Footsore: L.A.'s Sidewalk Mess Needs Better Ideas

It's no secret to anybody who is a pedestrian (and that would be all of us) that Los Angeles is a crumbling town. The decomposition of its sidewalks -- among other things -- has passed the tipping point and reached a tripping point. The city already pays $3 million to $5 million a year settling "trip and fall" lawsuits caused by particularly dangerous sidewalks.

The state of the city's walkways makes laughable the claim that Los Angeles is about to become one of the nation's most "walkable" cities.

Walkable, sure ... but only if you carefully pick your route and time of day. Otherwise, you're picking your way across heaved concrete slabs, dodging the open wells of street trees (thanks for the shade), or taking an ill-lighted path into the creepy unknown after dark. For those of us not young, not nimble, and not clear of vision -- and that's a lot of us -- there are miles of treacherous Los Angeles hardscape to be crossed on foot.

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(For a not-so-funny take on the dangers of walking in L.A., scroll down to the bottom of this Neon Tommy report. And for a sign of the disarray in transportation planning at the sidewalk level, there's this report on the missing sidewalks of the Expo Line extension.)

Although published estimates have varied from year to year, approximately 4,600 miles of the city's sidewalks are said to be in need of repair or replacement. That doesn't include unknown miles of missing sidewalk that often leave L.A. pedestrians at a dead end. (Take the Google Maps pedestrian warning seriously, "Use caution -- may involve sections not suited for walking.")

Making all of the city's sidewalks suitable is an impossible task, but making some of them more suitable may be possible. This year's municipal budget includes a pumped-up, $27 million appropriation for repairs. ($27 million is a tiny fraction of the billion dollars the city's Department of Public Works estimates are needed.)

$20 million of this year's appropriation is new money. $7 million is what's left of the $10 million appropriated last year but never spent because the city council failed to work out a formula for spending it.

You might think that allocating sidewalk repair is fairly easy. The sites hemorrhaging trip-and-fall settlements would get fixed first. But it's never that easy.

The cynical might see the council's failure to perform as the result of the "kindergarten paradox." Like little kids with not enough M&Ms to go around, perhaps no council member wanted to spend any of the money because some other council member might get more of it. Or council members may have worried that adopting a spending formula might leave a politically connected constituent's sidewalk unfixed.

Council President Herb Wesson and Councilman Paul Krekorian can't fix that problem, so they've asked for yet another report on sidewalk damage from the Bureau of Street Maintenance with the goal of getting all the city's sidewalks fixed in 20 years or "however long it takes."

The two council members urged their colleagues to return to the 50/50 plan that ended five years ago after funding dried up. Until then, property owners with ready cash could pay the city half the cost of repairs to speed up their sidewalk's restoration.

Krekorian suggested that property owners without cash might get a city loan (secured by a lien on the property, I presume) to cover repair costs.

Council members also want to prod commercial property owners to do the work themselves, under a somewhat confusing double standard. The city is only obliged to repair sidewalks damaged by its street trees. Other damage, according to ordinance, is your problem.

Establishing a special taxing district to finance sidewalk repairs is another idea to put the cost of repairs on the shoulders of property owners. That makes sense, but only if you're willing to balkanize the city even more. Affluent neighborhoods -- to protect property values -- could get good sidewalks by taxing themselves. Less affluent neighborhoods would get worsening hardscape.

All these ideas await review by the appropriate city council committees ... while the city continues to crumble.

About the Author

D. J. Waldie is the author of "Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir" and "Where We Are Now: Notes from Los Angeles," among other books about the social history of Southern California. He is a contributing editor for the Los Angeles Times ...
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