Why are U.S. homeowners responsible for sidewalks, but not roads?
February 17, 2016 7:21 AM   Subscribe

Is there a historical/systematic reason that homeowners in cities are responsible for the upkeep of the sidewalks, but not the public roads outside their homes?

Public roads and sidewalks are both used by the public, and (I think) are typically owned by the city. So why is it typically the case, in most U.S. cities, that homeowners are responsible for sidewalk upkeep while the local city government is responsible for public road upkeep? Is there a historical reason for the distinction? Am I wrong about some of my facts?

(I'm trying to specifically ask about public roads and not, say, a private street in a cul-de-sac. But if that information would provide more context, I'm all ears.)
posted by nicodine to Law & Government (35 answers total)
 
Other than snow shoveling I don't know of owner responsibility. I'm quite sure if something breaks the sidewalk (like the giant elm across the street tipping over, that was exciting) it's the town that replaces the sidewalk.
posted by sammyo at 7:36 AM on February 17, 2016 [1 favorite]


Same here. In fact if I need to touch the sidewalk at all (say, to get a sewer line dug up and replaced), I need the city's permission to touch it.
posted by JoeZydeco at 7:42 AM on February 17, 2016 [1 favorite]


When you say upkeep, do you mean when homeowners do some sweeping of their driveway and may also sweep up the adjoining sidewalk? There's nothing that I know of that demands the homeowner do that, but I think it'd just look tacky if people are driving by and see your half-assed sweepwork. And visitors would just track all that dirt back up your driveway when they drive over whatever you pushed on to the sidewalk.
posted by Seboshin at 7:44 AM on February 17, 2016


I'm quite sure if something breaks the sidewalk (like the giant elm across the street tipping over, that was exciting) it's the town that replaces the sidewalk.

Not necessarily. A few years ago when I lived in Ohio, the city would inform homeowners of needed sidewalk repairs. Homeowners had the option of arranging repairs themselves, or letting the city's contractor handle it. The city negotiated good rates so almost nobody made private arrangements. The city billed each homeowner for the specific repairs in front of their houses, figured on a per-square-foot basis.
posted by jon1270 at 7:50 AM on February 17, 2016 [5 favorites]


I think it depends on the specific city. I know that my city does own the sidewalk in front of my house but will absolutely not repair it and it's my responsibility to maintain it. I do need permits to make changes and possibly even zoning approval but the city will not pay for anything. I know that when my neighborhood wanted to upgrade the sidewalks to brick pavers in the business district, it was up the the local citizen's council to raise the funds and do all the project management. The city did nothing but ask for permits and approve the designs.

As to your question of why this is, I don't know but I assume that it's just there there's no way that the city can afford to maintain the hundreds of miles of sidewalk.
posted by octothorpe at 7:52 AM on February 17, 2016


It's a matter of the city's laws -- here in Fargo it's the property owner's responsibility to construct and maintain sidewalks. It amounts to what they decided when the laws were made, and I suppose could be changed if people wanted, but out here in North Dakota people freak the fudge out over anything that might possibly raise property taxes, so people think they're better off paying for "their" sidewalks themselves.
posted by AzraelBrown at 7:52 AM on February 17, 2016


Seboshin- lots of cities require homeowners to keep the sidewalks clear of snow and in good condition. Examples for my city (Madison, WI): snow, general repair (pdf)

A lot of street work is also funded by the homeowners who live on the street via special assessments.

I don't know the origin of this practice, but considering that city budgets have gone nowhere but down for decades in most of the country, it is a way to make sure that necessary repair work actually gets done.
posted by rockindata at 7:53 AM on February 17, 2016 [1 favorite]


I'm not sure there's a great ideological reason for the difference - it could just be pragmatic. If homeowners were responsible for roads, they would all be responsible for very short sections and they'd have to coordinate to make any reasonable repair, or repair costs and styles would be ridiculous. Roads have two sides, so in many homes, you'd have to settle responsibility with the people across the street. The City would still be responsible for roads not directly in front of a residential or commercial property, especially big ones, so they'd still need that infrastructure.

