Sidewalks. Those simple strips of concrete that line our streets provide an invaluable service for pedestrians and communities.
The US Federal Highway Administration estimates up to 88% reduction in pedestrian accidents can be realized when sidewalks are installed along roadsides without designated pedestrian crossings.
But in many neighborhoods across America, stretches of sidewalks are conspicuously absent.
So what gives? Why do some neighborhoods lack proper sidewalk infrastructure?
Well, it turns out there are many complex reasons sidewalk construction falls by the wayside. From costs to topography to car culture, numerous factors influence whether sidewalks get built in residential areas.
1. Topography and terrain
The natural lay of the land can make sidewalk installation tricky, if not impossible.
Hilly areas or uneven ground may require extensive grading and leveling to create a flat surface for sidewalks. And in some cases, the steep slopes and varied terrain simply prevent sidewalk construction altogether.
I once lived not very far from a mountain town where half the streets had sidewalks while the other half didn’t.
The neighborhoods without sidewalks were situated on steeper hillsides near the mountain’s base. There was no safe way to put sidewalks on the angled streets.
|Topography||Effect on Sidewalks|
|Flat terrain||Easy to build sidewalks|
|Gentle hills||Manageable for sidewalks with some grading|
|Steep slopes||Difficult and costly to grade for sidewalks|
|Severe inclines||Often prevents sidewalk construction|
So, if your neighborhood has lots of slopes or uneven ground, the topography likely hinders building proper sidewalk infrastructure. The costs of major land grading may not be feasible for the city budget.
Nature isn’t always sidewalk-friendly.
Now, let’s talk cold, hard cash.
Building and maintaining sidewalks requires significant funds, especially in dense urban areas. Larger cities must construct sidewalks along every block, multiplied by thousands of miles of roads.
And there’s the ongoing cost for repairs, snow removal, vegetation management, and liability.
One estimate put the nationwide price tag for new sidewalk construction at between $6 and $12 per square foot!
With these high costs, municipalities have to make tough budget decisions on infrastructure projects. Sidewalks may take a backseat to roads, bridges, utilities, and other critical needs.
3. Property rights
Here’s another wrinkle: Sidewalks are typically built within the public right-of-way next to roads.
But in some cases, property owners actually control the land that abuts the street.
If an adjacent landowner won’t cede space on their property for sidewalk construction, it blocks the sidewalk from being built. The local government usually can’t force property owners to give up land against their will.
I once lived on a street where the entire block had sidewalks except for one house.
The owner refused to allow the sidewalk on their property line, leaving a weird one-house gap!
So, property rights issues can become a major barrier to sidewalk completion in neighborhoods. If landowners won’t cooperate, the sidewalk ends up fragmented or nonexistent.
Now, let’s switch gears to social perceptions around sidewalks.
Some residents, especially in affluent suburbs, may view sidewalks as unnecessary eyesores that don’t fit the character of their car-centric neighborhood.
They believe sidewalks encourage outsiders to walk through the community.
Or that sidewalks are associated with dense urban areas that they want to avoid. It’s not practicality — it’s aesthetics and prejudice.
These perceptions can make it hard for cities to install sidewalks in certain residential areas. If residents are hostile to the idea, officials may back off sidewalk projects rather than face backlash.
5. Low-volume streets
In very low-density neighborhoods or rural areas, some streets simply don’t have enough pedestrian traffic to warrant sidewalks. A lightly traveled road with just a few houses may be fine without a defined walking infrastructure.
Similarly, cul-de-sacs and small access streets often lack sidewalks because so few people walk there. It’s not worth the cost for the city to build sidewalks on these minimal-use streets.
I used to live on a rural dead-end street with just a handful of houses.
No one was really walking around, so sidewalks would’ve been pointless. However, kids still ended up playing in the street, which wasn’t ideal.
So, in areas with very little foot traffic, planners logically decide sidewalks are an unnecessary expense. Of course, this can reinforce car dominance in neighborhoods and leave kids nowhere to play safely.
6. Lack of awareness or prioritization
Now, for a simple reason – people don’t notice the problem or speak up about it. If residents never advocate for sidewalk installation, it won’t become a priority for local government.
Out of sight, out of mind. Some communities just don’t recognize the need or push for change.
And if local leaders aren’t attuned to sidewalk gaps, they won’t take initiative on the issue.
For example, I once brought up my sidewalk-less street to my city council member. They were shocked to learn we had no sidewalks and promised to look into it.
Turns out the lack of priority fell on both sides.
Raising awareness and vocalizing the need for sidewalks is key.
Otherwise, neighborhoods can go decades without officials ever addressing the situation. Squeaky wheel gets the grease, right?
7. Historic disinvestment
Now, this reason makes me sad and frustrated. Low-income areas and communities of color are far less likely to have complete sidewalk networks.
