U.S. Department of Transportation
Federal Highway Administration
1200 New Jersey Avenue, SE
Washington, DC 20590
Inspection practices are most often associated with sidewalk surface irregularities such as cracks, spalling and faults (also known as step separation or changes in level). Many communities provide varying forms of inspection to proactively identify sidewalk problems which are then addressed on a zone-by-zone basis. However, basic inspection practices need to be in place for all communities to assess problems which are reported by citizens or as identified as a result of a pedestrian slip or fall. Although most of these immediate problems can result in tripping hazards, inspection also occurs on a smaller scale for sidewalks and paths that need to be swept or have vegetation trimmed. Additionally, many communities in snowier environments will use inspectors to ensure that snow and ice has been removed from sidewalks when complaints or slips are reported. This section of the research report focuses on the inspection of pedestrian facilities due to surface or structural problems. It builds on the research conducted for the report and the discussions conducted with communities as presented as part of Chapter One.
An inspection process is most often used to plan and stage efforts to address problems that are identified through a proactive effort or are reported by citizens or staff. It is done in several ways and varies from community to community. Inspection and repair are inextricably linked. When an inspection system works at one of the following levels, repairs are often delivered in the same manner. For example, if a community uses inspectors to do assessments on a zone-by-zone basis, the repairs then follow on a zone-by-zone basis too.
A city, village or town may establish a community-wide effort to inspect every sidewalk within a defined period, such as a six month window. This requires significant resources, and is often comprehensive and most often involves more than simple maintenance issues. Many times this approach is associated with conducting an ADA Transition Plan or is in response to outstanding facility needs that have not been addressed over a long period of time. When a sidewalk system deteriorates to this level, only through a community-wide approach can a reasonable prioritization of sidewalk needs occur. Some smaller communities or communities with relatively few sidewalks can annually inspect all of their sidewalks, but this is difficult for larger communities with extensive sidewalk systems.
The City of Durham, North Carolina, used its comprehensive inventory of sidewalks to create a prioritization plan. This followed a set of bond referendums in 2005 and 2007, which financed the replacement of sidewalks and the construction and replacement of over 1,000 curb ramps. Often a community-wide effort to assess sidewalks will result in an operational plan aimed at making repairs by zones. This was the approach used by Boulder, Colorado. In order to identify and prioritize sidewalk needs an overall community-wide assessment was made, which better enabled the city to identify zones to focus efforts.
A city, village or town will segment their community into zones or groups of neighborhoods. The inspection process will focus on these zones, often with a sidewalk repair and replacement program put in action to respond to the identified problems. By having the community split into three to ten zones, efforts and funds can be targeted in more manageable areas. Costs can also be further controlled by keeping crews within in a tighter geographic area, reducing mobilization and traffic control costs. Although inspections are made in a proactive fashion on a zone-by-zone basis, often the same inspectors are used to respond to immediate inspection issues throughout the community if a hazard has been reported.
About half of the communities in which discussions were conducted are using this zone-by-zone approach or a variant of it. For instance, the City of Minneapolis has split their city into ten zones and targets most of its $3.1 million sidewalk and curb ramp replacement budget to one zone at a time. Similarly, almost all of the communities had either informal or formal arrangements to focus inspection and repairs in their downtown areas. The one community that took that effort to the greatest length was Rochester, Minnesota. The central downtown area around the Mayo Clinic is examined on a monthly basis and the greater downtown area is inspected on a yearly basis. The rest of the city, which is primarily single-family use (but some areas of multi-family use as well), is then inspected at 5% per year; the city will also respond to any complaints or safety hazards. The targeted hospital area is roughly one quarter of a mile in radius while the greater downtown area is roughly one half to three quarters of a mile in diameter. The city is cognizant of the need to create a safe pedestrian experience, that is not only highly ADA accessible, but also takes into account the number of new visitors, the sick, the elderly and even the family members of the sick.
Nearly every community researched has a variation of a spot inspection program. Spot inspection occurs when a hazard is identified and reported by citizens or staff. Additionally, this type of inspection occurs when a fall or slip is reported due to a hazard. Before any repair is made, an employee of the community needs to verify that a problem exists. Several communities researched relied only on spot inspection and the subsequent repair of sidewalks and paths. Communities involved in zone-by-zone inspection also conducted spot inspections, and were better equipped to do so because they already have trained inspectors and/or inspection teams.
