Sidewalk Stakeholder Engagement and Underlying Equity Concerns

State DOTs, MPOs, and cities across the country have good examples of robust asset management systems and project prioritization methods for highways, local roads, transit projects, and freight projects, but examples of methodological pedestrian planning are rare. While pedestrian project stakeholder groups do not vary drastically across different communities, planning for equity in access, mobility, and safety will lead to different priorities depending on the jurisdiction. Pedestrian environments provide communities with an active transportation network that supports healthy lifestyles, fosters socio-economic growth, and facilitates access for disadvantaged groups.  As with other aspects of transportation systems, infrastructure availability and quality should meet the needs of communities and provide equitable access and mobility options. In order to do this, planners and decision-makers need the right tools to know the where existing infrastructure is and what the maintenance needs are, but also to understand who uses the sidewalks and what each stakeholders’ needs are.

In addition to higher rates of obesity, Americans walk less per day than people do in other nations, with an average step count in the U.S. of 5117 steps per day, and a large percentage of the population fits the common description of having a sedentary lifestyle.  Built environments that stimulate increased physical activity such as walking can help reduce chronic illnesses and premature death, support healthy aging, and improve mental health.  Creating walkable areas also has the potential to enliven business districts and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by encouraging modal shift from driving to walking for trips under a mile, thus lowering the number of vehicle trips.  Health problems associated with obesity, poor air quality, and related conditions are not equally spread across geodemographic groups, leading to inequities resulting in part from transportation infrastructure.

Many factors may be preventing members of various communities from using pedestrian infrastructure and walking as a form of transportation.  The availability of sidewalks and other pedestrian infrastructure, connectivity from origin to destination, sidewalk quality, safety concerns, and other factors may make it difficult or nearly impossible for people to walk from place to place.  A quarter of Americans report that they are discouraged from walking due to problems such as high vehicular speeds on adjacent roads or the absence of sidewalks.  These numbers increase in disadvantaged communities, where lack of transportation options and health problems are already a primary concern.  Persons with limited mobility are also significantly affected by sidewalks that do not meet standards set forth by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).  Proper infrastructure that enables pedestrian mobility is imperative for connecting people of all abilities to services.

Community stakeholders can become overwhelmed by a large backlog of sidewalk projects, especially given the common absence of a physical sidewalk inventory or asset management system.  Sidewalk planning is critical for improvements in public health, economic vitality, environmental quality, and for local fiscal responsibility, as evidenced by recent court rulings associated with ADA compliance, such as the $1.4 billion settlement the City of Los Angeles agreed to in 2015.  Given municipal fiscal constraints, implementation of improvements may also be constrained by indecision as to where to begin making improvements in the absence of a solid plan for project prioritization.  Furthermore, the public may consider allocations of funding for sidewalk repairs inequitable when undertaken in certain areas and not in others, or on a first-come, first-serve basis for people who file formal requests.  For this reason, agencies can become paralyzed, not wanting to implement sidewalk repairs until they have a complete inventory of sidewalk repair needs.

Equity in transportation planning has many definitions, but in general equity assessment examines the concept of ‘fairness’ in the allocation of goods and services and ties directly back to distributive justice.  In essence, equity assessment is concerned with who should benefit (and how much), who should pay (and how much), and why the distribution should be considered fair.  With respect to sidewalks, and the impact of sidewalk quality and availability on such transportation concepts as accessibility and mobility, the literature is fairly devoid of discussions on sidewalk equity.  Thus, little is currently known about the public’s perception of sidewalk costs and benefits.

Community leaders need information that is helpful for implementing overdue sidewalk network improvements in an equitable manner. For example, understanding how sidewalk repair and construction projects might be prioritized by gathering public input on project prioritization, funding mechanisms, and general perception of the local walking environment. However, public engagement can also lead to skewed input from the community.  There are inherent difficulties in holding in-person or virtual events that are accessible to and engage a representative sample of a community, as is also true with obtaining survey responses that mirror population demographic.  Inaction due to a lack of understanding of current conditions or will to address current and future needs hinders progress in designing and maintaining effective pedestrian-friendly environments.

This article was written based off of original research by and with support from David Boyer.

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