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A citizens sidewalk brigade for L.A.

The Bureau of Street Services' proposed three-year, $10-million survey should perhaps be put on hold while a grass-roots effort is given a chance.

September 11, 2012
  • A tree root buckles a sidewalk on North Mission Road in Boyle Heights.
A tree root buckles a sidewalk on North Mission Road in Boyle Heights. (Los Angeles Times )

Broken sidewalks may not be quite as dangerous as rutted streets, but they too can be treacherous. An estimated 42% of the 10,750 miles of sidewalks in the city of Los Angeles are crumbling or buckling, lifted by tree roots in some places to scarily high inclines. The city gets about 2,500 "trip and fall" claims each year, and wheelchair users have sued the city, contending that the sidewalks are an obstacle course that violates the federal Americans with Disabilities Act.

That they need to be fixed is a no-brainer. But before the city even starts that daunting task — and tussles with property owners over who should pay and how — it has to inventory the damage.

When the Bureau of Street Services last month proposed a meticulous three-year survey of every sidewalk in the city — with the survey alone costing $10 million — some City Council members balked, suggesting it could be done faster and cheaper with residents, community activists and nonprofit groups doing the work of counting and cataloging the damaged sidewalks.

That's not a bad idea for a preliminary accounting. We think it would be resourceful, even noble, to enlist volunteers to use all their gadgetry and smartphone cameras to photograph and note locations of damage, as Councilman Bill Rosendahl suggested. Those photos could then be uploaded to a city database.

This is hardly a perfect solution, and it's no substitute for the expert analysis of the city's disintegrating infrastructure that must eventually be done before any comprehensive plan for repairs can be laid out. The photos may be useless. The same tilted sidewalk might be eagerly photographed 50 times and sent in to the database. Someone would have to direct this ad hoc effort, maybe requesting groups of volunteers to go into communities where no one seems to be posting.

The Bureau of Street Services conducts some of the most labor-intensive work of all the city departments, and it has been crippled by budget cuts like other city agencies. Officials there say they don't have the money to do the complex assessment necessary, which is why they would have to hire outside professionals. However, they have been instructed by the City Council to come up with a faster, less expensive alternative to the $10-million survey.

We're not sure how well a grass-roots survey would work, but let's consider it a cost-efficient experiment in techno-age civic duty. It might help jump-start the process of assessing broken sidewalks.

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