On a statewide basis, Florida DOT's Office of Maintenance has the most or one of the most detailed inspection processes and criteria of any DOT. It is incorporated into its Maintenance Rating Handbook. A high standard is established for sidewalk maintenance requiring over 99% of the sidewalk area to be free of vertical misalignments greater than 1/4 inch, horizontal cracks greater than 3/4 inch, or spalled areas greater than ½ inch in depth, and no visible hazards. The handbook contains a series of photos and descriptions to help inspectors properly measure conditions. Florida DOT is among just a handful of states who maintain all sidewalks on its highways.
Of cities surveyed for this report, the majority either does not have a formal sidewalk inspection program or employ a zone inspection program. The type of program selected depends largely on the resources available: community-wide inspection requires the most resources, while a spot inspection program requires the least; a zone inspection program falls between community-wide and spot programs, but the amount of resources required can vary widely based on the number of zones used. The resources required to carry out an inspection program vary not just with the type of program selected, but also with the age of the sidewalks being inspected. In newer communities, it may be possible to inspect large areas very quickly, as sidewalk systems have been built to current guidance, and have not had extensive damage from tree roots or other items. Inspection of older sidewalk systems can take considerable time, especially in areas where curb ramps have not been brought up to ADA standards, or mature trees have damaged sidewalks.
At a bare minimum, a basic inspection system should consist of spot inspections as described above. This is certainly the least formal and robust approach to inspection, but is necessary to respond to immediate maintenance problems caused by a variety of factors. This approach is taken by communities to ensure they are responding to hazards in a way that lessens incidences and reduces their exposure to claims and liability. Upon completion of inspection and determining the extent of a problem, some form of work order will likely be issued leading to one of the following repairs: wedging, grinding, patching or sidewalk replacement. It could also lead to sweeping, vegetation removal or trimming. For a path, an asphalt patch or overlay may also be considered.
When sidewalk and trail conditions deteriorate, one of the following factors will exceed an acceptable threshold. Routine inspections should consider, at a minimum, changes in level or grade, excessive cross-slopes and vertical clearances. Additional factors are considered in more comprehensive inspections such as those conducted zone-by-zone or community-wide.
Chapter 11 of Designing Sidewalks and Trails for Access, Part II has an excellent discussion laying out a complete sidewalk assessment system. This is used for more extensive inspection processes for community-wide assessments and often for ADA transition plans and sidewalk replacement programs being conducted on a zone-by-zone basis within a community. Features of such an assessment go beyond routine inspection procedures with the following measurements being involved: sidewalk cross slopes (including cross slopes at driveways), maximum running grades when exceeding 5%, changes in level, changes in grade, maximum cross slope, minimum clear width, surface defects, minimum vertical and horizontal clearances and the distance protruding objects intrude into the pedestrian path. The actual criteria or threshold values used to evaluate and inspect facilities are included under the Sidewalk and Path Maintenance and Inspection sub-section provided later in this section.
Unlike sidewalks, shared use paths were uniformly owned and maintained by the communities contacted for this study. There appeared to be little ambiguity about who's responsible for maintaining paths. Despite this, only a few of the communities contacted had any formal and proactive inspection process for shared use paths, even though they may have had a robust inspection and repair program for sidewalks. Most communities relied on reports of hazards from users; almost all of whom were bicyclists. However, when path inspection and repair was discussed with communities, nearly every community indicated that their attention to repairs on paths was as good or even better as the efforts they were making for sidewalks. Several indicated that they paid more attention to deficiencies in paths than sidewalks, because of the sheer volume of users (often citing heavy bicycle traffic) on paths compared to sidewalks. Several communities indicated that they do visual inspections when their staff is on the paths, but it did not constitute a formal inspection process.
Image 6: Section of a shared use path being repaired
in Madison, Wisconsin
Of the communities contacted, Madison, Wisconsin, had the most extensive path inspection system. All paths are visually inspected on a regular basis, and individually rated for pavement condition on an annual basis. Condition reports are reviewed every year and a number of paths are selected for resurfacing or repaving based on condition rating, path usage and other factors. Between major resurfacing projects, surface problems are addressed based on reports of hazards, with pothole patching or other repairs being completed as necessary and priority given to problems with safety implications.
A unique approach to sidewalk inspection involves the use of volunteers. Hoboken, New Jersey has an annual inspection program where the city enlists trained volunteers to walk the sidewalks and record any problems. The volunteers tend to be younger students and elderly residents, and are given some training in how to recognize and document pedestrian facility issues. Currently, the volunteers note the location of damage to a specific slab and rate the severity of the disrepair. The City of Hoboken has enlisted college student volunteers to develop a smartphone application (separate from Hoboken311 described below) that their volunteer inspectors can use so that the whole sidewalk inventory would be digitized instantly.