Also, not everyone has sidewalks and they may be built for the convenience of the homeowner but roads are pretty established in most cities (rural areas may be different here).
posted by R a c h e l at 7:55 AM on February 17, 2016


My town requires snow/ice to be removed within 24 hours. If the sidewalk poses a hazard due to being uneven or something, the property owner is financially responsible for getting it fixed.

We had quite a to do last year when the town removed some trees that were causing uneven sidewalks.
posted by Chrysostom at 7:56 AM on February 17, 2016


Where I live, homeowners are responsible for removing snow and ice from the sidewalk in front of their houses (a weightier responsibility than mere sweeping).

As a practical matter, it would be difficult for me to assume similar snow removal responsibilities for the segment of city street in front of the house. It doesn't make sense to divide up snowplowing responsibilities into such small segments. Plowing just doesn't work well if done that way and it would be expensive and inefficient for everyone to have individual plows or contracted plowing services. Also, city neighborhoods don't typically have homeowners' associations able to levy fees from individual homeowners to jointly fund plowing (suburban planned developments often do have such arrangements with legally binding covenants requiring homeowners to contribute.) Similarly, I suppose we could be required to patch potholes in the road in front of our houses, but more substantial street maintenance is better done in larger segments. The most efficient system does seem to be to have the government do the work and fund it through taxes and/or assessments.

Not necessarily. A few years ago when I lived in Ohio, the city would inform homeowners of needed sidewalk repairs. Homeowners had the option of arranging repairs themselves, or letting the city's contractor handle it. The city negotiated good rates so almost nobody made private arrangements. The city billed each homeowner for the specific repairs in front of their houses, figured on a per-square-foot basis.


That's how it works where I live.
posted by Area Man at 7:59 AM on February 17, 2016


Ann Arbor, Michigan voters recently approved a new property tax to cover sidewalk repairs, where previously the city inspected sidewalks and then bugged property owners to do the repair. See this city webpage for one starting point.

There's also an Ann Arbor neighborhood that's set up their own sidewalk snow-clearing service, currently funded funded by voluntary donations, but their long-term plan is to convince people that snow clearing would also be more efficiently handled as a city service. (Currently property owners are responsible for clearing snow. The city doesn't automatically inspect, but they'll come out and look if somebody complains, and eventually issue a fine.)

I don't know if that directly answers your question. But that's two cases where the decision about how to assign responsibility could go either way, so maybe you'd be interested in looking into them.
posted by bfields at 8:14 AM on February 17, 2016


I live in San Francisco, and sidewalk maintenance is most definitely the homeowner's responsibility (last year, the city came through and painted a mark on sidewalk panels that had to be replaced, which we just spent $2,000 doing).

I suspect that cities oversee road infrastructure because city management has a vested interest in ensuring that business can conduct their affairs (e.g. use roads to ship and receive goods).
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 8:21 AM on February 17, 2016


Yes, there is a historical/systemic reason for this. It comes out of a legacy of extensively using building codes in this country to affect the course of urban development rather than direct legislation and expenditure of public money. Highways, roads, and streets have long been the purview of local, state, and federal governments, with property lines having been historically situated up to the edge of these public right of ways. There has long been a cultural aversion in this country, dating back to colonial times, of telling private land owners what they must build/and use their land for. Since realizing public works on private land has always been politically unfeasible, municipalities turned to building and zoning codes to affect newly purchased or constructed property to shape development going forward. Sidewalks were largely a creation in the suburbs of zoning boards writing in codes that new construction must include sidewalks of a certain size on those lots that interfaced with the street. Therefor, when you walk on a sidewalk in many towns in the US, you are walking on private properties that have been mandated be available for use by the public.

