Problems or Obstructions on Existing Sidewalks

A sidewalk abruptly ends leaving pedestrians no place to safely walk in Chapel Hill, NC.A variety of problems may make walking on the sidewalks in your neighborhood difficult, if not impossible. These include:

  • Sidewalks are buckled, lifted, or cracked due to tree roots or other causes.
  • Sidewalks are blocked due to the placement of utility poles, sign posts, pot holes, fire hydrants, bus benches, newspaper racks, snow, parked cars, or other obstructions.
  • Sidewalks are blocked by bushes or low tree branches.
  • Sidewalks lack curb ramps at street corners, crosswalks, and driveways.
  • The driveway side-slopes are steep and hard to cross.

Such issues are of particular concern for people pushing carts or strollers, older pedestrians, those with impaired vision and people with mobility difficulties who may be using walkers, canes, wheelchairs, and crutches.

Read through the following points to see how to best address the problem with sidewalks in your neighborhood and get more people walking.

Buckled, lifted, or cracked sidewalks

A sign warns pedestrians of an uneven sidewalk on a suburban street in California.Many communities have policies that require adjacent property owners to be responsible for sidewalk repair. However, there may be a need to educate property owners about the requirement to maintain their sidewalks. Not only are smooth sidewalks a necessity for pedestrians with limited mobility, but keeping sidewalks well maintained may prevent someone from falling and becoming injured and may prevent a claim or possible lawsuit against the homeowner.

Sidewalks can fall into disrepair because of tree roots, plowing operations, erosion, heat buckling, damage by heavy vehicles, and simply time. Many towns or cities have programs that respond to requests for sidewalk repair generally in the public works, transportation, traffic, or street maintenance departments. For towns or cities without such programs, it may be necessary to report sidewalk problems to your town or city council or manager. A community may have a special program for major repairs and damage caused by heat expansion or winter frost damage.

Sidewalk obstructions

Sidewalk obstructions, such as low hanging branches, overgrown bushes, utility poles or street signs can make walking difficult or dangerous, especially when a pedestrian has to walk into the street to get around the barrier. Sidewalk obstructions can generally be divided into those that must be fixed by the town or city, and those that property owners and other citizens are responsible for preventing.

Utility poles or other permanent obstructions

A utility pole blocks a sidewalk leaving pedestrians no place to go in Irvine, Calif.When you become aware of an obstacle for which the town or city is responsible, contact your town or city officials and ask them to remove the obstacle. Many fixed objects often can easily be moved, especially sign posts, bus benches, mail boxes, newspaper racks, and tripping obstacles such as old sign post stubs and valve or meter covers that may not be flush with the sidewalk. Sign posts, in particular can be moved to another location or the signs can be mounted on a nearby utility pole. Utility guy wires or tie downs that a pedestrian could hit should be reported to the town or city or the utility company.

If you are told that a removal or relocation is too difficult and/or expensive, try to persuade your town or city officials to remedy the situation or at least not make the same mistake in the future. See if the town or city can provide extra space around the obstacle, perhaps by widening the sidewalk in an area adjacent to the obstacle such as utility pole. If a sidewalk obstacle creates an ADA violation, it has to be remedied. Cost is not an excuse for not making a sidewalk accessible.

All walkways must be in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, which mandates the establishment of minimum walkway clearance widths, most recently updated to 48 inches. This clear width minimum is the minimum width for passage and not a sidewalk width recommendation. There are a variety of organizations that offer sidewalk width recommendations (Guide for the Planning Design and Operation of Pedestrian Facilities from the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials [AASHTO], the Design and Safety of Pedestrian Facilities from the Institute of Transportation Engineers [ITE], and the FHWA Designing Sidewalks and Trails for Access: Best Practices and Design Guide Part II). For more details, review the above documents or visit ADA-ABA Accessibility Guidelines for Buildings and Facilities and the Accessible Rights-of-Way: A Design Guide.

Bushes and low tree branches

Many municipalities require that trees have an 8-foot minimum clearance above the sidewalk and that shrubs should not encroach into the sidewalk.

Trees or bushes along an arterial or major street are usually maintained by either the city or the adjacent property owners, while trees or bushes inside neighborhoods often are maintained by a homeowners association or the adjacent property owners. Accordingly, if you encounter stretches of sidewalk in your neighborhood that are overhung by low-growing tree branches, contact your homeowner's association (if there is one in your neighborhood) and they will likely take care of the problem, either by trimming the tree or bush themselves or by informing the responsible property owners that they need to trim their landscaping.

If there is no homeowner's association in your neighborhood, you may need to contact the town or city and inform them of the problem. If the property owner does not fix the problem after being given, the town or city can take legal action if need be and/or they can send someone to prune the trees at the owners' expense.

Snow removal

Where snowfall is common, many communities have policies that require that property owners remove snow from sidewalks adjacent to their property. Though policies vary, most require that any snowfall greater than a certain amount, usually two inches, must be removed within a certain time period after the snow initially falls, usually 12 to 24 hours.

If you're concerned that snow is not being cleared in a timely fashion, contact your town or city to find out about your town or city's snow removal policy.

Illegally parked vehicles on the sidewalk

In many jurisdictions, it is illegal to block the sidewalk. On a neighborhood level, distributing flyers letting offenders know that this practice is illegal may be enough of an education effort to solve the problem. Call your local parking enforcement officials to request ticketing of repeat offenders.

Curb ramps

A curb ramp in Boulder, Colo.Curb ramps provide access between the sidewalk and roadway for people using wheelchairs, strollers, walkers, crutches, handcarts, and bicycles as well as for people who have trouble stepping up and down high curbs. For detailed technical information on curb ramps, visit the Engineering section.

Curb ramps must be installed at all intersections and midblock locations where pedestrian crossings exist, as mandated by federal legislation (the 1973 Rehabilitation Act) and must be designed in accordance with the Americans with Disabilities Act guidelines. All newly constructed and altered roadway projects must include curb ramps. Additionally, municipalities should try to upgrade existing facilities by conducting audits of their pedestrian facilities to make sure that transit services, schools, public buildings, and parks are accessible to pedestrians who use wheelchairs. While curb ramps are needed for use on all types of streets, priority locations are in downtown areas and streets near transit stops, schools, parks, medical facilities, shopping areas, and near residences with people who use wheelchairs.