Albany Strollers & Rollers (AS&R) conducted a sidewalk census as part of the development of the Albany Active Transportation Plan (ATP). This is in partial fulfillment of Albany Climate Action Plan measure TL-1.3, which states “evaluate the community’s walking infrastructure, identify potential barriers, and implement improvements .” The census was conducted by AS&R to measure sidewalk “passability,” a measure of how readily all users may use a sidewalk. Specifically the census measured the narrowing of sidewalks by obstruction and the unevenness of sidewalk surfaces.
The census was based on a node and connection perspective of sidewalks, with the intersections as nodes and the sidewalk between two intersections as the connection. From this perspective each connection is only as good as its least passable location.
To this end, the census measured the following for each block:
- sidewalk widths as constructed,
- the narrowest location on each block due to a parked vehicle,
- the narrowest location on each block due to overgrown vegetation,
- the narrowest location on each block due to other obstructions, such as infrastructure like light posts,
- the largest vertical offset within the best 2.5 foot width, and
- the largest slope within the best 2.5 foot width.
The constructed widths along a block were measured to the nearest half foot. Greater precision was not implemented due to typically variations in sidewalk width within a half foot along a block. The narrowest locations were measured to the inch. Vertical offsets equal to or greater than a half inch were measured to within a quarter inch. Slopes equal to or greater than 5° were measured to the degree.
A width of 2.5 feet was selected because it is the width of an average residential doorway through which strollers and wheelchairs are navigated. Consequently it was presumed people pushing strollers and riding wheelchairs would identify the best width of sidewalk to travel along, and a width of 2.5 feet accommodates these users with some margin of tolerance.
The data collection was conducted by volunteers between August 2010 and March 2011. Measurements were made on 594 blocks. The full collection required about 50 hours of volunteer time. Data reduction and figure preparation required approximately another 50 hours. Duplicate measurements were collected on 21 blocks. These results indicated that the measurements were reproducible by different volunteers to within the tolerance of the categories discussed below, or that the more “passable” or less constrained measurements were used in the data set for analysis.
The images to the left and below show sidewalk steps due to damage. These steps are larger than 2 inches vertically in the most even 2.5 foot width of sidewalk
About one out of 25 blocks has a vertical offset of 2 inches or greater within the most even 2.5 foot width. This condition is also shown in two images regarding sidewalk slopes due to damage below.
According to city staff at the July 26th Traffic and Safety Commission meeting, the City seeks to have no vertical offsets greater than 3/4 inch. Over one out of three blocks has as step higher than this in the most even 2.5 foot width.
The maximum allowable vertical change in level under ADA guidelines is 1/4 inch. The maximum allowable change in level with a 1:1 slope is 1/2 inch. Beyond this the change in level must be accommodated via a ramp with a no greater than 1:8 slope if the vertical height of the rise is 3 inches or less.
The images below also show sidewalk slopes due to damage. Both images show a slope greater than 10°.
Approximately one out of 16 blocks has a local slope of 10° or greater in the most even 2.5 foot width. A slope of 10° is a bit more than 1:6 (vertical rise to horizontal distance). The maximum allowable slope where space is not a constraint under Americans’ with Disabilities Act (ADA) guidelines is 1:12. The maximum allowable slope is 1:8 for small rises where space is constrained.
About 1 out of 12.5 blocks has a step greater than 2 inches and/or a slope greater than 10°. Figure 1 shows the distribution of sidewalk evenness throughout Albany. The most uneven sidewalks occur more frequently east of Masonic Avenue.
Figure 1. Sidewalk unevenness map
The image to the left and below shows narrowing of a sidewalk to less than 2.5 feet wide due to overgrown vegetation. About 1 out of 10 blocks is so narrowed. Of blocks with 4-foot wide sidewalks, about 1 out of 4 is so narrowed by vegetation. Of blocks with 5-foot wide sidewalks, about 1 out of 10 is so narrowed. Figure 2 shows the distribution of sidewalk narrowing by overgrown vegetation. The most overgrown sidewalks occur more frequently east of Masonic.
Figure 2. Map of sidewalk narrowing by overgrown vegetation
The image to the left shows sidewalk narrowing to less than 2.5 feet by parked vehicles. About 1 in 11 blocks is so narrowed. About three fifths of the blocks were surveyed on a weekday and two fifths on a weekend. There was little difference between the proportion of sidewalks blocked by parked vehicles on the weekend versus during the week.
The distribution of sidewalk narrowing due to parked vehicles is shown on Figure 3. They occur more frequently west of Key Route Boulevard.
Figure 3. Map of sidewalk narrowing by parked vehicles
In addition, about 1 out of 100 blocks is narrowed to less than 2.5 feet at some location by a permanent obstacle, usually consisting of infrastructure. These typically are poles of various kinds, such as for power and signals. The distribution of these blocks is shown on Figure 4. They occur more frequently on Albany Hill.
Figure 4. Map of sidewalk narrowing by infrastructure
About 1 in 6 blocks is narrowed to less than 2.5 feet somewhere by one or more of these conditions.
Figure 5 shows the percentage of sidewalk blocks in the most constrained passability categories.