Another great example of this are all of the little plazas and fountains you can find on commercial properties in Midtown Manhattan. There was a period when the city of New York wanted to beautiful the business districts of the city during the building boom of the 1980s, so it mandated that a certain percentage of every new commercial project include space for public use. That is why when you walk around all these shiny (relatively) new office buildings around midtown and downtown Manhattan, you will inevitably see a small square with a fountain or trees that is open to the public. That is property of the building owner, but they are mandated to provide it for public use. See also Zuccotti Park.
posted by incolorinred at 8:26 AM on February 17, 2016 [6 favorites]


There are a lot of good answers here, but no one has mentioned the fact that in most places homeowners own the land where the sidewalk is, and the city merely has an easement to use it for specific purposes. On the other hand, your property boundaries stop at the street. Keeping your sidewalk clean is simply one of the responsibilities of ownership, like keeping your yard from becoming an eyesore, or not allowing dangerous conditions to exist on your land.
posted by ubiquity at 8:31 AM on February 17, 2016 [3 favorites]


I know of a road where the property owners have banded together and decided to pay for additional road maintenance so they can have a road in better condition. The road in question was a county dirt/occasionally graveled road and the owners pool funds to have the road graded and graveled more often than the county wants to provide. So sometimes homeowners do maintain the public roads in front of their houses, although this particular example was not within a city boundary.

Tangential to your question: some residential streets in cities (Using the term here to refer to the governmental designation, not necessarily large cities) don't have sidewalks, and some areas not in cities do have sidewalks. There are even unpaved roads with sidewalks, located in cities.

There might be some regional differences in how things work. There seem to be some areas of the US where all houses are located inside of a city boundary, and some areas where there are vast stretches of populated land that are "in the county" instead of within a city boundary.

Some places the city will come and "fix" the sidewalk without your involvement, and send you a bill for the so-called "improvements".

In my city, the lot boundaries typically extend to the centerline of the road. So it's not true that the road is "owned" by the city. The city has an easement on which they may construct various things such as roads, sidewalks, make existing roads wider, etc. -- and in some cases, this easement actually extends over the entire footprint of the house on the property. Land ownership is a very complex issue and there are many different forms of title, easements, etc. and this is an area you might want to look into more as it's not so simple as homeowner owns this and city owns that.
posted by yohko at 8:33 AM on February 17, 2016


I don't know how San Diego handled sidewalk repairs, but in that city, sidewalks are almost always on public property, with the property line almost always at the interior lot face of the sidewalk. I'd hesitate to say that having sidewalks on private property is the norm, but it may depend on development history - older areas that predate standardized sidewalks might not have the width required for them included in the street width when the area was platted. For San Diego, that would have been around the turn of the 20th century.

At least in San Diego, why sidewalks would have different maintenance and construction requirements from streets is pretty obvious though: utilities. All of which run in the street, many of which (storm sewer, sanitary sewer, water mains) are municipal. The city doesn't want to ask your permission to alter or repair those things.
posted by LionIndex at 8:45 AM on February 17, 2016


In NYC, you can get a (sanitation) ticket if you neglect to clean the area X inches into the street. (Sorry, I've forgotten the value of 'x' but it's something like 18.
posted by Obscure Reference at 9:47 AM on February 17, 2016


Upkeep or cost? There are several different concepts that get lumped together in most municipalities here in Wisconsin. Property owners get assessed for new or replacement walk and pavement based on their frontage. Generally property owners can have a contractor or themselves repair faulty walk but they need a permit. Property owners also are responsible for shoveling snow from sidewalks but the city takes care of plowing streets. General maintenance of streets like pothole patching is done by the city. Many times even asphalt resurfacing of streets is paid for general city funds. Sometimes the city contracts this out and other times it is done by city crews.

This has historic precedence in downtowns when the property owners were responsible for the upkeep of boardwalks. Life was simpler then!
posted by JJ86 at 10:02 AM on February 17, 2016


Didn't read all responses, but in direct contradiction to the first few, I know here (in Milwaukee) the homeowner is responsible for not just snow shoveling, but the actual upkeep of the concrete. I was pretty shocked to find out that when the city decided to replace the cracked and crooked sidewalk blocks on our street, my mom was on the hook for the cost of the ones in front of our house, whether she wanted them replaced (or could afford it) or not.

Also, here you will get a ticket if you do not shovel sidewalks. But only the public ones along the street. You don't have to shovel the walk leading up to your door, but then the mail person also doesn't have to deliver your mail.