Nearly every community contacted offered at least one means of reporting hazards. The most common form of reporting was by phone to the public works, transportation department, or parks department for paths. The next most common form was electronically through an agency's website. PEDS, a metropolitan Atlanta advocacy group, has established an online hazard reporting system used by the City of Atlanta and many Atlanta suburbs. People are encouraged to report broken sidewalks, dead walk signals, faded crosswalks and other pedestrian hazards. Hoboken has a program called Hoboken311, which brings together all manners of reporting issues into one system. Along with phone and website reports, the program includes a smartphone application (also called Hoboken311) that can be used to report any number of public nuisance problems including snow removal issues, needed sidewalk repair, burnt out pedestrian lighting, damaged pedestrian signals, etc. The application allows the user to take a picture of the problem to send in with the complaint and the system will automatically send the user status updates until there is a resolution to the problem. Several communities also have developed similar smartphone application, including Cambridge, Massachusetts, Boston, Massachusetts, Louisville, Kentucky, and Charlotte, North Carolina.
An important aspect of sidewalk and trail inspection is the management of collected data. Inspection of all types – from spot inspection to comprehensive assessments – should be documented. During an inspection a form is typically completed for each property. If a spot inspection is conducted due to a reported problem, only one or two properties may be assessed. For more comprehensive inspections, notes and forms are completed assessing the defective panels, the types of defects found, and the length and width of the anticipated repair. These field notes are then used to generate inspection reports, which are often sent to the adjacent property owners who are required to pay for all or part of the sidewalk repair or replacement.
After a complaint is received and the inspection reveals the condition does not meet the city's criteria for correction or repair, the city's records should indicate an inspection occurred; document the nature and extent of the conditions observed; and that the condition does not meet the city's established criteria for replacement or repair.
According to resources provided by the League of Minnesota Cities and many other resources, it is helpful if a community documents its sidewalk inspection and sidewalk problems. Not only does it help the community plan and program for the correction, which in turn will reduce trips and falls, but it is a hedge against liability. In the event of a lawsuit, the city's attorneys can use these documents to prove the existence of the community's inspection policies and the community's adherence to the policies. They can also show that the city exercised reasonable care in inspecting and maintaining its sidewalks. The League cautions that sometimes communities will have the mistaken notion that if they do not document policies or problems, there will be no paper trail to hurt them later on; however, judges and juries can draw negative inferences from a lack of documentation. Documentation shows that a community took deliberate action to inspect and maintain facilities.
The City of Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, was one of the first communities in the country to use a more sophisticated data management system for sidewalk inspections. Fond du Lac created a custom database application using computer software to help manage the vast amount of data associated with the city's sidewalk program. This database application stores all of the sidewalk data in one central location and automatically generates several reports. The electronic database allows the city to not only manage the data in one place, but to automatically calculate quantities for estimating sidewalk replacement costs and bid quantities.
A mobile GIS application consisting of a handheld computer with GIS software and a global positioning system (GPS) is used in the field and synchronized with the sidewalk database as inspections occur. A GIS parcel map is used to note defects in the sidewalk and creates points in the database using the inspector's GPS location. Digital photographs are also taken of the defects during the inspection and are added to the parcel information in the database.
Specific sidewalk and trail inspection tools that can be used include check sheets, smart levels and GPS programs. There are specific criteria related to prevent tripping hazards. A profile gauge is used to measure small changes in level and a smart level or digital inclinometer is used to measure cross slopes and running grades. It is ideal to maintain a ½ inch maximum change in level. However, among the communities contacted, a common practice was ¾ inch. When this was discussed with several communities in severe winter states, they felt this was a reasonable since sidewalk displacements are typical due to frost heaves. Grinding or horizontal cutting is recommended for changes in level between ¼ inch and ½ inch (see section below). Prevention of tripping hazards is especially crucial for seniors and people with disabilities. This is because seniors can sometimes have visibility issues and wheelchair tires are likely to get stopped by level changes.
The above defects need to be assessed and measured against accepted guidelines and standards. The actual practice of performing this function is commonly known among communities as inspection (see the previous section on Inspection and Inventory). Sidewalk inspection criteria serve many useful purposes, especially to reduce or eliminate slips and falls based on avoidable sidewalk and trail hazards. Other reasons include providing guidelines to agency employees, conveying information to residents, and preventing and/or minimizing lawsuits and exposure. The following section summarizes the actual thresholds or measurements used in the United States.
Every community that has a maintenance program in place uses criteria to evaluate existing conditions. Based on discussions with community officials, the criteria are not always published, many times discretionary and are often not applied equally across the community. Additionally, many communities contacted only used sidewalk faults (changes in level) for responding to immediate problems and their inspection protocol did not extend beyond that level of assessment even on a long term basis.
