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The High Cost of Bad Sidewalks

The critical role that good pedestrian infrastructure plays in city life has been exposed by the coronavirus lockdowns. Why can’t cities fix their sidewalk gap?
A tree root renders this stretch of sidewalk in Los Angeles impassable to wheelchair users.
A tree root renders this stretch of sidewalk in Los Angeles impassable to wheelchair users.Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Stuck at home because of the coronavirus, millions of urban residents suddenly became acutely aware of an easily overlooked element of urban infrastructure: their neighborhood sidewalks (or lack thereof).

“Maybe when this is all over we can widen the sidewalks,” mused Dan Rather in an April 2 tweet that garnered over 26,000 likes. The retired newscaster was on to something: During the lockdowns, as walking provided a critical antidote to cabin fever, sidewalks become crowded, contested space. Many are too narrow to provide the requisite six feet of physical distance from others, as a performance artist in Toronto memorably showed. With vehicle traffic temporarily in retreat during Covid-19 shelter-at-home rules, many cities claimed street space for pedestrians via quick-fix solutions like traffic cones and Jersey barriers. Meanwhile, retailers and restaurants, desperate for safer outdoor space, are making their own incursions into this increasingly valuable infrastructural  commodity.