LA’s Approach To Fixing Sidewalks Is ‘Broken,’ ‘Wasteful’ And Needs Repair
You’re probably familiar with the saying that “nobody walks in L.A.”
It’s not true, but navigating Los Angeles’ sidewalks is a challenge for many residents and visitors. Narrow paths, heavy cracks and steep uplifts caused by tree roots create hazards for many pedestrians — but especially for those who rely on wheelchairs and other mobility assistance to get around.
Over the past five years, the city has received tens of thousands of requests to fix its cracked and crumbling sidewalks — work that is managed by the Bureau of Engineering (BOE). But according to City Controller Ron Galperin, “the scale of the problem, combined with (L.A.)’s inefficient strategy, means hazardous sidewalks are not getting repaired fast enough.”
Galperin’s office released a new audit today that examines the shortcomings of the city’s sidewalk repair program.
“It is safe to say that, much like our sidewalks, the program itself needs to be repaired because it's broken,” Galperin said during a media briefing Wednesday. “The program has not been responsive to meet the needs of Angelenos who use our sidewalks day in and day out — and any of us who traverse the sidewalks of Los Angeles have experienced that.”
Here are a few of the standout facts and figures from the report:
L.A. Doesn't Know How Many Of Its Sidewalks Need Repairs
The city contains an estimated 9,000 miles of sidewalks, but officials “don't know how many sidewalk locations actually need repair, or how much the repairs will actually cost,” according to Galperin.
L.A. has never done a citywide assessment of its sidewalks, which Galperin said can be done much more efficiently thanks to automated technology now available to inspectors. He pointed to Long Beach and Seattle as cities currently undertaking such surveys.
Hundreds Are Hurt On Sidewalks Each Year And They’re Suing
Over the last five fiscal years, L.A. has received more than 1,700 claims and 1,200 lawsuits for sidewalk injuries and paid out more than $35 million in settlements, according to Galperin.
“In the last fiscal year alone, it was $12 million in payouts,” he said. “Thirty million (budgeted) to fix, but $12 million for lawsuits: imagine that.”
City Councilmember Bob Blumenfeld said Wednesday that cases are landing on the budget committee’s desk “every week.”
“Not only is this horrible because somebody's life has been affected, but it's also incredibly wasteful, because the amount of money that we're spending on this lawsuit could have fixed so many sidewalks and prevented this kind of thing from happening.”
Much of the sidewalk damage is caused by street trees, Blumenfeld noted, which stems from an urban forestry division that’s been underfunded and understaffed for years.
“In some ways, we're on a hamster wheel and we'll stay there until we provide funding to adequately maintain our street trees to minimize sidewalk damage,” he said.
Repair Work Can’t Keep Up With Demand
The city’s approach to sidewalk repairs has been guided in the past five years by what’s known as the Willits settlement.
Back in 2015, the city settled a class action lawsuit brought by disability advocates and agreed to spend nearly $1.4 billion over the following 30 fiscal years to fix sidewalks and curb ramps. The city has budgeted roughly $31 million over the past five years for sidewalk repair.
The City Council also adopted a fix and release program in 2016. Through that process, L.A. fixes sidewalk parcels, issues a certificate of compliance and a limited warranty for repairs, then releases responsibility for those sidewalks to the “adjacent property owner,” who is expected to handle any future repairs.
But as of December 2020, “Public Works has issued about 4,500 certificates, equal to less than 1% of the 640,000 parcels with sidewalks in Los Angeles,” the audit states.
“As part of its Willits settlement obligations, [L.A.] has completed sidewalk repairs at approximately 2,100 sites — a small fraction of locations that need fixing,” Galperin writes. “Public Works has received more than 3,700 accessibility repair requests and 4,400 sidewalk repair rebate applications since the program began in 2017.”
‘Decades Of Neglect’ Have Created A Serious Backlog
The audit found 50,000 additional reports of sidewalk problems “not being addressed by Willits settlement repair work, which Galperin called “a substantial backlog built up over decades of neglect.”
One part of that problem: an underfunded Bureau of Streets Services (StreetsLA). Galperin writes that bureau managers say many broken sidewalks are treated with “asphalt patches as a temporary solution.”
Those quick fixes aren’t designed to last — and they take a long time to be implemented in the first place.
“In [fiscal year] 2021, it took StreetsLA an average of 41 days to complete sidewalk repair requests with asphalt, compared to just three business days to close street pothole repair requests,” Galperin said in a letter to Mayor Eric Garcetti and other city leaders that accompanies his audit.
Over-Repairing And ‘Out Of Whack’ Priorities
One issue that’s slowing down the repair process: the city’s current repair criteria requires workers to replace entire sections of concrete, rather than focusing on the specific defects that need to be fixed.
That’s “resulting in more work than required by law,” Galperin said. “Sometimes just a few feet of repairs are needed — let's say to fix cracks or raise sidewalks — what happens instead is that the whole parcel is getting torn up. It's wasteful, and from a cost perspective, it takes way too long.”
He also said the city’s method for prioritizing how and which sidewalks get fixed is “out of whack.”
“We also need to put parcels in front of residential and commercial buildings in the mix in terms of prioritizing,” he said Wednesday. “Right now most of the priority is in front of city-owned property.”
What Do Mobility Advocates Think?
Lillibeth Navarro, executive director of Communities Actively Living Independent and Free (CALIF), applauded the new report and said L.A.’s current sidewalk repair plan does not represent true progress for her and other people with disabilities.
“We are encouraged that there is a renewed call for more speedy action,” Navarro said at Wednesday’s media briefing. “It gives us hope beyond getting mere lip service.”
Jessica Meaney, who leads local advocacy group Investing in Place, said Galperin’s audit was long overdue and she’s hopeful it will “jumpstart that conversation on how to shift our money and how to prioritize how we all get around.”
“Voters have taxed themselves four times in Los Angeles County to fund our transportation investments, but the city has been silent on funding sidewalks,” Meaney said.
John Yi, executive director of Los Angeles Walks, called sidewalks “the arteries that connect us to our entire transportation system” and the foundation of a “more connected and less congested” L.A.
“Flat, dignified, walkable sidewalks should be a basic and free expectation we have of our government,” he added.
How Can L.A. Repair Its Repair Program?
In his report, Galperin lists several recommendations, including:
- Amend the city code that governs sidewalk repairs with new inspection criteria that “identifies significant defects in need of repair, instead of assessing entire parcels for compliance with accessibility standards”
- Change the prioritization system “so that sidewalks other than those next to city facilities can also be considered for repair” through the program
- Have the BOE move faster on greenlighting sidewalk repairs and cut down on “extensive pre-construction processes”
- Improve the city’s quicker short-term responses to sidewalk issues reported by the public
- Fund and launch a citywide assessment of all sidewalks and curb ramps to identify urgent fixes and keep the city in ADA compliance.
- Seek more funding to reduce the backlog of sidewalk repair requests
Asked for comment, a spokesperson for L.A.’s Department of Public Works, which manages the BOE, said the agency “appreciates the Controller’s efforts and recommendations provided in the audit.”
“We look forward to reviewing the document in detail and working with the Controller, and Mayor's Office and City Council in making this the most efficient and productive program possible,” the statement reads.
Galperin’s office has also published an interactive dashboard that shows where sidewalk repair requests were logged citywide between August 2015 and June 2021. You can explore that map and read the full audit on the city controller’s website.