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Public Roads - July/August 2014

July/August 2014
Issue No:
Vol. 78 No. 1
Publication Number:
Table of Contents

Clearing A Path for Pedestrians

by Tamara Redmon

FHWA helps State and local agencies take the guesswork out of maintaining sidewalks, walkways, and crosswalks.

Poorly maintained sidewalks, such as this one in Woodbridge Township, MI, make it difficult for pedestrians to pass.

Have you ever tried to use a sidewalk or shared-use path but found it poorly maintained? Perhaps you had to walk in the road because snow was plowed onto the sidewalk, or you had to navigate around a sidewalk displaced by tree roots. Keeping pedestrian facilities in good condition is crucial to public safety and mobility--and to the transportation system as a whole.

That is why the Federal Highway Administration’s (FHWA) Office of Safety recently released its Guide for Maintaining Pedestrian Facilities for Enhanced Safety (FHWA-SA-13-037). This publication provides recommendations for maintaining pedestrian facilities, with the primary goals of increasing safety and mobility. The guide is intended for any agency or organization that builds and maintains pedestrian facilities. Sidewalks and walkways are the focus, but the publication also covers curb ramps; signs; shared-use paths; and crosswalks, signals, and other treatments for crossing streets.

The guide addresses the primary needs involved in taking care of pedestrian facilities, including common maintenance issues and measures, funding, and construction techniques to reduce future upkeep. The chapter on maintenance measures also helps communities determine when care is necessary and provides information on several recommended repair practices. The guide also covers requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, which mandates that day-to-day operations keep the path of travel open and usable for persons with disabilities throughout the year--including snow and ice removal.

FHWA’s Designing Sidewalks and Trails for Access Part II of II: Best Practices Design Guide, published in 2001, included a chapter on sidewalk maintenance. But prior to that, many States and localities depended on procedures that they had developed themselves. Most communities across the United States had no compilation of best practices to refer to and were largely left to their own devices and resources to set standards for maintenance. States and localities also had no way to easily discover and learn from the innovative things that other communities are doing.

“FHWA believes it can make a difference in pedestrian safety by encouraging States and cities to provide and maintain accessible sidewalks or pathways along both sides of streets in urban areas,” says Michael Griffith, director of FHWA’s Office of Safety Technologies, “particularly near school zones, transit stops, and other locations where there is significant pedestrian activity. The Guide for Maintaining Pedestrian Facilities is one way we’re helping them to do that.”

Although guidelines and standards do exist in the States and localities that have developed them, many agencies find it difficult to maintain their facilities adequately once they are in place. One of the main reasons that maintenance is an issue is because many localities lack dedicated funding for sidewalk repair and for active monitoring of facilities. Therefore, the guide also offers suggestions for alternative sources of funding for this work.

A Review of Maintenance Programs

As part of the research that FHWA conducted for the guide, the agency identified and profiled programs from dozens of local agencies. The research team then arranged discussions with 50 communities and some State departments of transportation (DOTs). The researchers also reviewed 50 community maintenance programs, but without followup discussions.

Based on the reviews and discussions, four patterns emerged. First, in the vast majority of States, local and municipal governments require that adjacent property owners perform day-to-day maintenance of sidewalks. This daily maintenance includes snow and ice removal, vegetation trimming and removal, and sweeping. Ultimately, jurisdictions may be responsible for this type of maintenance, but at least initially, that responsibility falls to the property owners.

Concrete spalling, shown here, is caused by water damage or extreme heat.
A common maintenance problem with crosswalks is durability of the striping. Painted crosswalks often have to be restriped several times a year.
Generally, property owners are responsible for snow removal on sidewalks in front of their properties, but State and local governments are responsible for maintaining shared-use paths such as the one shown here.
Nearby construction and snow make a pedestrian’s journey along this sidewalk in Vienna, VA, challenging.

Second, the majority of State and local governments are either initially or ultimately responsible for repairing and replacing sidewalks and shared-use paths. In many cases, however, the community will either carry out the repair work or notify the property owner that the city or village crews will do the work with partial or full cost charged or assessed to the property owner.

FHWA found that it is less common for communities to initially enlist or obligate an adjacent property owner to perform the work themselves, only to later intervene if the work is not undertaken in a brief timeframe (often 30 to 60 days). In a small percentage of cases, communities require the adjacent property owners to conduct the work themselves or to hire a contractor to complete the work. In the latter case, the community provides a list of approved contractors to the property owner, but does not arrange for the repair work. The community will likely fine the property owner for noncompliance if he or she fails to complete the repairs.