Figure 5. Percentage of sidewalk blocks with most severe passability constraints
As shown on Figure 5, about one out of four sidewalk blocks in Albany has a significant constraint.
Figure 6 shows each block of sidewalk in Albany by passability category.
Figure 6. Map of sidewalk blocks coded by passability category
There are numerous locations where sidewalks are significantly constrained on both sides of a street.
If the least passable blocks, as defined above, were randomly distributed and a sidewalk user followed a route without knowledge of the location of these blocks, a trip of three blocks would have a greater than 50%, or 1 in 2, chance of encountering such a block. This is not an issue for sidewalk users who can climb up, step over, or go around such conditions, even if it means stepping into the street occasionally. It is an issue for less mobile users though, such as people pushing strollers, riding wheel chairs and young children on bikes.
The finding that only about 10% percent of five foot sidewalk blocks are narrowed to less than 2.5 feet by vegetation as compared to about 25% of four foot sidewalk blocks indicates that Albany should adhere to a minimum five foot sidewalk standard for all new sidewalks, including new construction on blocks that currently have four foot sidewalks if the public right of way can accommodate the additional width without eliminating the landscape strip.
The finding that the percentage of blocks narrowed to less than 2.5 feet by parked vehicles is substantially similar on weekdays versus weekends suggests this problem is not due solely to parking of vehicles used for commuting at night. Rather this problem is relatively constant throughout the week.
Parking on sidewalks is prohibited under State law. The extent of sidewalk blockage by parked vehicles in Albany indicates this law is not being sufficiently enforced. AS&R will seek to change this through advocacy and spot requests to the Albany Police Department for enforcement.
Other blockage of sidewalks, such as by vegetation, is prohibited by Chapter 14, section 1.3 of Albany’s Municipal Code. The extent of sidewalk blockage by vegetation indicates this law is not being sufficiently enforced. The best means for creating a system that will solve this problem and prevent its recurrence through time is not clear. AS&R will engage in conversation with the appropriate government bodies toward identifying and advocating for such a system.
Sidewalks are on generally on public property, yet Chapter 14, section 1.5 of Albany’s Municipal Code requires adjacent private property owners to maintain the sidewalk. Chapter 14, section 1.5 assigns liability for injuries suffered by sidewalk users to the adjacent private property owners as well. The level of sidewalk damage documented by the sidewalk census indicates this system is not working sufficiently.
In addition, the maintenance and liability paradigm for sidewalks contrasts starkly with the maintenance and liability paradigm for the streets, for which the City is liable for and maintains. The obvious solution is to make sidewalk and street maintenance at parity, which would be in accord with the “transit first” policy of Albany’s general plan (this policy states the City favors modes other than the private automobile). To this end, sidewalk maintenance would be funded by a parcel tax just as street maintenance is currently.
There is an equity issue with this proposal though as most of the sidewalk damage is in the eastern portion of the city and so a citywide tax would be to the benefit of property owners primarily in one area. So another alternative is for a parcel tax that would fund part of a city employee position for surveying sidewalk condition, as is the case for streets currently, and then package and manage projects and collect the cost from the adjacent property owners, either directly or through a property lien. AS&R is interested in your thoughts on this matter. You can comment here or send them to the AS&R discussion list if you are a member (please visit http://lists.ebbc.org/ to join if you would like).
AS&R has taken a first step to resolving these problems in successfully advocated for the Traffic and Safety Commission to include “explore sidewalk conditions” in its work plan for the next year. This occurred at the Commission’s February meeting. When the Commission takes this up, it will provide the forum to consider how to resolve the problems documented by the sidewalk census and prevent them from recurring in the future.
AS&R will also advocate for the ATP to include policy goals to enforce existing State and City laws and develop improved systems to maintain sidewalks. AS&R will suggest the goal of maintaining sidewalks along the preferred network in the green category and all others in the orange category as shown on Figure 6. The green category is defined by a narrowest point of 4 feet or greater and maximum vertical offsets of less than 1 inch and slopes less than 5° in the best 2.5 foot width of sidewalk. The orange category is defined by a narrowest point greater than 2.5 feet and maximum vertical offsets less than 2 inches and slopes less than 10° in the best 2.5 foot width of sidewalk.
AS&R is grateful to the many volunteers who participated in the sidewalk census, with special recognition to Harry Chomsky, Emilie Raguso and Francis Chapman for their hours of effort. Albany Patch and some of its commenters provided the information and links regarding relevant State and City law.
An initial attempt at data collection occurred in Spring 2010. This effort made measurements at a nearly address by address level. This was time intensive to the point that the census effort was on the verge of being abandoned. A representative of AS&R subsequently had the opportunity to discuss this with Meghan Mitman, the engineer with Fehr and Peers managing the development of the ATP early in the process leading to this document. She suggested the census proceed block by block, with a block taken as the stretch of sidewalk along one side of a street between two intersections. This perspective reduced the intensity of data collection dramatically. It made conducting the census feasible for a volunteer organization. AS&R is grateful to Ms. Mitman for this suggestion. Of course AS&R is solely responsible for any errors in the census methodology and data collection.