How Fixing Pittsburgh’s Crumbling Sidewalks Fits Into The City’s Transportation Future

Aug 14, 2019

Across numerous departments and agencies, Pittsburgh officials have begun to rethink city streets: how they’re used, and who they’re for. 

Next year, the city will pilot a new network of services to decrease car dependence and increase transit options. A forthcoming long-range plan may include everything from aerial trams to water taxis, all in the service of getting people where they need to go. But the hero of the future is already here.

Sidewalks are unassuming, analog, made with readily available materials and long-established practice. Some scholars trace the concept of a pedestrian path back nearly 4,000 years. Sidewalks revolutionized how people live in cities. Suddenly, it was possible to go places without walking through an open sewer, without dodging wagons and horses and carriages; sidewalks gave rise to window-shopping.

Eric Setzler is the City of Pittsburgh’s chief engineer and spends not a small amount of time thinking about why sidewalks matter.

“Historically, one of the primary ways of getting around is by walking,” he said. “As we’ve gotten into the automobile era, walking kind of went out of fashion for a while and it’s like, ‘why would you ever do that when you can just drive?’”

In other words, sidewalks got sidelined. While the roadway became a publicly maintained public good, the adjacent walkway became a private responsibility. In 1933, the Pennsylvania legislature decided individuals were on the hook for the sidewalks in front of their properties.

That makes for a pretty checkered experience, said Alisa Grishman, who started advocacy group Access Mob Pittsburgh. Grishman has multiple sclerosis, which affects her mobility.

“I started using a cane, and then a walker, and the walker was when I started to get involved [in advocacy] because sidewalks when you use a walker are dangerous,” she said. “I kept almost flipping over. I did flip over a couple times.”

Grishman now uses a power wheelchair and lives in Uptown. She said a good sidewalk can make getting around fun; she can put on her headphones and enjoy the scenery. But a bad sidewalk can really mess up a day.

“Especially in my neighborhood, we have so many abandoned derelict properties where nobody is there to own it, to fix it,” she said. “I'm stuck going over these awful chunks of -- I don't even want to call it sidewalk, but like chunks of where the sidewalk used to be.”

Some wheelchair users say a bad sidewalk limits their independence; it can mean the difference between going somewhere on their own or having to wait for transport. It’s a challenge to enforce the sidewalk maintenance responsibilities of hundreds of thousands of individual property owners, Setzler acknowledged.

“It’s also a challenge because quite honestly not every property owner is well-positioned to spend the money to invest in their sidewalk,” he said.

The arrangement of private ownership and maintenance is not unique to Pennsylvania or Pittsburgh, or even the 20th century. The Act of 1691 required English households to maintain their sidewalks all the way to the middle of the street. Scholars note that for most streets the law was “neither obeyed nor enforced.”

But in this century, there are hints of change. Louisville, Ky. decided to take on sidewalk maintenance. In 2017, the city hired Pittsburgh company pathVu to collect data on its more than 1,800 miles of sidewalk.

“Roughness, tripping hazards, running slope, cross slope,” pathVu co-founder Eric Sinagra ticked off some of the sidewalk attributes the company gathers. “Our main way of collecting that data is through … a stroller type device that we push over the sidewalk.”

The analysis provided by pathVu can help cities make sidewalks accessible to all users. While most cities have a long way to go, Sinagra said that’s the vision that drives pathVu.

“We understand that sidewalks aren't going to get fixed tomorrow,” he said. “It's a matter of working towards that goal.”

Nick Sinagra is pathVu’s director of technology. He uses a power wheelchair, but he said no matter how someone gets around, almost every trip begins or ends with a sidewalk. 

“Part of the goal is to start to have somebody be accountable for fixing something for people.”

Pittsburgh doesn’t have plans at the moment to zoom that far in on its sidewalks, but the Department of Mobility and Infrastructure is taking a closer look. The 2019 capital budget allocated nearly a half-million dollars to identify critical gaps in the network, such as walkways near schools, senior centers, or transit stops. E-scooters, autonomous vehicles, and other new modes of transportation do have a role to play in Pittsburgh’s future, said the department’s director, Karina Ricks.

But “we can’t just be dazzled by these new things,” she said. “It’s important to welcome them, but that can’t happen at the expense of really maintaining and restoring the sidewalk network that we have.”

As cities de-emphasize cars, the sidewalk is poised for a major comeback. But only if cities figure out the puzzle of who should maintain them.