A third commonality among the agencies reviewed is that maintenance of curb ramps, crosswalk markings, and pedestrian signals falls within jurisdictions’ maintenance programs. More specifically, jurisdictions face significant challenges for maintaining crosswalk markings because of the excessive wear caused by motor vehicles driving over them.

Lastly, local governments typically maintain shared-use paths, although State governments, homeowners associations, and other groups also may be involved in some cases. In many communities, local governments or maintaining authorities do not clear shared-use paths of snow and ice. This situation with shared-use paths often contrasts with winter maintenance of sidewalks, which local governments or maintaining authorities either perform or require abutting property owners to do. Although exceptions exist--some communities do clear snow and ice from shared-use paths--research indicates that this practice is not routine. Many communities are starting to make changes, however, and winter maintenance for paths is becoming more commonplace.

Leading the Way

Roadway repair and its effects on vehicular traffic receive much more attention than repair of sidewalks and other facilities for walkers, as pedestrians who are physically able can usually step around or over potential hazards and all pedestrians have come to accept poorly maintained facilities as the norm.

The situation for repair of pedestrian facilities is complicated further by the wide variety of responsible parties (various local agencies, individual property owners, State DOTs, and community and homeowners associations) and inconsistent monitoring of pedestrian facilities. Not unexpectedly, the use of inspections and criteria that spark action are hallmarks of a well-operated maintenance agency.

Although many agencies have room for significant improvement in the area of maintaining pedestrian facilities, FHWA’s guide includes several examples of agencies with proactive programs that can serve as models. For example, the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) is one of just a few State DOTs that maintains nearly all the sidewalks on its highway system. FDOT’s Office of Maintenance also has one of the most detailed inspection standards for a State DOT. The department’s Maintenance Rating Program Handbook is intended for field inspection and covers all facets of maintenance, as well as detailed instructions and photos of how implementers should make and compute measurements of slopes, joint cracks, pavement, and potholes, for example.

Another example in the guide details a distinct approach to sidewalk inspection through the use of volunteers. Hoboken, NJ, has an annual inspection program in which the city enlists trained volunteers to walk the sidewalks and record any problems.

In yet another example, the city of Fond du Lac, WI, was one of the first communities in the country to use a sophisticated system for managing data from sidewalk inspections. Fond du Lac created a customized database application using computer software to help manage the large amount of data associated with the city’s sidewalk program.

Sharing the Responsibility

Because property owners do not own community sidewalks, assigning responsibility for maintenance creates an unusual situation for a municipal facility that is open to public use. To draw a parallel situation, most property owners do not own the roads in front of their properties, nor are they expected to maintain them. So it raises the questions: Is private responsibility for maintenance the best way to deal with a public facility? Does private maintenance of public infrastructure place an unfair burden on property owners?

“Even though [most] communities have ordinances that place the responsibility for sidewalk maintenance on the adjacent property owner, shared and unclear responsibility, weak enforcement mechanisms, high costs, and liability concerns lead many jurisdictions to perform sidewalk repairs and replacement [themselves],” says Tom Huber of Toole Design Group, who served as the project manager with the contractor that developed the guide.

In fact, Huber found that several agencies indicated that they had difficulty in enforcing ordinances that mandate sidewalk repairs. Moreover, many communities expressed concern that enforcement of these ordinances could result in community backlash and untenable costs to residents. In some communities, the gap between the intent of an ordinance and effective enforcement means sidewalks are falling into disrepair.

A few localities are spreading responsibility for sidewalk replacement and repair across the broader community, rather than placing an unfair burden on just the adjacent property owner.

In the city of Ann Arbor, MI, a voter-approved sidewalk millage tax generates $560,000 or more per year for sidewalk repair and replacement. City officials proposed the tax as a means to address inadequate sidewalk maintenance through the city’s code requirements, which assign the responsibility to the adjacent property owner. The tax provided a more equitable and effective means to address the city’s sidewalk maintenance needs and was approved by more than 60 percent of voters. As a result, the average household pays an additional $13 per year in local taxes.

