Pity the poor pedestrian who braves Seattle’s sidewalks. Whether cracked, buckled or bulging — or buried beneath leaves, branches and brambles — almost half are in fair to very poor condition, a city audit found. And that’s in the parts of the city where they exist at all.
If Seattle wants to become “the most walkable and accessible city in the nation” — the lofty vision statement behind the Seattle Pedestrian Master Plan — it’s going to take more than lip service to make it a reality.
A recent audit requested by City Councilmember Andrew Lewis underlined the findings of previous reports: Seattle’s sidewalks are in bad shape, and the chances of fixing them in a timely manner look bleak.
Seattle has about 2,300 miles of sidewalks, out of which the city is responsible for 15% to 20%, according to the Seattle Department of Transportation. The rest fall under the care of private property owners. The cost for necessary sidewalk repair — including public and private responsibility — is estimated to be at least $500 million, according to SDOT.
That is a daunting amount, compounded by a complex enforcement process that leaves little incentive for property owners to repair adjacent sidewalks. The Seattle law has never been used to require property owners to make or pay for sidewalk repairs, the audit found.
Putting aside private owners’ responsibility, the city itself must do a better job of investing in sidewalks. SDOT’s sidewalk-repair program is not enough to meet demand. While the council increased funding in 2018 and 2019, SDOT said an additional $3 million to $4 million annually is required to implement a 5-year maintenance plan.
Currently, SDOT prioritizes repairs to sidewalks adjacent to city property, or where city-owned trees have caused damage, based on a set of criteria that determines where repairs benefit the most users. But even when a location meets all criteria, a repair backlog means the job may still have to wait.
The city already has a series of recommendations, made in a 2020 policy report produced by the University of Washington as requested by the City Council. The recent audit found action on those recommendations is mixed.
SDOT is working on a website to better educate property owners on their responsibility and options for maintenance and repair, including information on permitting and tree root or limb mitigation. However, there has been no action on setting up financing plans — such as those that exist in Portland and Denver — to help low-income property owners.
Clearer enforcement measures require a change to state law, but there is nothing stopping the city, through the Seattle Department of Construction and Inspection, from warning and, if necessary, citing property owners who allow sidewalks to become overrun by vegetation.
Fixing the city’s sidewalks is a complicated problem, but it is not insurmountable. It shouldn’t take yet another report to make a safe, walkable Seattle a bigger budget priority for the City Council.