Communities should develop and adopt sidewalk inspection and maintenance policies if guidelines, standards and policies do not already exist. At a minimum, inspections should consider changes in level, changes in grade, excessive cross-slopes (including cross slopes at driveways), vertical clearances, maximum running grades, minimum clear width and the distance protruding objects extend into the pedestrian path. In the communities researched, not all of these criteria are being used – or should be used – for spot inspection purposes. Spot inspection occurs when communities respond to immediate hazards. Many of these spot repairs will focus on tripping hazards, which are caused primarily by faults in the sidewalk.
The ADA Draft Guidelines for the Public Right of Way provide the following guidance for walkways. The guidance states that surfaces of public sidewalks be stable, firm, and slip-resistant, and shall lie generally in a continuous plane with a minimum of surface warping. More specifically, the guidelines address the conditions:
Several smaller communities contacted had good descriptions of defects, along with thresholds they use for triggering repair and replacement of sidewalks.
The City of Corralville, Iowa's website provided a narrative and photos with a simple categorization of problems and thresholds (Table 5).
Table 5: Descriptions and photos of common sidewalk problems in Corralville, Iowa
Code A: Sidewalk panel is raised ¾" or more from an adjacent panel, creating a vertical edge; panel is cracked or separated by ¾" or more in width; or panel is separated horizontally or vertically by ¾" or more with any adjacent paved surface.
Code B: Sidewalk panel is raised or depressed from normal grade by 2 inches or more within 10 feet or less of sidewalk.
Code C: Sidewalk panel is cracked into more than three pieces, with one or more loose pieces.
Code D: Sidewalk panel is sloped or tilted, ponding water covering half or more of the sidewalk width.
Code E: Sidewalk has 50% surface deterioration and ½ inch surface depressions.
Similarly, the City of Oregon, Ohio, also had a useful set of guides (Table 6). The city used letter codes to denote the deficiency and also to identify if it was the property owner or city's responsibility to repair or replace the sidewalk.
Table 6: Descriptions and pictures of common sidewalk defects in Oregon, Ohio
Stub Toe (S): The vertical misalignment along any part of the seam between two slabs, or between sections of a cracked slab, of ½" or more, or deemed hazardous by engineering judgment
Cracked Slabs (C): Slabs fragmented by cracks into four or more sections, and/or where any one of the gaps is greater than 2 inches and prohibit the sidewalk from functioning as designed
Traverse Slope (T): Any individual slab or portion of a slab shall not slope either toward the street or the adjoining property at a ratio of more than 5/8" per foot (1:20)
Gaps (G): Opening in between sidewalk slabs greater than 2" in width, or those caused by the absence of a fragmented section of sidewalk exceeding 2" in width
Spalling (Pitted) Slabs (P): Slabs whose surface is granular or if a chunk of the sidewalk surface greater than 2" in width has broken out, and the result is a hole ½" or deeper
Tree Root Damage(R): Any deficiencies in a slab or part of a slab that are deemed to be caused by tree roots from a tree in the city right-of-way will be the responsibility of the city.
Longitudinal Slope (Sunken or Raised Sections) (L): Any sidewalk panels that have lifted to a peak or sunken such that the slab or portion of a slab deviates from the average line of the sidewalk surface level at a ratio of more than 1 inch per foot
Public Utility Damage (O): Any deficiencies in a slab or part of a slab that are deemed to be caused by public infrastructure (sewer and water mains, sewer manholes, catch basins, etc.). Damage deemed to be caused by public infrastructure will be the responsibility of the City of Oregon.
Image 7: Bricks and pavers that have come
loose or are not evenly placed can create a
Most communities who have sidewalks constructed of bricks or pavers use the same inspection criteria for these materials as they do for concrete sidewalks. These materials are considered a "segmental material" since each paver is separate and is often not tied or bonded together the way a concrete slab is formed and functions. When there is an underlying problem in the subgrade, it is not unusual to have just one or two bricks become displaced sometimes forming a tripping hazard for just those few bricks. In contrast, concrete sidewalks might be able to withstand smaller more localized pressures until a time the entire slab is displaced. Gaps between bricks and pavers might also cause problems in greater frequency than with concrete and asphalt sidewalks simply because of the greater number of potential gaps that exist.
Bricks and pavers should be set in place so they are easy to reset or replace. Bricks and/or pavers can cause vibrations that are painful for pedestrians who use mobility aids. Again, the design of the sidewalk can reduce this problem based on the pattern of the bricks and joint width that is used. Many communities are simply replacing the bricks and pavers they have in place and using bricks or pavers only for sidewalk borders in certain settings to reduce possible maintenance problems in the future.