The snow shoveling vs. street plowing seems pretty logical (sidewalks are on your actual property, most homeowners would not have the resources to plow the whole street), but I don't have any idea how or why it got to the point where homeowners have to pay to fix sidewalks which are on their property, but that they have no say over.
posted by catatethebird at 10:05 AM on February 17, 2016


Unlike many countries, the US seems to have retained much more of its patchwork of mini-countries and semi-independent settlements that were recently smooshed up together under a flag, and each often still doing things habitually in ways related to whatever happened to be randomly settled on in that particular area earlier on.
For a striking example (to me), it's pretty normal for a country to have a police force - one unified hierarchical structure - whereas just the US state of California alone has (a mess of) over fifty of them, like a bunch of old fiefdoms glomped together rather than becoming a new unified system.
posted by anonymisc at 10:20 AM on February 17, 2016 [3 favorites]


catatethebird posted: The snow shoveling vs. street plowing seems pretty logical (sidewalks are on your actual property, most homeowners would not have the resources to plow the whole street), but I don't have any idea how or why it got to the point where homeowners have to pay to fix sidewalks which are on their property, but that they have no say over.

It's a common misconception that "sidewalks are your actual property". Everywhere in Milwaukee, the sidewalks are in the public right of way. It is just part of the citizen's responsibility to maintain them because that is democracy. We work together wherever possible for the common good.
posted by JJ86 at 10:39 AM on February 17, 2016 [1 favorite]


There is actually historical precedent for forcing able-bodied non-criminal male Americans to do compulsory roadwork to maintain public highways.
posted by zachlipton at 10:49 AM on February 17, 2016


Another version of cost/responsibility-splitting: Where I live we have no responsibility to maintain the sidewalks (not even shoveling! The need for a shoveling ordinance is a constant bone of contention), and the city will EVENTUALLY get around the regular maintenance work, but homeowners are allowed to pay half the cost to jump the queue. Similarly, your whole block can band together and if 75% of you agree, they'll let your block's sidewalk repaving jump to the top of the queue and special-assess your block for half.

(For general repaving, the special-assessment queue where the city pays half is around 12 to 18 months; for general city funds city-pays-all, it's around 7 years from the time your sidewalks are identified as "terrible.")

Roads is just roads, I have no option to pay for that to queue-jump, and they're kept up a lot better. I BELIEVE alleys are like sidewalks (but I don't have one so I'm not positive).
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 10:56 AM on February 17, 2016


ubiquity posted: There are a lot of good answers here, but no one has mentioned the fact that in most places homeowners own the land where the sidewalk is, and the city merely has an easement to use it for specific purposes. On the other hand, your property boundaries stop at the street. Keeping your sidewalk clean is simply one of the responsibilities of ownership, like keeping your yard from becoming an eyesore, or not allowing dangerous conditions to exist on your land.

It seems to be rare. Even in your area of Baltimore, a random sampling on areas in the city and county on government GIS maps shows nearly every public sidewalk is within the street right of way. Those aren't easements in any definition of the word.

Alleys in my city, like public walks, are left up to home owners to plow. Most people try to get together to hire a plow to come through during snowstorms but sometimes people don't care and it nearly impassable.
posted by JJ86 at 11:08 AM on February 17, 2016


It kind of makes sense, even if the property owner owns neither the road or the sidewalk. The upkeep of both would need to be covered by tax money, and you can be close to 100% certain that a homeowner uses the sidewalk in front of their home, but you can't know whether they use a road - that depends on whether they drive a car, so it makes more sense to pay for road upkeep from taxes on cars and fuel.

