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FHWA Home / Safety / Pedestrian & Bicycle / A Guide for Maintaining Pedestrian Facilities for Enhanced Safety

A Guide for Maintaining Pedestrian Facilities for Enhanced Safety

2 The Case for Pedestrian Facility Maintenance

2.1 Pedestrian Facilities – A Part of the Transportation System

Sidewalks, shared use paths and other pedestrian facilities are important components of the transportation network. Regardless of the primary means of transportation chosen (auto, bus, rail), nearly everyone is a pedestrian at some point in nearly every trip and pedestrian facilities serve nearly everyone. Because of this, it is important to provide dependable pedestrian facilities that are usable year round by people of all abilities.

Sidewalks are an integral part of the transportation system and should be regarded as such. In the same way that the maintenance for a street or roadway is considered, it is also important to consider maintenance for any adjoining sidewalk or path. In many states the definition of a street or highway is inclusive of everything within the public right-of-way including all of the pedestrian facilities contained within that right-of-way. Maintenance of the street or highway should automatically cover the maintenance of the pedestrian facilities – sidewalks, curb ramps, pedestrian signals, and crosswalk markings.

Pedestrian facilities provide a relatively low cost mobility option that is available to nearly everyone if properly designed and maintained. Pedestrian facilities are also relied upon disproportionately by a significant segment of the public who cannot drive. Once constructed, it is important to maintain pedestrian facilities for varieties of reasons that are detailed below.

2.2 Maintenance is Critical for Safety

There are many safety issues that are directly attributable to poorly maintained pedestrian facilities. Improved safety through proper maintenance can be considered in two ways – reduction of crashes with motorists and the reduction in trips, slips, and falls.

In 2008, the FHWA Office of Safety produced a list of nine proven safety countermeasures that was revised in 2012.1 These countermeasures have the potential to significantly reduce traffic fatalities and injuries. The 2008 list included walkways as a proven countermeasure to improve pedestrian safety. The 2012 list includes three measures that are related to pedestrian safety: pedestrian hybrid beacons, road diets and medians/pedestrian crossing islands. According to the findings of the studies, the presence of a sidewalk or pathway on both sides of the street corresponds to approximately an 88 % reduction in "walking along road" pedestrian crashes. Providing raised medians or pedestrian refuge areas at pedestrian crossings at marked crosswalks has demonstrated a 46% reduction in pedestrian crashes. To fully realize the potential for crash reductions for these facilities, routine maintenance is critical. Pedestrians will walk in roadways to avoid improperly or unmaintained sidewalks or will stand in the middle of intersections waiting for traffic to break when crossing islands are not accessible.

Another countermeasure is marked crosswalks. Although this is not specifically promoted as part of the nine countermeasures by FHWA, crosswalks are a known and effective countermeasure in most urban and suburban environments. Poorly maintained crosswalk markings may not provide the visibility necessary to warn motorists of the street crossing.

Safety issues also relate to the prevention of trips and slips that cause falls. Unfortunately, these incidents are not recorded in the same way that crashes between pedestrians and motorists are recorded. However, based on hospital records and claims made to state and local governments for injuries, these incidents can be very harmful and on occasion fatal. The seriousness of falls tends to disproportionately impact older adults.

The Center of Disease Control (CDC) profiles the seriousness of falls for older adults, although they are not profiled specifically for sidewalk or walkway incidents. According to the CDC2 one out of three adults age 65 and older falls each year. Twenty to thirty percent of older people who fall suffer moderate to severe injuries such as lacerations, hip fractures, or head traumas. Most fractures among older adults are caused by falls. Falls are also the most common cause of traumatic brain injuries for older adults. The likelihood for serious injury increases exponentially as people age past 65. One of the most common and serious fractures for an older adult to recover from is a hip fracture. About half of people who could walk before a broken hip cannot walk as well afterward, even after treatment and rehabilitation. There are many examples where months after the fall people have died from complications brought on by the injury.

