If you’ve followed this space for the past few months, it shouldn’t surprise you to learn I think the city should evaluate its 5,000 miles of sidewalks next year.

Nearly everyone I’ve spoken to while writing about San Diego’s sidewalks think the city should fix its illogical policies. Homeowners are responsible for repairing busted sidewalks outside their property, but the city is responsible if someone trips and falls over the same stretch of sidewalk. That’s silly and nothing gets done.

We’re left with dangerous pedestrian paths, like this one in Carmel Valley, which we documented on The Stumblr, our broken sidewalks photoblog.

A first-ever citywide evaluation would uniformly identify broken and missing sidewalks, rank the blocks needing the most help and put a dollar amount on the cost to fix them and build new ones. All this information would help city leaders make better decisions about smarter sidewalk policies, but it appears the city is letting its fears get the best of it.

Let’s be clear. Here’s what we’re talking about with the assessment:




And it’s supposed to be cost-effective:


Mayor Bob Filner ran on a platform of making San Diego more walkable and bikeable, and has said he backs the sidewalk evaluation. So does the City Council, Independent Budget Analyst and numerous neighborhood and disabled advocates. The $1 million price tag for the evaluation compares favorably to a similar idea in Los Angeles and could be paid for with money saved through the recent labor contract.

But Filner hasn’t included the evaluation in his 2014 budget, and it’s unclear at best whether it’ll make into in the final version when the council votes later this month.

So why not? Well, it could wind up costing a lot more than $1 million.

Remember that the city generally is legally responsible if someone trips and falls over a busted sidewalk. Right now, it only pays out about $355,000 a year in sidewalk claims. The amount’s so low because people who trip have to prove the city knew about problems with the offending sidewalk previously, something attorneys say is hard to do. That’s likely a big reason the city has thrown asphalt over many of the sidewalks we’ve featured on The Stumblr. The asphalt is ugly, but cheap, and it cuts the chances someone will fall over a busted sidewalk that had just been publicized.

If the city examines all its sidewalks, it could be handing trippers a big payday. In New York City, attorneys used to hire teams of people to map that city’s busted sidewalks each year. New York paid out hundreds of millions of dollars in sidewalk claims until it changed its policy.

No one wants the same thing to happen here. But there’s a way around it.

It’s supposed to take a year to complete the sidewalk evaluation. That gives city leaders plenty of time to figure out a policy that works, including dealing with liabilities.

This legal problem also points to the larger issue with sidewalks: The policy is so screwed up that there’s no easy way to deal with it. If you turn the screws on homeowners, who also happen to be voters, to pay for sidewalk fixes, they’ll be mad. If you switch the responsibility to repair sidewalks to the city, it adds to the nearly $1 billion backlog of delayed street, building and storm drain repairs.

“As a citizen, I know which way I’d like it to go,” Council President Todd Gloria told me in January. “As a city leader, without knowing the size of the obligation, it’s hard to accept.”

Part of that has an easy remedy. Right now, there’s plenty of momentum to deal with the city’s tattered sidewalks. Answering Gloria’s question about the size of the sidewalk problem seems like a good way to start fixing them.

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Liam Dillon

Liam Dillon was formerly a senior reporter and assistant editor for Voice of San Diego. He led VOSD’s investigations and wrote about how regular people...

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