Before describing repairs and practices in more detail, a brief explanation of accessibility is necessary. 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 and points between intersections. Secondly, the maintenance of transition points – curb ramps, medians, crosswalks, etc. – ensures access at intersections. These are inextricably linked to form an accessible path.
The maintenance of an accessible path can be put into the context of universal design. Routinely maintaining a pedestrian system will ensure that facilities accommodate people with disabilities, but in turn, will also give dependable access and an improved level of service to people of all ages and abilities.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 address how transportation facilities should accommodate people who are disabled. The essential ADA requirement is to create a 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, paths, traffic signals and other pedestrian facilities. Just as minor changes in facilities can greatly improve accessibility, seemingly minor maintenance problems can form a significant barrier to people who are disabled or even able bodied.
The Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board (the U.S. Access Board) has recommended accessibility guidelines for the design, construction and alteration of pedestrian facilities in the public right-of-way. These ADA accessibility guidelines and standards address new and altered pedestrian facilities. The guidelines ensure that sidewalks, pedestrian street crossings, pedestrian signals and other facilities for pedestrian use that are constructed or altered in the public right-of-way by state and local governments are readily accessible to and usable by pedestrians with disabilities. When the guidelines are adopted as accessibility standards in regulations issued by other federal agencies implementing the Americans with Disabilities Act, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and the Architectural Barriers Act, compliance with the accessibility standards is mandatory.
The ADA and Section 504 do not require public agencies to provide pedestrian facilities. However, where pedestrian facilities exist they must be accessible. Furthermore, when public agencies construct improvements providing access for pedestrians, the completed project also must meet accessibility requirements for persons with disabilities to the maximum extent feasible.
As part of maintenance operations, public agencies' standards and practices must ensure that the day-to-day operations keep the pedestrian path of travel =open and usable for persons with disabilities throughout the year. According to federal code Title 28 CFR35.133 "Maintenance of Accessible Features:"
Both of these requirements will be examined in more detail.
The distinction between maintenance of pedestrian facilities and the alteration or new construction of facilities is important. This report addresses the maintenance of pedestrian facilities. Alterations to pedestrian facilities are more significant and offer considerably more opportunities to incorporate ADA compliant features. ADA requires public entities that alter facilities to incorporate accessibility improvements. Typically, alterations to sidewalks occur as a result of alterations to the adjacent roadway. Projects altering the usability of the roadway must incorporate accessible pedestrian improvements at the same time as the alterations to the roadway occur. See Kinney v. Yerusalim, 9 F.3d 1067 (3d Cir. 1993), cert. denied, 511 U.S.C. 1033 (1994). Since alterations are changes to a facility in the public right-of-way that affect or could affect access, circulation or use by persons with disabilities, it is conceivable that replacing long segments of sidewalk could rise to the level of an alteration. The replacement of significant sections of sidewalks associated with a street reconstruction or intersection reconstruction would be considered altered facilities.
Maintenance activities that involve the actual repair of a pedestrian facility are not considered alterations. Therefore, maintenance projects do not require simultaneous improvements to pedestrian accessibility under the ADA and Section 504. The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) and the courts have not ruled on what defines an alteration when sidewalks are impacted by various types and scopes of projects. FHWA has considered common maintenance activities associated with roadways as those that are intended to preserve the system, retard future deterioration and maintain the functional condition of the roadway without increasing the structural capacity.
Maintenance activities include, but are not limited to, thin surface overlays (nonstructural), joint repair, pavement patching (filling potholes), shoulder repair, signing, striping, minor signal upgrades and repairs to drainage systems. Based on that, surfacing treatments for sidewalks such as filling holes and cracks, wedging, grinding and horizontal cutting are considered maintenance. The replacement of short segments of sidewalk to repair surface irregularities is also maintenance in nature; however, communities and states should use this opportunity to meet ADA standards on these types of projects to the extent possible – even with small sidewalk replacements – given the scope of the repair and the technical feasibility. Most of the communities in which discussions were held indicated that they are meeting ADA standards when doing routine maintenance work.
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, "A public agency must maintain its walkways in an accessible condition, with only isolated or temporary interruptions in accessibility. 28 CFR §35.133. Part of this maintenance obligation includes reasonable snow removal efforts. (9-12-06)."2
2 "Question and Answers AboutADA/Section 504." U.S. Department of Transportation, Federal Highway Administration. Accessed January 23, 2013. https://www.fhwa.dot.gov/civilrights/programs/ada_sect504qa.cfm.