Friday, March 11, 2016

The Downfall of Suburbia as Seen in Sidewalk Cracks

A London sidewalk
This has been a tough week for blog post topics.  First, I promised to begin an urbanist look at affordable housing, only to be sidetracked by an unexpectedly consuming advocacy task.  It was a satisfying effort in which to participate, but left me short of time to get my thoughts organized on the tricky subject of providing safe and affordable housing for all.

To give myself breathing room, I set out an easier task for today, a field review of alternative street designs and how they affect the speed at which prudent drivers travel.  With a few photos, street width measurements, observation of other details, and tests of my own driving instincts, it was a post that would have virtually written itself.

So what happened?  A steady, day-long deluge that triggered flash flood warnings throughout the region.  The only prudent speed for a driver was zero miles per hour in the driveway.

It was a mess of complications that I probably should have expected for this particular post, which is my post #666.

Being otherwise stymied, I dug into my list of someday posts and came up with a good one, sidewalk repairs.

Earlier this week, the Petaluma City Council approved a first reading of an ordinance that clarifies the responsibility of homeowners for sidewalk maintenance and provides mechanisms for reporting damaged sidewalks and for providing assistance to homeowners who need financing help with repair expenses.

The newspaper coverage of the most recent action isn’t yet available on-line, but the story has changed little since the intended program was first presented to the City Council last fall.

As an advocate for walkable urbanism, I’m enthusiastic about the ordinance.  My only quibble is that the City noted their top reason for the ordinance as reducing the legal costs of sidewalk trip and fall lawsuits.  While I agree that reason is valid, I would have put it second behind allowing grandma to walk safely to the corner store.  Apparently I view the world from a different perspective than City Hall.  But otherwise I’m fully supportive.

A Napa sidewalk
However, thinking about the cost of sidewalk repairs bumps into an uncomfortable fact.  City staff estimates the costs of sidewalk repairs as ranging from $200 for repair of a single crack to $5,000 for a complete rebuild.  And yet reports indicate that over half of all households, which must include many home-owning households, are living paycheck to paycheck and have no appreciable savings for education, retirement, or rainy days.  A cost of $5,000, even if financed by the City at reasonable rates, might be more than many households can afford.

Can there be any more damning indictment of the drivable suburban model?  Not only are people so overburdened by mortgages and automobile expenses that they’re unwilling to give city governments the funds needed to maintain infrastructure, but they can’t even maintain the small bit of infrastructure that remains their personal responsibility.

To be fair, I’ll acknowledge that income inequality and the declining real value of household wages is also part of the problem, but the cost of the failed suburban model is right there with income inequality.

Of course, as is often the case, there is a vocal element of the community arguing the city should take over the long-established legal responsibilities of homeowners for sidewalk repair and that there would plenty of money to do the work if only the City was better managed.  However, when the City holds a municipal budget workshop, attendance in the City Council Chambers is often only the City Council, City staff, and me, so I’m unsure where these others have gained their expertise in municipal finance.

I don’t have comprehensive solutions to offer for sidewalk maintenance or any other of the infrastructure challenges before us.  As the StrongTowns folks note, no otherwise healthy civilization has ever reached the state of infrastructure over-indulgence that we have.

But I’m sure that the route back to financial sustainability starts with a single step, followed by more single steps.  The City sidewalk repair program is a good step.  Another good step would be for those of us with sidewalks needing repair, a group that I may be joining in the near future as a crack in my sidewalk continues to grow, to tighten our belts, do the work, and pay the bill.

It may be a tough journey before us, but we might as well get underway.  Congratulations to the City for being part of the solution.

For my next post, I’ll still set aside, but not forget, affordable housing and prudent driving speeds.  Instead, I’ll ponder the symbolic value of the California Governor’s Mansion returning to residential use.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

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