The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The inequality of sidewalks

Image courtesy of Flickr user <a href="">Paul Cunningham</a> under a Creative Commons license.

Pedestrian deaths are much more common in poor neighborhoods in urban America than in wealthier ones, a disparity Governing magazine covered in depth back in 2014. That result stems from a brutal collision of bad infrastructure and limited choices: The poor and minorities are more likely to get around by foot, but they also often live in places where doing that is particularly hard.

To this last point, Kate Lowe, an assistant professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, has illustrated in a study of New Orleans how racial disparities across cities are reflected in resources as basic as the sidewalk. New Orleans happens to have data on this topic because the regional transit authority there surveyed the city's sidewalks while assessing its compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Lowe took the data, which measures whether sidewalks run continuously between bus stops and the nearest intersections, and compared it to neighborhood demographics. Neighborhoods with higher poverty rates were less likely to have continuous sidewalks. But the correlation was even stronger in non-white communities:

"Historic disinvestment is part of the 'why,'" Lowe says. But there may also be other things going on here. People who live in these communities may have less political power to lobby for street improvements, or less faith in local officials to respond. "I am concerned that the expectation for safe, adequate infrastructure might be lower among communities where walking is higher."

It's also possible that these residents have more pressing priorities for city officials, like greater investments in schools or safety. In surveys Lowe's students have conducted in neighborhoods like these, residents often report that they're more worried about public safety than traffic safety.

These differences, though, point to subtle ways that unequal resources take shape across a city, with real consequences. And in the larger conversation around transportation as a civil right, even walking matters, too.