This stems from decades of infrastructure disinvestment in these neighborhoods.
Let’s be honest – government officials have historically ignored infrastructure needs in marginalized areas. These communities also have less political voice to lobby for improvements like sidewalks.
The unfortunate truth is that sidewalk deficiency correlates strongly with race and income.
I’ve seen it firsthand in my city.
Upscale suburbs have sidewalks everywhere. Lower-income neighborhoods of color just a mile away – barely any sidewalks.
This inequity is rooted in systemic biases and a lack of public investment. And it leaves many residents unsafe without proper walking infrastructure. We have to acknowledge these disparities to start addressing them.
8. Historical development patterns
Here’s another factor – some older neighborhoods grew before sidewalks were commonplace.
Early suburban communities and rural villages expanded when everything centered around the automobile.
There was little thought to pedestrian access since few were walking then. These areas later getting retrofitted with sidewalks faced cost and logistical barriers.
I noticed this in the mid-century neighborhoods near me developed shortly after WWII. Blocks of modest starter homes rarely had sidewalks back then. Now, adding them means major construction on private property.
So, the era in which a neighborhood was built can clue you into its sidewalk status.
Pre-war suburbs and rural villages have a higher likelihood of sidewalk gaps. Their original design didn’t include walkability.
9. Maintenance and liability concerns
Building sidewalks is expensive enough. But maintaining them for decades and assuming liability brings a whole separate set of costs.
Sidewalk maintenance means repairing cracked or broken sections regularly.
It also includes snow and ice removal in winter – or the legal liability if someone slips and falls.
With tight budgets, some cities worry about taking on these long-term maintenance obligations. And the potential injury lawsuits that can arise from sidewalk defects.
Sidewalk maintenance costs vary based on regional weather patterns.
|Four season||Crack repairs, snow clearing, salt use|
|Hot and humid||Vegetation encroachment, mud|
|Cold and icy||Increased rock salt use, freeze-thaw damage|
|Coastal||Sand erosion, flooding risk|
One tipped-up slab or uneven section opens the city to possibly massive legal claims and settlements. That’s why maintenance and liability are key factors in sidewalk rollout.
10. Zoning and land use regulations
Local zoning rules and land use policies also impact sidewalk construction – especially for new neighborhoods.
If zoning laws don’t specifically require sidewalks for all new developments, some builders may opt to skip them. This saves construction costs but creates auto-centric areas without walkability.
I’ve seen new subdivisions gain approval without sidewalk specs in their plans. The city didn’t mandate pedestrian access, so the developer left it out. Years later, those areas still lack sidewalks.
Advocacy groups have pushed many cities to adopt “complete streets” policies requiring accommodations for all modes of transit. However, zoning laws still play a crucial role in ensuring sidewalks get built.
11. Car culture
Finally, America’s entrenched car culture influences many aspects of neighborhood design – including the lack of sidewalks.
Post-WWII, neighborhoods centered around automobile ownership as the norm. Wide streets served cars rather than pedestrians or community spaces. Walking was an afterthought.
You can see this car-centric approach in mid-century suburbs with huge paved roads, no sidewalks, and large garages. These areas grew around driving culture rather than walkability.
So, the expectation that everyone would drive everywhere shaped many neighborhoods developed during and after the 1950s. Their design didn’t prioritize sidewalks or pedestrian safety – only accelerating in cars.
This inertia of car culture continues today. However promoting walkable neighborhoods is essential for sustainability, health, and vibrant communities.
As we’ve explored, the lack of sidewalks arises from multiple interlocking factors. Topography, costs, legal issues, social perceptions, car dominance, and more all influence sidewalk presence.
Understanding why some neighborhoods lack proper pedestrian infrastructure helps point to solutions:
- Better city planning and zoning laws can require sidewalks in all new developments. Complete streets policies formalize this approach.
- Outreach campaigns can increase community awareness and advocacy around sidewalk needs. Getting the issue on local leaders’ radar is crucial.
- Cities can pursue funding and financing strategies to bear sidewalk costs: bonds, taxes, fees, grants, public-private partnerships, etc.
- Incorporating sidewalks and walkability into neighborhood revitalization and infrastructure upgrades brings equity.
- Updating engineering guidelines to accommodate terrain challenges can expand sidewalks into more areas.
- Building sidewalks and crosswalks fosters community, sustainability, safety, mobility access, public health, and quality of life – making the investment worthwhile.
Sidewalks may seem like an afterthought, but they truly create the framework for vibrant, connected, and livable neighborhoods. Understanding why walkability gets neglected is the first step toward positive change in your community.
So next time you’re walking (or trying to walk) around your neighborhood, consider sidewalks’ role in shaping your streets. And think about how your neighborhood could become a little more walkable.