A broken sidewalk in DC. Image by ANC Commissioner Brian Romanowski (2F01).

Last month, we organized the first ever “Sidewalk Palooza” to draw attention to pedestrian infrastructure and pedestrian safety issues in DC and the disparity between the city’s response time to these problems versus road infrastructure like potholes.

Map of Sidewalk Palooza events. Image by the author.

The response from the community was robust, inspiring, and creative. Advisory Neighborhood Commissioners Mo Pasternak (2B04) and Brian Romanowski (2F01) used sidewalk chalk to help warn neighbors about dangerous sidewalks in their neighborhood, Commissioner Chioma Iwuoha (7B01) brought a team of young leaders to help assess their community’s infrastructure, and Erin’s event included a special storytime appearance by Ms. DC Plus America to call out a few highlights.

Image by ANC Commissioner Brian Romanowski (2F01).

With 25 events (so far!) in the books, we’ve learned a few things about both the problems and solutions. Here’s a quick summary:

1. There’s a lot of broken and missing pedestrian infrastructure in DC

Over the course of the month of June, community leaders documented over 375 individual problems — all from only 25 events that covered a few blocks each. Even assuming residents focused their events on blocks most in need of attention, the implication is that citywide needs number in the tens of thousands.

2. Many requests have been outstanding for years

Numerous residents used this event to resubmit problem areas they had requested before. In many cases their previous tickets were still open years later; in too many they had been incorrectly closed without an actual fix. When DDOT Interim Director Lott testified at the DDOT budget oversight hearing last month that there was no backlog of sidewalk requests (5:40:40), it came as news to many of our participants who have the receipts showing otherwise.

We also asked DDOT in early June about the discrepancy in service times. DDOT stated that the difference is “a function of cost, personnel and equipment” as well as the “relative sizable backlog of submitted requests.”

3. DDOT can move quickly when they prioritize specific repairs

When ANC Commissioner Lisa Gore (3/4G01) publicized her Sidewalk Palooza event, one of her constituents resurfaced an old request and personalized why these fixes are so important. Dr. Karen Robbins shared her story (and photos) of being injured after tripping over a broken sidewalk on a run last year. While DDOT placed an orange traffic cone on the sidewalk for visibility, it had remained broken more than a year later. After Commissioner Gore added it to her own request list, DDOT managed to fix the problem spot with a safe, new segment in under two weeks.

The story is both inspiring and frustrating at the same time. Residents shouldn’t have to suffer gruesome injuries to get fixes for known dangers on our sidewalks, nor should they have to crowdsource public attention before a District agency takes notice.

4. Relying exclusively on 311 requests worsens infrastructure disparities

The burden of highlighting sidewalk and pedestrian infrastructure requests falls on communities via the 311 process. While DDOT has assessed overall sidewalk quality as part of its PaveDC plan, that data is not readily available on the site and the program does not maintain a list of individual repair needs. That shifts the burden of identifying problems largely to residents only, requiring members of the community to have the time, access and, frankly, persistence to advocate for needed repairs. At least anecdotally, this leads sidewalk and pedestrian infrastructure to suffer from the same inequities as many other issues in the District, with more prevalent and severe challenges in communities east of the Anacostia River.

5. Not every request is created equal

Residents documented a whole range of deficiencies, from smaller holes that need a quick fill to fix to completely impassable narrow segments that will need more comprehensive roadway design solutions to address. We reviewed every submitted Sidewalk Palooza request and placed them into three categories based on the presumed amount of effort and resources to solve them:

Light - 55.9%

This category represents the relatively easy fixes that don’t require significant time, equipment or money to solve. This includes things like:

  • Temporary obstructions that can be easily moved
  • Roadway signs in need of fixing or replacement
  • Missing or faded crosswalks that just need some paint
  • Holes to be filled in or missing pavers to replace
  • Small/moderate height differences between pavers that can be ground down to even them out

Medium - 35%

This category covers fixes that will likely take additional effort via more traditional light engineering. Examples include:

  • Segments with damage significant enough that they need to be removed and have fresh concrete laid
  • Sidewalks buckled by tree roots that need to be replaced with flexible paving material
  • Missing ADA ramps requiring a new curb cut
  • Sidewalks with drainage problems that create hazards

Heavy - 8.8%

These requests either probably require a larger amount of construction and/or require a design component first to plan a solution in the context of the entire roadway. This includes:

  • Full segments of missing sidewalks
  • Segments that are currently too narrow (often around treeboxes) for full accessibility
  • Sidewalk obstructions like light poles or utility infrastructure that will require more engineering to move

Heavy - 8.8%

We made these categorizations based on our best assumptions of what fixes might entail, and they may not be exactly right, but the overall trend is clear. A clear majority of requests fall into the light category that should not be taking months or years to resolve.

Given the broad impact and modest work for challenges we have categorized as light — and even medium — (not to mention the political value of delivering thousands of wins for communities) long response times seem like an incredible missed opportunity for the agency.

The aforementioned DDOT Budget Oversight hearing did provide some reasons for optimism. Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh focused some of her questioning on sidewalk and pedestrian infrastructure. And though he did make that confusing comment about no sidewalk repair backlog, Interim Director Lott also acknowledged that “we’ve been spending more of our efforts and our time definitely on some of the other repairs you’ve identified there, especially on the potholes, but…we are going to be working to make sure we put a commitment to work on sidewalks, our alleys, and on our roadways as we’re going forward, and if we need to reallocate our resources internally to make sure we’re able to do that than we will.”

A path forward

Sidewalk repair requests could benefit from a triage approach. As our data shows, there are clear differences between a high-volume of low-lift requests and a handful of more significant repairs. But currently, all of those requests get lumped into a single category. If either 311 or DDOT could more quickly sort these into a similar severity grade (or solicit such input from residents during the ticket creation process), perhaps that would streamline the agency’s ability to work through the queue of quick fixes.

The agency already has a clear model for this in their differentiation between smaller pothole and larger “roadway repair” requests. Their pothole team is able to quickly investigate any request and repair it within a couple days. There’s no reason that the similarly low-lift sidewalk and pedestrian infrastructure requests we identified above (filling holes, grinding uneven segments, etc.) shouldn’t be treated the exact same way.

An equivalent sidewalk “strike team” could both reactively work through the outstanding lists of requests and proactively visit neighborhoods with disproportionately low numbers of requests. Their time on the streets could also inform a comprehensive sidewalk quality inventory to help shift some of the burden back to the agency to assess and prioritize repairs. An inventory would ensure data regarding sidewalk and pedestrian infrastructure is not focused only in communities that have the capacity to submit and monitor 311 requests.

Hopefully, DDOT will implement these kinds of changes so that the next Sidewalk Palooza event can focus on identifying new issues rather than re-submitting the same ones again.

Nick Sementelli is a Texas native, but has lived in DC since 2005. He works as a digital strategist mainly serving advocacy organizations and publishers. Outside of the office, you can find him on the soccer field or at Nats park. He currently serves as Treasurer of GGWash's Board of Directors.

Erin Palmer lives in Takoma and is one of the area’s Advisory Neighborhood Commissioners. She is a lawyer for the federal government. In addition to being passionate about affordable housing, robust public services, and government ethics, she loves spending time with her three kids and bus rides to the movies.