There are other longer term effects of a fall that directly impact a person's willingness to continue to walk within their community. People who have fallen may develop a fear of falling that reduces their confidence and causes them to give up walking. Because of the inactivity, joints can become stiff and muscles can become weak. These worsening physical conditions are the very ones that can further increase the risk of falling. Independent living becomes more difficult because older adults are often those most dependent on walking options because a significant percentage of this population does not drive. Given these obstacles, the simple maintenance of pedestrian facilities can have a very positive effect of encouraging walking among older adults. Icy or uneven surfaces are very dangerous for pedestrians using walking aids such as canes, crutches, and walkers. Furthermore, where sidewalks have virtually no separation from the street, crowds, rain, snow, or ice, all increase the chance of falls or slips. Grades become more dangerous with inclement weather and debris.

At the other end of the age spectrum are youth. Crash involvement rates (crashes per 100,000 people) are the highest for 5- to 9-year-old males, who tend to dart out into the street. This problem may be compounded by the fact that speeds are frequently a problem in areas where children are walking and playing. It also underscores the need to have sidewalks in place that are in walkable condition. Using Safe Routes to School programs provide an excellent means of developing walking audits that identify hazards or otherwise poorly maintained pedestrian facilities.

2.3 Maintenance Improves Mobility

Access and mobility are inextricably linked. It is difficult if not impossible to have mobility for a significant segment of the population without providing overall access to pedestrian facilities. Just as the last section on safety revealed the link between safety and mobility, poor pedestrian facility maintenance can have an equally profound impact on overall pedestrian mobility. Any break in the pedestrian network or disrepair can potentially eliminate walking or transit option for people or force a choice to drive instead of walking. At its worst, it may prevent a trip altogether for a segment of the population that has few or no travel options other than walking. Oddly, in some cases, pedestrian safety might actually appear to improve as access is reduced. With fewer trips being made because of poorly maintained pedestrian facilities, overall pedestrian exposure will be reduced and the injury numbers themselves may indicate a safer environment for pedestrians. However, what is really occurring is an overall diminution in pedestrian mobility caused by a reduction in access.

The most obvious examples of compromised pedestrian facilities are of sidewalks and curb ramps where snow and ice are blocking facilities for days or even weeks at a time. However, sidewalk facility defects or malfunctioning pedestrian signals can also have a more subtle, but just as negative, year-round impact on pedestrian travel, especially for people who might be more susceptible to being tripped by surface problems or are at greater risk to injury if they were to fall.

2.4 Maintenance is Critical for People with Mobility Restrictions

At its core, accessible designs are significantly undermined if maintenance is neglected and pedestrian facilities are allowed to degrade to a state where they cannot be used or are avoided. There are generally two accessibility issues related to maintenance and both require maintaining an "accessible path." First, proper and routine maintenance of walkways allow access between intersections. Secondly, the maintenance of transition points – curb ramps, medians, crosswalks, etc. – ensures access at intersections. These are linked to form an accessible path.

Figure 1. Sidewalks and pedestrian areas should be accessible to all users.
Figure 1: Sidewalks and pedestrian areas
should be accessible to all users.

The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 address how transportation facilities should accommodate people who have mobility restrictions. When pedestrian facilities are built, the essential accessibility requirement is to create an accessible pedestrian route within the public right-of-way to link access points and destinations. Within the public right-of-way, sidewalks are considered a pedestrian access route, as are crosswalks, shared use paths, traffic signals and other pedestrian facilities. Seemingly minor maintenance issues can form a significant barrier to people with disabilities.

