The city just finished a first-of-its-kind inventory of sidewalk conditions, which officials say will help crews prioritize repair projects going forward.

Share story

Arrange all of Seattle’s sidewalks end-to-end, and you’d be able to stroll from here to Chicago.

Pay to replace each of those roughly 2,300 miles of pedestrian concrete and pavement, and you’d fork over almost the equivalent of the city’s entire annual budget — roughly $5.3 billion, officials report.

That gives an idea of the scope of the city’s Sidewalk Repair Program. The network of sidewalks and paths, of various types and conditions, ranges from brand-new to downright dangerous.

This week’s column breaks down the program’s mission — and how crews prioritize sidewalk repair projects — after one Queen Anne woman contacted Traffic Lab wondering how to report a problem area along her bike commute downtown.

Traffic Lab is a Seattle Times project that digs into the region’s thorny transportation issues, spotlights promising approaches to easing gridlock, and helps readers find the best ways to get around. It is funded with the help of community sponsors Alaska Airlines, CenturyLink, Kemper Development Co., Sabey Corp., Seattle Children’s hospital and Ste. Michelle Wine Estates. Seattle Times editors and reporters operate independently of our funders and maintain editorial control over Traffic Lab content.

Learn more about Traffic Lab »

“The sidewalk on the west side of Aurora, south of the Aurora bridge is in terrible shape,” Sharon Griggins, 63, wrote. “The walkway is overgrown and full of garbage. I once had to swerve around a dead raccoon in the middle of the sidewalk. You can get clotheslined by the dangling blackberry vines.”

First, understand who is supposed to do what and where.

Landowners are responsible for taking care of sidewalks and planting strips next to their properties. They should mend cracks and other damage, as well as remove safety hazards, such as ice and snow, per the Seattle Municipal Code.

Same goes for keeping paths clear of overgrown trees and bushes, unless they are city-owned, as well as picking up garbage.

The city’s Department of Transportation (SDOT) enforces the rules on vegetation and sidewalk damage, meaning street-use inspectors let property owners know of issues and follow-up to ensure improvements.

Those notices are a result of crews’ assessments and complaints from citizens. Call the Sidewalk Repair Program at 206-684-5319 or use the city’s “Find It, Fix It” mobile app to make a report.

Property owners must obtain permits from the city to move forward with sidewalk repairs, if they require tearing up or blocking the public’s right of way.

And when trees cause damage, city arborists get involved. Seattle rules require property owners to maintain vegetation at least 8 feet above sidewalks, 14 feet above curbs and at least 1 foot from sidewalks’ edges.

SDOT crews may mark unsafe areas with paint to caution people walking.

They may also put asphalt over cracks and uplifts, which are places where one piece of sidewalk rises above another. Uplifts are the most common problem with Seattle sidewalks, SDOT says.

Ultimately, under city code, landowners face fines for failing to comply with street-inspectors’ directions. But SDOT spokeswoman Mafara Hobson said that has never happened, at least in recent history, as the department uses other ways to encourage property owners to make repairs.

“A lot of times, we just try to work with people to do the right thing,” she said. “If it’s their responsibility, we want to alert them to that and educate them … on why these are the rules.”

Meanwhile, SDOT handles repair projects for sidewalks in public spaces, such as next to government buildings.

Disgruntled by the breadth of sidewalk issues across the city? Here is a sign of relief from the city:

SDOT just finished a first-of-its-kind inventory of all of the city’s sidewalks, modeled after a program in San Diego. The findings will improve how crews prioritize repairs moving forward, Hobson said.

“At the end of the day, all of the sidewalks need to be corrected,” Hobson said. “There’s so many — this assessment allows us to prioritize the worst areas.”

Before, reports from citizens and crews’ inspections drove the ranking of potential sidewalk projects, Hobson said. That has led to “a significant backlog” of locations, which SDOT acted on based on areas’ foot traffic, among other factors.

“We tend to prioritize the places that are near and close to transit, hospitals, schools — places that have mobility impacts,” she said. And now, SDOT knows the conditions of those areas.

For the review, SDOT college interns over months walked across all of the city’s sidewalks to document cracks, gaps and other factors. The assessment ranked sidewalks for being “good,” “fair” or “poor” in terms of condition.

SDOT fed that data into an interactive online map that allows users to scroll around the city and see how sidewalks measure up by location.

The entire effort was part of the city’s broad scheme for improving walking conditions over 20 years, called the Pedestrian Master Plan.

Among the plan’s wide-ranging goals, from adding crosswalk countdown signals to building bike lanes, is how officials are spending money from the $930 million Move Seattle property-tax levy. Voters approved the levy in 2015.

For instance, the plan anticipates spending $15 million over the levy’s nine years to repair “up to 225 blocks of sidewalk in urban centers and urban villages,” under the Sidewalk Repair Program. And $61 million for building 250 blocks of new sidewalks and other improvements.

The levy also includes money to build sidewalk curb ramps at intersections, making it easier for disabled people to get around. A recently settled class-action lawsuit requires the city to accelerate the pace at which it completes those projects. The city estimates there are 26,000 people in Seattle who use wheelchairs or similar devices.

Got a question for Traffic Lab?

If you have a question or idea for us, send it to trafficlab@seattletimes.com. We may feature it in an upcoming column.

Last week, we explained how to report junk on state highways or trucks losing their loads. The week before, we spotlighted Seattle’s parking rule that limits on-street parking to 72 hours.