Bloomington gets sidewalk report: Did choice of cheaper method mean inflated condition ratings?

The image on the left is one frame from a walking video recorded by The B Square of the sidewalk segment on the west side of College Avenue from 15th Street to mid-block, about halfway to 17th Street (just south of the segment colored blue in the map).  As shown in the map image on the right, the frame on the left is part of a segment rated ‘Good’ (green) in the recent analysis of sidewalks, which was delivered to the city  by IMS, the city’s contractor for the study.

A new report on street pavement and sidewalk conditions in Bloomington was reviewed for Bloomington’s city council last Wednesday by public works director Adam Wason.

The report included some encouraging news about sidewalks.

Wason told the council, “The good news here is the condition of our sidewalks community-wide are in good condition. And I think that’s something we should all be proud of.”

Wason continued, “Between the increased investments in sidewalk repairs and maintenance year over year that you all, in your role as the budget approval body for the city, and the budgets that were approved for the street division of the department of public works and the private investments of property owners, the results are noticeable and significant.”

But based on just a cursory review of some Bloomington sidewalks in the downtown area, the new report describes some stretches of sidewalks as ‘Good’, even when they include several panels that are broken up, severely sprawled, or uneven.

Bloomington contracted for a similar study of sidewalk conditions in 2017, but with a different firm. The 2017 study of street pavement and sidewalk surface conditions was done by a company called  Transmap.

The more recent study, done in 2022, was performed by Infrastructure Management Services (IMS).

If the studies completed by the two different companies are an accurate reflection of facts on the literal ground for Bloomington sidewalks, and if the good-fair-poor rating scales are consistent, then that would reflect a dramatic improvement in sidewalk conditions over the last five years.

The 2017 Transmap study documented just 153 miles worth of Bloomington sidewalks with a ‘Good’ rating. But the 2022 IMS study rated 241 miles worth of sidewalks as ‘Good’—88 more miles worth of sidewalks with the top rating.

The number of sidewalk miles rated as ‘Fair’ has dropped from about 76 miles in the 2017 Transmap study, to about 8 miles in the 2022 IMS analysis, an improvement of 68 miles.

The ‘Poor’ ratings show a similar contrast. The number of sidewalk miles rated as ‘Poor’ has dropped from about 8 miles to 4 miles.

(It’s not clear why the total miles of sidewalks is not consistent for the two years.)

Has there been enough repair activity in the last five years to make plausible the idea that 76 miles of sidewalk have been improved from ‘Fair’ to ‘Good’ condition?

Sidewalk repair in Bloomington is by local law the responsibility of the adjacent property owner. In the past, Wason has described the pace of city-mandated sidewalk repairs by property owners as involving between 50 to 100 properties per year.

The back-of-the-napkin math might go like this. If 500 property owners have been required to repair defective sidewalks, and that has resulted in 68 miles of sidewalks that were previously in ‘Fair’ condition, then that would mean each property owner repaired an average of 716 linear feet worth of sidewalk. (67.75/500*5280)

But some of the biggest street frontages for residential properties in the city, on East 3rd Street east of Pleasant Ridge Road, top out at around 250 feet.

The city runs a 50-50 match program to give help to low-income residents fix their sidewalks.

At the March 27 meeting of the board of public works this year, Wason described the status of the matching program. “I’ll tell you, we’ve not had a ton of success here,” Wason said. He continued, “Even with a 50-50 match program, a lot of times folks simply can’t afford the couple thousand dollars.” Wason added, “We’re struggling to get folks signed up for this one, even with the match program. So we’re trying to re-envision that a little bit.”

The improvement in sidewalk ratings between 2017 and 2022 might be explained by a difference in methodology between the two companies that did the studies.

Neither company used a method that involved assessing the sidewalk conditions with a vehicle that was actually on the sidewalks.

IMS offered the city that kind of close-up inspection when it submitted two different options to the department of public works in 2021.

In its proposal, IMS described that option like this:

Sidewalk information is collected via a mobile quad vehicle that drives on the sidewalks. A trained operator logs every defect and takes slope measurements, The data is summarized and delivered as a per defect score for each defect.

The package with that option was more expensive by about $99,000—$333,507 compared to $234,580. The city chose the cheaper option.

Cost might not have been the only consideration for Bloomington’s choice not to get that kind of closer sidewalk analysis. That option relies on complete GIS data for sidewalks. It’s not clear if Bloomington’s sidewalk GIS data is complete in the way IMS describes as necessary for the closer inspection. From the IMS proposal:

One problem with this approach is the necessity of precise and accurate sidewalk linework. The SST operator will only drive the sidewalks that are mapped! Many times, we have to perform a sidewalk ROW database to obtain an accurate and up to date sidewalk inventory.