Corvallis, OR, includes a sidewalk maintenance fee as part of residents’ monthly city services bill, which also includes water and sewer charges. The $0.80 monthly fee was determined by taking the average annual cost to repair defective sidewalks ($150,000) divided by the number of utility customers divided by 12. Prior to the utility fee, property owners paid for repairs to sidewalks in the public right-of-way along their properties. Now, the city can use the money collected from the fee to pay for repairs to defects on public sidewalks.

Most recently, the city of Ithaca, NY, implemented a new sidewalk policy that requires residents and businesses to contribute each year to maintain the city’s sidewalks. City council members voted to approve the creation of five sidewalk improvement districts. The cost for the owner of a single-family home is $70 per year, and sidewalk repairs will be done within the improvement districts.

“We’re going to be able to lower the cost to homeowners, we’re going to make the cost more predictable for everybody, and we’re actually going to be able to do more sidewalk work each year than we were doing in previous years,” says Ithaca Mayor Svante Myrick.

Why Maintenance Is Important

Federal funding is not available for maintenance activities for pedestrian facilities because of legislative restrictions. Moreover, most State and local government agencies have severely constrained resources for monitoring and maintaining sidewalks and other pedestrian facilities. Not only is this a problem as it relates to walkability and accessibility, but there can be severe liability consequences related to poor, inadequate, or infrequent monitoring and maintaining of pedestrian facilities.

Within the public right-of-way, sidewalks are considered a pedestrian access route, as are crosswalks, shared-use paths, and other pedestrian facilities. Seemingly minor maintenance issues can form a significant barrier to people with disabilities. As part of maintenance operations, agencies must ensure that day-to-day operations keep the path of travel open and usable for all pedestrians, including persons with disabilities, throughout the year. This includes snow and debris removal, and management of pedestrian traffic in work zones with only isolated or temporary interruptions in accessibility.

Communities need to maintain their sidewalks so pedestrians of all ages and abilities, including those traveling in wheelchairs, like this man, can use them.

Reducing mishaps through proper maintenance of pedestrian facilities has two important outcomes. First, maintenance improves pedestrian safety, and, second, legal actions against maintaining authorities for injuries are reduced.

Agencies can benefit from understanding the best practices for maintaining pedestrian facilities, and how to overcome barriers, such as a lack of funding and resources. For municipalities with a functioning assessment program, that program is likely to be the simplest way for the municipality to continue to fund repairs and maintenance of pedestrian facilities. However, for municipalities without an assessment program, or if concerns exist about the equity of an assessment program, a shared or community-paid program may be the best way to fund maintenance and repairs. Municipalities need to be creative in drawing on a variety of funding sources to keep their facilities in good repair.

FHWA’s guide provides a comprehensive set of reasons ranging from access to liability to support the maintenance of pedestrian facilities. The most effective programs are proactive ones that have an ongoing inspection program and that respond promptly to issues when they surface, before they can grow into more significant problems.

Design With Maintenance in Mind

The best approach agencies can take to reduce the cost of maintaining pedestrian facilities is to build them with maintenance in mind. Design of sidewalks and the selection of appropriate surface type can help moderate future costs of maintenance. Sidewalks and paths with a suitable base course and pavement thickness will last longer than those that are not well constructed in the first place. Sidewalk surfaces that have been properly finished with a slight cross slope will provide slip resistance and shed water. Selection of the types of street trees and their placement will have a profound effect on how the root systems will affect the sidewalks and nearby pavement.

An agency that is proactive about building and maintaining sidewalks is taking positive steps toward providing a transportation system that works for all users. That means providing a way for people to be able to get where they need to go without the use of a car. Agencies should design and build pedestrian facilities with maintenance in mind and actively monitor them once they are in place. They must also consider future funding for maintenance and repairs.

Tamara Redmon is the pedestrian safety program manager in FHWA’s Office of Safety. She develops programs to help reduce pedestrian and bicyclist crashes, fatalities, and injuries. In addition to the guide mentioned in this article, recent accomplishments include revising the popular resources Pedestrian Safer Journey, Bicycle Safer Journey, and Pedsafe: Pedestrian Safety Guide and Countermeasure Selection System. Redmon has a bachelor’s degree from Virginia Tech and a master’s from Marymount University.

For more information, contact Tamara Redmon at 202–366–4077 or The Guide for Maintaining Pedestrian Facilities for Enhanced Safety is available at A related Research Report is available at An FHWA webinar on the guide is available at