Pictured above is a resident of The Ville neighborhood of North St. Louis who was forced to use his mobility device in a roadway because of an impassable section of sidewalk.
This photo is illustrative of a problem in the City of St. Louis that can no longer be ignored.
A Complete Neighborhood Sidewalk Assessment
In 2022, Trailnet conducted a complete sidewalk assessment for The Ville and Greater Ville neighborhoods—the first assessment of its kind for an entire neighborhood in the St. Louis area.
As our staff and volunteers examined every square-foot of sidewalk in these historic Northside neighborhoods, residents greeted our work with curiosity and desperation.
They pointed out that the sidewalks in front of long-vacant properties were unusable or nonexistent. They complained that requests to the City for sidewalk repairs often went unresponded-to. We saw sidewalks buried under dirt and weeds, poking up at sharp angles through the urban overgrowth.
We noted these residents’ concerns, knowing how many other parts of the City’s pedestrian network are similarly neglected. And according to Trailnet’s sidewalk auditing criteria, we collected the data that might help us push for change.
The resulting map (pictured below) is riddled with markings, which represent over 150,000 feet of sidewalks that need replacing.
Trailnet’s planners compiled this data into a Mobility Infrastructure Report earlier this year, which they presented to The Ville and Greater Ville communities. Our hope is that this data will open eyes and spur progress.
But The Ville and Greater Villes’ 61 miles of sidewalk constitute only a fragment of the City of St. Louis’ sidewalk network. Many other neighborhoods, especially minority and lower income, have gaps or entire streets where sidewalks do not exist. Not only does this fail to comply with federal ADA standards, but it jeopardizes the safety of our most vulnerable neighbors. Babies in strollers, seniors, folks who use mobility devices, people with visual impairments—these are the first groups impacted by an unreliable sidewalk network, and the groups of people whose needs should be prioritized as the City looks to improve public infrastructure.
Unfortunately, the system that currently governs sidewalk maintenance and construction in the City of St. Louis is highly flawed. Until it is reimagined, people like the Ville resident pictured above will continue taking the only path they’ve been given—the most dangerous path.
The 50-50 Sidewalk Program
Here’s a short rundown of the characteristics and shortcomings of the decades-old sidewalk program that is failing local pedestrians, called the “50-50 Sidewalk Program”:
In St. Louis, property owners are responsible for the maintenance of sidewalks that abut their property. As the name of the program suggests, the City offers an option for covering half of the cost of sidewalk repairs if property owners can cover the other half. Eligibility for the 50-50 Sidewalk Program is contingent upon the property owner being proactive about their property maintenance, having all real estate property taxes paid off in full and having the funds for repairs available at the time of construction.
These repairs, which can cost thousands of dollars, are inaccessible to many residents, even when the cost is shared.
This program inequitably favors neighborhoods with higher rates of proactive property owners. In areas with higher rates of vacancy—The Ville has the highest vacancy rate in the City of St. Louis, at over 60%—the opportunities for consistent sidewalk maintenance and contiguous pedestrian routes are limited by lower neighborhood home ownership.
What’s more, in its current form the 50-50 Sidewalk Program is an administrative nightmare. In February, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that there were over 3,000 outstanding requests for the program at the start of 2023. Many of these requests dated back to 2017. Many others have been lost to an antiquated bureaucratic system.
Earlier this year, Trailnet wrote a similar article on Ward Capital and the City’s piecemeal system of repairing and maintaining streets. This system for maintaining and repairing sidewalks is equally, if not more, troubling. Thankfully, City administrators have been transparent about the failings of this system and the need for its elimination and replacement.
In a committee meeting earlier this year, the Mayor’s Chief of Staff Jared Boyd said, “If the Board [of Aldermen] is interested in changing the way that sidewalks are funded, we’re willing to be a partner in that discussion and to make that process more equitable.”
Just a couple weeks ago, City of St. Louis Complete Streets Manager Scott Oglivie presented a draft scope of work for a new Citywide Mobility Plan—funded by Board Bill 120—to the Community Mobility Committee. In his presentation, Oglivie hinted at alternative sidewalk construction and maintenance programs across the country that could be used as models, were the City to replace the current system.
“We have been looking at a number of cities who have relatively recent and relevant transportation and mobility plans,” said Oglivie. “Kansas City has done some very useful things in recent years, touching on utilities and completely changing the way they manage their sidewalk construction and maintenance program, so that’s something that we’re looking at.”
While conversations have clearly begun in City Hall, these changes need to be fast-tracked.
In short, the 50-50 sidewalk program needs to be eliminated and replaced by a more equitable program that can address the City’s sidewalk network as a whole. With 6 million dollars in ARPA funding allocated to sidewalk repairs through BB120, a Citywide Mobility Plan in the works and the Mayor’s Office and Streets Department expressly open to change, it’s time to:
- Eliminate the current 50-50 sidewalk program
- Begin evaluating and prioritizing sidewalk repairs City-wide, and
- Replace the current system with one that puts the onus on the City to regularly repair and replace sidewalks as needed.
This process must start with The Board of Aldermen. Trailnet recommends that the Board Committee of Public Infrastructure and Utilities summon the Streets Department to a committee hearing and request that they eliminate the 50-50 Sidewalk Program. The Board committee should then request a plan for a more equitable, alternative program. This new program should be transparent, data-driven and accountable to citizen input.
These changes will not affect immediate change. But if the City can identify a reliable set of metrics for prioritizing sidewalk repairs—if they can put an efficient system in place for maintaining and constructing sidewalks—then we will be on our way to a reliable, City-wide sidewalk network. With a corrected system in place, future generations may not need to risk their lives to get from point A to point B outside a car.