In January, 64-year-old Angela Kee was struck and killed by a hit-and-run driver while she was attempting to make her way home from the bus. She was hit on a dark road without proper sidewalks or crosswalks in Philadelphia’s Oak Lane neighborhood.

Kee’s death was not an isolated incident. In 2021, more than 40 pedestrians were killed in traffic crashes. This is part of a disturbing national trend. Between 2010 and 2019, pedestrian fatalities increased by 46% nationwide. Although pedestrian deaths are rising across the country, Philadelphia has a higher rate of traffic fatalities than its peer cities; the traffic-related death rate here is over two times as high as the rate in New York City.

Philadelphia urgently needs to upgrade its sidewalks and pedestrian infrastructure. Fortunately, the passage of the bipartisan infrastructure bill gives Philadelphia a once-in-a-generation opportunity to address this problem. But only if the city is prepared to act.

The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act earmarks several billion dollars for pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure improvement projects nationally. In order to best use this money, Philadelphia must hire a sidewalk coordinator to create a master plan process, establish sidewalk repair standards, coordinate across agencies, and develop a strategy for seeking and spending the federal funding that will be available. These are basic actions that align with recommendations that the city sought out in 2018 using grant funds from the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission for improving pedestrian infrastructure.

If you’ve ever tried to push a baby stroller or a wheelchair down sidewalks in Philadelphia, you know that these improvements are long overdue. A decade-old survey of the city’s pedestrian infrastructure found that 231 miles of Philly’s sidewalks are in poor or very poor condition.

For nearly 20 years, Philadelphia has not had a functioning sidewalk repair and replace program. The city does not fund sidewalk paving or repair and simultaneously has no willingness to enforce laws that require property owners to fix their sidewalks. Hiring a dedicated sidewalk coordinator is the first step the city must take to overhaul its broken sidewalk program. Baltimore, New York City, and Los Angeles have functional programs that target sidewalk repair.

“For nearly 20 years, Philadelphia has not had a functioning sidewalk repair and replace program.”

Joseph Otis Minott

In the scope of the city’s total budget each year, a single position dedicated to sidewalks is almost unnoticeable but absolutely essential to begin making progress. This one employee will have the power to create a new sidewalk master plan and develop a working sidewalk repair and replace strategy, as well as actively pursue federal dollars to support improvements.

With federal funding available to support sidewalk repairs, budget is no longer the barrier. The city must want to make progress, and they can show that in the 2023 operating budget by creating a single full-time staff position dedicated to sidewalks.

Sidewalks save lives. Pedestrian injuries and deaths are more than twice as likely to occur in places without sidewalks. When sidewalks are in disrepair or simply don’t exist, pedestrians are forced to travel on the road, risking serious injury and even death.

Philadelphia is a historically walkable city, with dense neighborhoods and abundant public art. This budget season, Philadelphia has the opportunity to honor that heritage and protect its most vulnerable residents.

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We take for granted that we have an entire city department dedicated to paving and maintaining streets where people drive, but no full-time staff person responsible for maintaining the places where people walk. With a commitment of $500,000 — which is less than 1% of the Streets Department budget — the city can develop a funding strategy and begin improving our pedestrian infrastructure.

Improving our city’s pedestrian infrastructure will save lives. If this topic moves you, you can sign a petition calling on Mayor Jim Kenney and City Council to fund sidewalks like they fund streets.

Joseph Otis Minott is the executive director and chief counsel of the Clean Air Council in Philadelphia. The Clean Air Council sponsors the pedestrian advocacy group Feet First Philly.