As part of maintenance operations, public agency practices must ensure that day-to-day operations keep the path of travel open and usable for persons with disabilities throughout the year. This includes snow and debris removal, and maintenance of pedestrian traffic in work zones with only isolated or temporary interruptions in accessibility. According to FHWA, "In accordance with 28 CFR §35.133, a public agency must maintain its walkways in an accessible condition, with only isolated or temporary interruptions in accessibility. Part of this maintenance obligation includes reasonable snow removal efforts."3

The need for relatively expensive paratransit increases when facilities become inaccessible because of poor pedestrian facility maintenance. The U.S. Department of Transportation's ADA regulations provide three categories of paratransit eligibility and one of these three relates directly to inaccessible sites. People who have a specific disability-related condition that prevents them from traveling to a boarding location or from a disembarking location are considered eligible for paratransit. Environmental barriers, such as snow and ice that prevent an individual from traveling to or from the boarding or disembarking locations may form the basis for their eligibility.

2.5 Asset Management

Asset management has been defined by the American Association of Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) as a strategic and systematic process of operating, maintaining, upgrading, and expanding physical assets effectively throughout their lifecycle. Through asset management better decision-making occurs based on the quality of information and the defined objectives. The maintenance of pedestrian facilities falls squarely within this definition and is no different than other components of the transportation system.

Sidewalks are known to last well over 50 years in most environments. The recent drive for asset management for transportation facilities has called attention to how the maintenance of sidewalks fits into an asset management approach. For sidewalks and other pedestrian facilities to last for that length of time maintenance is critical as a means of protecting and extending the initial investment. Although a new name and a more sophisticated process has been applied to managing transportation assets, communities that have been carefully maintaining pedestrian facilities have already learned the benefits of asset management. Here are few examples of how asset management and pedestrian facility maintenance are linked:

2.6 Liability Management

The objective of maintenance programs is to keep facilities accessible and safe for users and to efficiently extend the lives of these facilities through routine and preventative efforts. When there is a breakdown in maintenance of pedestrian facilities the outcome can result in an injury. A related objective of pedestrian maintenance programs is to manage liability. Based on research conducted for this guide, liability varies from state to state and community to community. There is a complex web of interactions within some states that make it difficult to point entirely to public agencies for tort liability. According to the limited research on liability conducted for this guide, some agencies have liability for mishaps stemming from maintenance problems. This is especially common when agencies are aware of a defect or actually have caused the defect themselves. Even if a community has ordinances that require adjacent property owners to maintain facilities on a day-to-day basis (snow removal, sweeping, vegetation trimming) it may still have ultimate responsibility for maintaining the facilities. It is strongly recommended that agencies comprehend their own exposure to liability by fully understanding their state's statutes, local ordinances, and related case law.

Having a sound maintenance program can significantly reduce an agency's exposure to liability. Having a written policy is better than having an informal, unwritten policy. If a community establishes and follows a policy and a mishap occurs, it can help prove that the municipality or community provided reasonable care in the maintenance of its facilities. If a jurisdiction has limited resources, it cannot simply ignore sidewalk maintenance. The jurisdiction still needs to formulate a policy that effectively utilizes the resources it does have. To limit exposure to liability even during times of budget reductions, a community may need to alter its inspection schedule or re-prioritize sidewalk repair projects, but should not eliminate its maintenance practices. Communities that document maintenance decisions and continue to consider complaints and concerns from the public will be in a more defensible position from a liability standpoint.

It is important to emphasize that reducing mishaps through proper pedestrian maintenance has two important outcomes – first and foremost it will improve pedestrian safety. Secondly, when this occurs, there is a commensurate reduction in the occurrence of legal actions taken against a maintaining authority for injuries.

1 Furst, Tony. Memo to Division Administrators. "Promoting the Implementation of Proven Safety Countermeasures." Federal Highway Administration. Jan 12, 2012. http://safety.fhwa.dot.gov/provencountermeasures/pc_memo.pdf.

2Falls Among Older Results: An Overview." Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. September 20, 2012. http://www.cdc.gov/homeandrecreationalsafety/falls/adultfalls.html

3 Wlaschin, Butch. Memo to Directors of Field Services Division Administrators. "Snow Removal on Sidewalks Constructed with Federal Funding." Federal Highway Administration. August 27, 2008. https://www.fhwa.dot.gov/preservation/082708.cfm.

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Page last modified on November 21, 2013
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