The less expensive option is described in the IMS proposal, along with a weakness inherent in the approach, which involves driving a vehicle along the street to try to collect information about sidewalks next to the street. The approach is fairly sophisticated, using LiDAR (light detection and ranging) technology. But as the IMS documentation notes, “[it]cannot see through obstructions (e.g. parked cars).”

It’s even not clear from the IMS proposal if LiDAR data was supposed to be used by IMS to assess sidewalk conditions, or if conditions were supposed to be judged by human eyeballs. The IMS proposal states: “Sidewalk condition attribute will be visually rated with the understanding that these ratings apply only to overall condition, and not to ADA compliance.”

Images taken by IMS for specific locations are accessible through the dynamic map the city has set up to view the pavement and sidewalk ratings.  (Click on a segment to get a popup with a link to click.)

If an IMS sidewalk rating was based on a human operator’s visual assessment of images collected from a vehicle driving along a street, it is still possible to identify at least some sidewalk segments as ‘Poor’ that do in fact, seem to be in poor condition.

Below is a side-by-side comparison of a B Square photo (left) with the image collected by IMS for its analysis (right)—showing the sidewalk on the east side of Walnut Street just south of Kirkwood Avenue. The location was an example of a bad sidewalk used in a recent B Square column about the bad condition of sidewalks in Bloomington.

Obscured by parked cars in the image taken by IMS is the long lengthwise crack in the concrete, which creates uneven portions, and which probably would have earned a ‘Poor’ rating. But the IMS image still picks up a completely missing square of sidewalk. So the IMS study rates the segment as ‘Poor.’

Side-by-Side: East side of Walnut Street south of Kirkwood

But there are at least a couple of ‘Good’ ratings by IMS that actually look bad, at least to a layman’s eye—which could be explained by the methodology.

Below are side-by-side comparisons of B Square photos and the images collected by IMS for its analysis. They show two places where the IMS rating is ‘Good’ even though the sidewalk surface for some of the slabs is either broken up or heavily sprawled.

In the case of the 6th Street location, the image taken by IMS misses completely the 25-foot section of sidewalk that is so severely sprawled that it probably amounts to a tripping hazard. The bad section is located behind the car that took the IMS photo.  IMS rates the segment as ‘Good’.

In the case of the North College location, the vehicle that took the image is separated from the sidewalk by a couple of feet of buffer between the traffic lane and the bicycle lane, then the bicycle lane itself, then a parking lane. Even though there are no parked cars in the IMS image, the distance makes it hard to discern from the image the fact that many of the sidewalk slabs are broken. So IMS rates the segment as ‘Good’.

Side-by-Side: 6th Street, east of Washington Street

Side-by-Side: North College Avenue, north of 15th Street

Based on B Square reporting, the same segment of sidewalk on North College was rated as ‘Fair’ by the Transmap study in 2017. Transmap also used an approach that evaluated sidewalks from vehicles driven on the street.

But the images captured by Transmap were panoramas that looked like they were taken by rooftop cameras similar to the kind that Google Maps cars use, which give a better angle to sidewalks than the dashboard-mounted cameras that IMS appears to have deployed. The Transmap images are no longer immediately available through the city’s website.

Almost all of the sidewalks between 6th Street and 17th Street in the College-Walnut corridor are rated as ‘Good’. Based on B Square inspection, many of those sidewalks include panels that are broken up or severely cracked.

The North College sidewalk segment used as an example in this article  is the location where in October 2018 a scooter rider crashed and was injured. The scooter rider filed a lawsuit. Under the terms of the settlement, the required payout to the rider was $11,000 by Bloomington and $21,000 by the adjoining property owner.

The B Square has a few questions pending with the department of public works about the sidewalk study. Among them: Why is there “no rating” for sidewalks indicated in the IMS study for three out of four sides of the Monroe County courthouse square?

[Added at 3:35 p.m. June 12, 2023: Answers to B Square questions were sent to The B Square by Joe VanDeventer, Bloomington’s director of street operations. Here’s a link: .pdf file of VanDeventer’s answers]

A street pavement study, which was done by IMS at the same time as the sidewalk study, found that about 40 percent of the city’s streets are in ‘Poor’ or ‘Very Poor’ condition.

IMS indicates that just to keep a steady state for street pavement conditions, the city’s annual budget would need to be increased for street repair from $0.7 million to around $1.6 million.


10 thoughts on “Bloomington gets sidewalk report: Did choice of cheaper method mean inflated condition ratings?

  1. This is municipal gaslighting. Anyone who uses the city sidewalks with any frequency or dedication can tell you this assessment is incorrect. I just want to repeat the findings of the report because they are so absurd:
    Bloomington Sidewalk Condition Ratings
    ○ Good: 239.5 miles
    ○ Fair: 7.6 miles
    ○ Poor: 4.2 miles
    ○ No Sidewalk: 169.5 miles
    I live in Maple Heights and we have MANY segments of sidewalks that no reasonable person would say are in “good” condition, and I see from the map that some of those fair/poor segments are listed as so. I walk downtown every day. While some downtown sidewalks are in good condition, some are merely fair.

