If you’ve spent time walking or rolling around Denver, you’re familiar with the abysmal state of our sidewalks: huge cracks, narrow walkways, and entire sections of missing sidewalks. It’s bad.
In fact, according to the Denveright Community Profile, our city is missing 355 miles of sidewalks, and 975 miles of sidewalks — a full 30% — are not compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act. This poses significant accessibility challenges to those who need sidewalks to walk or roll around our city to access services and to fully participate in city life. It also hinders our city’s Mobility Action Plan, which aims for 30% of commuters using public transportation, walking, and biking by 2030, and zero traffic deaths by the same year.
How did we get here? According to the Denver Revised Municipal Code, the construction and maintenance of a sidewalk is the responsibility of the adjacent property owner, and enforcement of this is up to the Denver Department of Transportation and Infrastructure, but enforcement rarely happens. This means that property owners who fail to fulfill this duty face few repercussions. Many owners do not even know that it is their responsibility.
This needs to change, but it won’t be cheap; according to Denver Moves, filling in missing sidewalks will cost about $273 million and widening existing sidewalks that are too narrow will be another $828 million. Based on last year’s city investment into sidewalks, it would take 400 years to build out a complete network. We need another path forward.
Denver Deserves Sidewalks, Initiated Ordinance 307 on this November’s ballot, shifts the responsibility from individual property owners to the city by imposing a fee on property owners based on how much sidewalk borders their property, similar to Denver’s storm drainage fee. The fees collected through this program will be used to build out sidewalks, ensuring everyone has access to this basic infrastructure. For homeowners, the sidewalk fee would average out to $110 a year.
Why is this important? Sidewalks are only as good as their weakest link. It isn’t enough to have 90% coverage of a sidewalk route; every foot must be covered.
Imagine if the road in front of your home was your responsibility, but your neighbor never paved theirs, leaving dangerous potholes and exposed earth that were impossible to drive over. You’d be rightfully angry, because a road that isn’t 100% complete might as well be nonexistent. Instead of leaving this to individuals, we pave roads through public funds, ensuring nobody can skip their portion and spoil the public good for everyone.
That’s what we deserve with our sidewalks: A city where walking and rolling is a safe, dignified option is a city for all of us. That is the type of city we should focus on building.
So property owners get the short end of the stick then, right?
Not quite. As we’ve established, property owners are already on the hook for building and maintaining sidewalks, something that can cost thousands of dollars all at once. This ordinance shifts that obligation from active to passive maintenance. For many, this will save them time finding and working with a contractor to build and maintain their portion of the block.
Time isn’t the only benefit, though. The city can contract for work to be done on multiple city blocks at a time, leading to a greatly reduced cost per square foot than if everyone repaired individually. Ultimately, property owners will pay less than they do under the current scheme, all while knowing that repair efforts are being matched by their neighbors.
This November, vote yes on Initiated Ordinance 307, which will appear on the ballot mailed to all Denver voters. Everyone in our city deserves access to safe, accessible, and well-maintained sidewalks.
We can’t wait 400 years; let’s tell the city to get moving.
James Warren lives in Denver.
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