sidewalk in front of my house for years now, but don’t want to deal with the city inspector or the permit office, nor to upgrade my ancient sidewalk to modern standards. This is after being burned multiple times by trying to follow the rules during other projects. It seems these days our society continues to devolve where everything falls into two opposing extremes. For simple issues like sidewalk maintenance, humans should use their brains weigh cost vs. benefit, sprinkle in a little common sense, and come up with something that works. Instead, we are faced with do nothing, or do everything – and we stall out.
I live on a corner and would privately hire to make my sidewalks new again. I won’t touch them. I can’t imagine what making the street connections ADA compliant would cost. Actually I can since I did it a few years ago in front of a small commercial project. The city development guys and gals can talk all day about how they’ve made things easier but the Prius hounds bite hard and run.
It is indeed a shame that as simple a thing as sidewalks cannot be done well in our city. But, it boils down to money: the city cannot afford to repair the hundreds of miles in our sprawling city since we’ve got a pension time bomb waiting to happen.
And, it is also unreasonable to expect property owners to fix the sidewalks adjacent to their property. Any municipal law to that effect is basically shouting into the wind. Add in the headache of the bureaucracy of permits and code mandates and you’ve doomed any motivation left for owners, if they can afford the cash outlay for a fool’s errand.
Bottom line: The city won’t do it and property owners won’t either. End result: what we’ve got now.
Just tear them up and plant some grass …… “what sidewalk?”
I didn’t even know this city had sidewalks
Considering the liability and litigation possibilities, I can understand the multiple rules and requirements. A bicyclist or pedestrian coming to grief over a misplaced curb (as I did recently) or a slab heaved up, or some such defect could incur a lot of injury. So the best thing is to do nothing, and hope you can’t be sued for neglect.
That city code GM linked to says you’re guilty of a misdemeanor if you fix your jacked up sidewalk without getting city permission first. So ridiculous when lots of these could be fixed for a couple hundred bucks. Just drill through and lift up with special fluid. So easy. Yet, so difficult.
AGREED, IN THE ABSENCE OF PERVASIVE CIVIC SPIRIT, AND ENFORCEMENT OF COMMUNITY EXPECTATIONS OF GOOD CITIZENSHIP BY PUBLIC SHAMING (AND THE RESULTANT REPUTATIONAL EFFECTS), IT’S ALL ABOUT OTHER TYPES OF INCENTIVES.
Looks like what’s needed is tort reform. Either expand public liability to sidewalks and amend the Tort Claims Act to make it easier for injured sidewalk users to hold the city liable (rather than allowing the relevant officials to get off the hook by certifying their ignorance of the dangerous condition under oath) OR create a statutory basis for lot-owner premises liability specifically tailored to conditions such as those shown in the picture. That would provide the necessary incentives, and the enforcement would be handled through the civil justice system and paid for by those who, unlike their more civic-spirited and economically-rational peers, didn’t respond to the incentives created by the enhance risk-exposure to civil liability. Not to mention it would shift the burden of enforcement to private attorneys, rather than requiring a huge costly and inefficient municipal standard-enforcement bureaucracy.
I seem to remember a story earlier this year about the city coming to some sort of agreement with contractors to fix sidewalks at a fixed price/discount rate. Am I imagining this?
So i don’t understand any of that mumbo jumbo, yet I like the sound of it.
Is there anything preventing an individual from calling in and filing a ton of 311 complaints to the city about dangerous sidewalk conditions and then go on a walk, intentionally tripping on every such sidewalk with documentation of the bodily harm, and then file suit against both the city and all the homeowners for not fixing documented cases of un-repaired sidewalks?
What kind of notice has to be sent to the city or the homeowner for it to hold up in court?
@Inner-Voices Pedestrian – You are talking about having homeowners pay to fix concrete that has been under disrepair for literally decades with no enforcement or city repairs. It isn’t fair just to dump that on the current owner when no home owner has ever – in practice – been required to fix sidewalk for the benefit f the public. What I gather is you won’t have to pay anything and you just want to dump this cost on homeowners who already subsidize half the free stuff you get. It’s one thing to indirectly get your freebies from homeowners via government projects, but to expect homeowners to actually write checks for you or you will harm their reputation??? That is crazy. Time to grow up and get a big boy job.