  2. I am extremely troubled that Director Wason told the council that 95% of sidewalks in the city are in good condition. He went for the purpose of asking to double the street paving budget, and he felt it necessary to try to rebut the idea that any additional funds should be appropriate for sidewalk maintenance. To do this, he used this disinformation. 95% in good condition! I want to disagree about policies and priorities. Intentional deceptions like this are a vile stain upon the very room.

    It is a perfect symbol of how Public Works thinks about sidewalks, though. Their “sidewalk condition assessment” was literally based upon one photo per block taken from the driver’s seat of a car. The sidewalks look good to drivers! And that’s good enough for Public Works!

    There’s one silver lining: Public Works had already decided not to maintain sidewalks. So if they had paid the extra $100k to perform a sidewalk condition assessment, that would have been wasted money. Why perform the study when you already know what you’re going to do? Kudos for saving us money.

    But on a more productive note, the real severe immediate sidewalk maintenance problem we all face isn’t pavement condition but rather blockages: vegetation, parked cars, and construction. We’ve seen some timid steps on these fronts, and it is time for Public Works to ask for some real money to do an actually adequate job of keeping some of our busiest sidewalks clear! I haven’t seen any city mowing in my neighborhood yet this year, not even in the vacant lot it owns or the bridge that Director Wason personally told me would be cleared as a matter of routine (instead of complaints-based).

    These are hard problems and they need the resources to solve these problems! We don’t need lies to excuse a decision to starve sidewalk maintenance of the resources it needs.

  3. Why not use residents to assess the sidewalks in their neighborhoods. Free assessments and the savings can be used for sidewalk repair and maintenance

    1. Sue has an interesting idea about involving the community in collecting sidewalk conditions.

      The city administration seems to spend huge amounts on consultants despite its growing number of employees. Dave, you should look into how much the county parks department has accomplished in terms of developing trails and parks and programs as compared to the city parks department over the years without the same huge expenditures on consultants.

  4. Perhaps we need a rubric that provides criteria for good, fair, poor. Otherwise, I don’t understand what each assessment means.

  5. …and of course one of the B-Square’s photos has an e-scooter sprawled across the sidewalk. Why? Because it is vitally important that our town is littered with unsafe devices that are subject to no safety regulations whatsoever.

    Beyond that, thanks to the B-Square for it’s continuing work documenting the self-parodying Hamilton administration’s follies.

  6. Looks like B-Square invested more shoe leather into this than City did.

    On a related note, commenters often call attention to other issues B-Square should investigate. Actually, B-Square has a plan for that. Excerpt:

    “What can I expect if we contributors are able to generate more than enough support? Here’s how I would allocate additional full-time efforts, in order of priority.

    Hire 1 (Dave): city/county government
    Hire 2: more city/county government plus some K-12 education
    Hire 3: K-12 education
    Hire 4: State government as it relates to Monroe County, including Indiana University
    Hire 5: Retail business and commercial
    Hire 6: Copy desk, including handling press releases
    Hire 7: High school sports
    Hire 8: Spot news (crime, crashes, fires, power outages, inclement weather)”

    So, a group effort.

  7. The sidewalks are made for people. Some are quite ambulatory, and others are decidedly not. They use mobility devices of various kinds. Some sidewalks are heavily traveled, while others are rarely used for many reasons.

    If the CC can go through arduous zoning to decide zoning, it can also affix standards of maintenance to the sidewalks and traffic for them. At minimum, patches and obstacle removal needs to be done for those with mobility issues. If this is truly a walking city (and in reality, it’s NOT), then permitting people with challenges and patching/fixing to help them, helps US.

    People stumble on bad sidewalks and become injured. But still worse, the snow-shoveling standards aren’t enforced, making it dangerous to use the sidewalks even if you don’t have mobility issues. I feel for those in motorized chairs, walkers, canes, and other devices as they try to maneuver especially the downtown and business districts.

    The tl;dr is: A responsible city would have this cured by now.

  8. Huh. A gaslighting report by consultants that reflects the story the Administration wants to promulgate: imagine my surprise. Thanks for the documentation!

  9. Of course basic infrastructure (like sidewalks) is in disrepair – taxpayer funds have been diverted into subsidizing the narrow special interests of the restaurant/hotel industry in the form of subsidized parking garages that are rarely full and could easily be fully supported by user fees if there was an actual demand at market rates.

    How many miles of sidewalk could be repaired for the cost of just one of these ugly concrete garages that diners could afford to pay for if they valued their full costs?

    How many sidewalks could be repaired for the hundreds of thousands of dollars the city wasted on an armored truck with gunports which wasn’t even requested in the budgeting process?

    Of course, sidewalks are a luxury compared with other basic services the city has failed to provide, like a fully staffed police department to deal with the violent crime wave in certain neighborhoods.

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