In October of 2018, just a month after shared-use electric scooters arrived in Bloomington, a downtown worker was scooting home late at night, when he crashed as he was cruising downhill on a North College Avenue sidewalk.
The crash, which broke a bone in the scooter rider’s hand, occurred along the sidewalk on the west side of College, between 15th and 17th streets.
The scooter rider filed a lawsuit against the city of Bloomington and eventually against the adjoining property owner as well. The legal complaint contended that the crash was caused by the bad condition of the sidewalk.
Bloomington answered the complaint with a number of defenses, among them that the city “did not have prior notice of, nor opportunity to correct” the condition of the sidewalk that was alleged to have caused the scooter crash.
According to court documents, in late May of this year, a mediated settlement was reached, which resulted in a payment of $11,000 by Bloomington and $21,000 by the adjoining property owner.
If a sidewalk is bad enough to cause an accident, how is it supposed to get repaired? And what is the general condition of Bloomington sidewalks? Does Bloomington have a systematic approach to putting public sidewalks in good repair?
Sidewalks: Who has to repair them and how bad are they?
Under local law, sidewalk repair is the adjoining property owner’s responsibility.
According to public works director Adam Wason, somewhere between 50 and 100 property owners a year receive notification from the city that they need to repair the sidewalks along their property.
Wason told The B Square, “It’s the least popular answer I give to residents on a regular basis: I’m sorry, the sidewalk is your responsibility.”
The property owners who receive notification have sidewalks that are in the “worst of the worst” condition, Wason told The B Square. For any given year, that doesn’t come close to covering all the sidewalks in the city that have sidewalk damage in need of repair.
Even though it’s the property owner who pays for repair, the city has limited capacity for pushing property owners to get their sidewalks in good shape, Wason said. That limit stems from the need to monitor and follow up with all the properties that receive notifications.
Wason put it this way: “If we tried to target every property owner with sidewalk damage that they’re responsible for, it would just be unmanageable. So we try to go chunk by chunk.”
How big is the universe of sidewalks that need repair? Pretty big, if it is measured by the perceptions documented in the city’s deposition of the scooter rider—who did not own a working automobile at the time, and got around on foot.
The deposition seems to have established that there are lots of sidewalks in Bloomington in need of repair, which the scooter rider had surely seen:
Q: So before your accident you had walked on sidewalk areas that looked old and maybe needed some work?
A: Yeah, I walked everywhere in Bloomington.
Objectively measured, more than a third of the city’s sidewalks are not in “good” condition. That’s based on a 2017 asset inventory that Bloomington hired Transmap to do—using cameras mounted on a car that drove through the city. Just 65 percent of city sidewalks are in “good” shape, according to Transmap.
The remaining 35 percent are in “fair” or “poor” condition, in the 3-category rating system. The stretches that are in poor condition amount to 7.75 miles (3.3 percent) out of the 236 miles of city sidewalks in the inventory.
Table: Sidewalk Conditions: 2017 Inventory (doesn’t reflect later repairs)
The sidewalk block of North College Avenue where the 2018 scooter crash occurred is rated as “fair.”
Asked about some sidewalk sections along 6th Street that are rated by the Transmap inventory as “fair” when they seem like they merit a “poor” rating, Wason said the ratings for sidewalk conditions are not as precise as those for street surfaces.
Street pavement conditions are rated on a 100-point scale, compared to the three basic categories for sidewalks.
Wason said that for some locations, the sidewalk inventory data is better than for others, depending on the time of day when the photos were taken. A parked car or mail truck could have obscured a particularly bad slab of sidewalk, Wason said.
Data from the 2017 inventory was provided to the city in 2018, so Bloomington is now due for a fresh inventory, Wason told The B Square. For the next round of data gathering, the city will be choosing from three basic sidewalk inventory methods.
The least precise way to do a Google Map review, section by section. A kind of medium precision could be provided by driving the streets of the city with side cameras—that captures some sidewalk data, but is not as specific as a full LIDAR (light detection and ranging) scan. The LIDAR scan is “super expensive,” Wason said.
Bloomington’s approach to getting sidewalks repaired
Asked to estimate the number of years it would take, at the current pace, to bring all the sidewalks now rated “poor” into “good” condition, Wason said it’s a lot easier to estimate the cost. Subtracting out all the slabs that are non-traditional panel sidewalks—those laid out with brick pavers, for example—Wason pegged the cost to property owners at around $3.5 million.
The basic approach used by the city is to notify adjacent property owners that their sidewalks need to be brought into compliance.
Part of that mix is a program that provides assistance to adjoining property owners who are single-family homeowners living in federally designated lower-income Community Development Block Grant areas. For the sidewalk repair assistance program the city splits the cost 50-50 with the homeowner, Wason said.
Another part of the city’s approach is to mitigate vertically misaligned slabs by grinding them flush. Wason said the city also contracts with a company to grind down sidewalk panels that have heaved less than 2 inches apart. That’s way more economical than replacing a sidewalk slab, Wason said.
The city uses the inventory data, as well as complaints about specific sidewalks, to select 50 to 100 properties per year for notification. Wason said. Commercial areas tend to have higher pedestrian traffic, so sidewalks in those areas get higher priority, Wason said.
Techniques for calculating sidewalk repair priority
In recent weeks, Bloomington resident Mark Stosberg has collaborated with city GIS staff to obtain the 2017-18 sidewalk condition inventory in a form he can use for further analysis.
Stosberg is working on a way to map out priority areas for Bloomington to target for sidewalk repair, based on “poor” sidewalk conditions and other factors, like density—where the density of buildings is used as a proxy for density of pedestrians in an area.
Stosberg is using the Urban Institute’s Spatial Equity Tool to get a tentative idea of the benefit of repairing sidewalks in his algorithm’s high priority areas—for groups like lower-income residents, or renters who are cost-burdened.
The UI’s tool was one way Stosberg approached his analysis last year of the historical fund allocations made by city council sidewalk committee. Stosberg’s analysis led the council to fold its sidewalk committee’s duties into those of its transportation committee.
Responding to a question from The B Square, public works director Adam Wason said he had not yet seen Stosberg’s project on the mapping out of sidewalk repair priorities, but was familiar with some of Stosberg’s previous work.
Wason added, “We need to get together with him, because this is the first I’ve heard that he’s working on that!”