Why do sidewalks in Austin suddenly end?
This story was originally performed live at the Paramount Theatre on Sept. 28, 2022
Locke Riti spent a day last March hanging out on the sidewalk in front of his aunt’s house in Hyde Park.
“We’re doing a bake sale for Ukraine,” the 7-year-old said. Locke and his cousin, Maple, were selling scones, muffins and cookies they had baked, and planned to send the profits to aid groups.
At the behest of a reporter, Locke and Maple began talking about what they do on sidewalks: walk dogs, run, ride their bikes. So, they said, when a street has no sidewalk or the sidewalk stops midblock, as is common in Austin, they feel frustrated.
“It’s a tiny bit annoying because I have to walk on the road,” Maple, 7, said.
A KUT listener was also frustrated.
“[Why are there] so many sidewalks in Austin that start and then stop right in the middle of a block?” Elizabeth Green asked.
According to Austin’s Public Works Department, the city is missing about 1,600 miles of sidewalk — a length of concrete that could stretch from here to Winnipeg, Canada.
The city estimates it would take about a century to fill these sidewalk gaps at a cost of nearly $1 billion.
A patchwork of sidewalks
Austin — and the people who build here — used to be much more diligent about constructing sidewalks. In the 19th and early 20th century, before cars were widely available, many people walked to get around. While the city didn’t require developers to build sidewalks, it made sense to do so.
“If you were building streets, you built the sidewalk at the same time,” John Eastman, a project manager with the city's Public Works Department, said. Then everyone started driving.
By 1950, the average household in the U.S. owned one car.
“And then we got into a really different land-use era where we just kind of stopped building sidewalks,” he said.
But in 1969, Austin decided sidewalks were once again important. In an attempt to right decades of sidewalk-less development, the city began requiring sidewalks in new developments.
But Brent Lloyd with Austin’s Development Services Department said this wasn’t a quick salve; the city was liberal and would often waive these requirements.
“That resulted in areas without sidewalks or with discontinuous sidewalks,” Lloyd wrote in an email.
In an attempt to get sidewalks built in old neighborhoods over the past two decades, the city began requiring property owners to build them in front of existing homes if they were demolishing or remodeling the home. But that created another problem: sidewalks that end midblock.
Because a property owner is required to build a sidewalk only in front of their home, people build scraps of sidewalk.
“That's why you see that patchwork even within an existing neighborhood like Hyde Park,” Eastman said.
If the sidewalk on a street is less than half built out, property owners can pay a fee instead of contributing this "patchwork." The city uses this money to fill in sidewalk gaps throughout Austin.
“It’s essentially new development and private development working together with the city to create a complete network,” Eastman said.
Sidewalks in Austin end out of nowhere because for decades we didn't build them. Now when we do, we sometimes build bits of them.
Are other cities like this?
Green said Austin is the only city she’s lived in where so many sidewalks are missing. But it appears other cities, at least in the U.S., also have a missing-sidewalk problem.
Green has also lived in Northampton, Mass. According to a 2018 report, the small New England city is missing roughly 100 miles of sidewalk. Some sidewalks stop midblock, just like in Austin.
It's also a problem in another place Green has lived: Bloomington, Ind. Andrew Cibor, director of the city’s engineering department, said he could not quantify how extensive the sidewalk gap is.
“There are a lot of areas where we have roads that do not have sidewalks or only have sidewalks on one side of the road,” Cibor wrote in an email.
Bloomington, he said, also has sidewalks that end midblock.
“These 'sidewalks to nowhere' are sometimes the result of sidewalk being built as a part of a property redevelopment,” Cibor said. “[U]ltimately all sidewalks eventually stop/end at a certain point.”