Since homeowners use the sidewalk, you can either raise rates to cover the cost of upkeep, or you can get people to do it themselves. There's no great advantage or disadvantage either way, I think, so it sounds like different cities do it differently.
posted by lollusc at 1:41 PM on February 17, 2016


Cities generally have fleets of vehicles that maintain the streets (sweepers, plows, etc) but nothing for sidewalks. Could you imagine a city like Chicago, where every single street has sidewalks on both sides, the manpower needed for the city itself to clean/sweep sidewalks? It still has to be done, so it gets tasked to the property owner, since they just need to maintain a small, small segment.
posted by hwyengr at 3:25 PM on February 17, 2016


In Traverse City, MI, the city does indeed have a fleet of side walk width snow blowers with which they keep all the sidewalks(both sides!) clear of the nearly daily lake-effect snow.
posted by rockindata at 5:04 PM on February 17, 2016


Some roads are owned by the city, some are owned by the state, and some are owned by the county. It's really a mess. In Chicago there are long stretches of major roads that are in total disrepair but others that are well maintained, meanwhile the tollways and local state highways continue to be in pretty good shape. The feds maintain the tollways, IDOT is in charge of the local highways and stretches of tollway, but the city (due to political buffoonery and constant budget problems) does a terrible job maintaining its part. The difference is really stark as you're driving around.
posted by deathpanels at 6:34 PM on February 17, 2016


I don't have an answer to the larger question although I have wondered on this myself. I have some anecdata to show that it is somewhat common in MA and other parts of New England for homeowners to be responsible for both the street and the sidewalk. I personally live on a public street in central MA but during the house search we came across many houses on private roads, not just in Worcester. And here's an article with more details.
posted by Tandem Affinity at 6:58 PM on February 17, 2016


I would point out also that although the article says that the city of Worcester plows these private streets, other towns do not plow private streets and the residents must hire a service themselves or pay a fee to the town...
posted by Tandem Affinity at 7:00 PM on February 17, 2016


Our first responder system-- emergency medical, police, fire-- is heavily dependent upon vehicle right of way even in dense, urban, walkable areas.
posted by threeants at 8:41 PM on February 17, 2016


Aside from that legitimately compelling reason, I think it's worth considering this question politically in addition to technically. In most situations in American life when priorities have to be made, the needs of the more privileged tend to get served first. Everybody is equally entitled to use the sidewalk, but a smaller subset of people are able to use roads for their private vehicles.
posted by threeants at 8:47 PM on February 17, 2016


Cities generally have fleets of vehicles that maintain the streets (sweepers, plows, etc) but nothing for sidewalks. Could you imagine a city like Chicago, where every single street has sidewalks on both sides, the manpower needed for the city itself to clean/sweep sidewalks? It still has to be done, so it gets tasked to the property owner, since they just need to maintain a small, small segment

There are mini plows on to clean sidewalk. I guarantee you it faster than shoveling.

There are also inevitably driven by madmen in Montreal for some reason. They scare me.
posted by coust at 8:50 PM on February 17, 2016


> in most places homeowners own the land where the sidewalk is, and the city merely has an easement to use it for specific purposes. On the other hand, your property boundaries stop at the street.

Oh, were it only so simple. In many places, the chain of title for the parcels along a given street might include some legal descriptions that include the street, and some that stop at the edge of the city's (or county's) right of way. Historically, most roads started out as easements as well. If the city were ever to abandon the road, title to the portion previously used might (or might not) revert to the adjoining owner. Then you add on the fact that most minor roads are defined as a given width (in our state, 4 rods) which means that some distance beyond a 24- or 30-foot wide street (the paved part) is included within the right of way even though it, to all appearances, belongs to the landowner.
posted by megatherium at 2:35 AM on February 18, 2016


Thanks everyone! I was deliberately vague in my question about what "upkeep" meant (e.g., shoveling snow versus repairing concrete) because I was curious to see whether these two responsibilities were lumped together or not. Extracting the gist from many comments, it seems the general answer is that each city has its own laws, perhaps with each neighborhood deciding how it resolves repair and snow removal issues. And perhaps the reason for the "patchwork" of differences between regions may be due to a combination of factors, including the age of the city, how planned the city was, and so on.

I feel vindicated in my inability to find a single source that explained all this.

I'm marking a few "best answers," but all responses were helpful. Thanks MeFi!
posted by nicodine at 11:52 AM on March 19, 2016


« Older Where to live in Cincinnati?   |   Seeking resources on falsetto singing Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.