City of suspect sidewalks: In Vancouver, danger is underfoot

Emrys Horton’s first instinct when he saw flames engulf a boat in a Yaletown marina was to run to help. He wasn’t thinking of the ground beneath him. But in his sprint to the boat, Horton rolled his ankle on a large lump in the sidewalk.

Horton, manager of the nearby Provence Marinaside restaurant, had reacted to the billowing smoke from flames that had engulfed a 10-metre pleasure vessel on Oct. 12, 2017. The blaze took eight fire trucks and a fireboat to put out.

No one was hurt in the fire — but Horton suffered more than just a sprain. He twisted his ankle so much that he tore the tendon off his bone, taking a piece of bone with it, in what’s known as an avulsion fracture.

“My ankle will literally never be the same as it was,” said Horton, 43.

He reported the sidewalk hazard, but didn’t report his injury. It never occurred to him.

“I suspect I probably should have, but I didn’t at the time,” Horton said about the idea of taking his case to a personal-injury lawyer. “I probably won’t now.”

Everyone walks on them. But not many people pay much attention to the city’s sidewalks, even though they are among the most ubiquitous pieces of city infrastructure.

Horton is one of many people to have injured themselves by tripping or falling because of sidewalk disrepair in the City of Vancouver. Their experiences highlight a public lack of knowledge about recourse when it comes to injuries caused by sidewalks. It also highlights what some advocates say is infrastructure sorely neglected by the city and a maintenance system that may not be adequately serving the public’s needs.

Emrys Horton in areas where sidewalks are broken or collapsing on Marinaside Crescent in Vancouver.



The sidewalk network

The City of Vancouver has about 2,200 kilometres of sidewalks. Put end to end, they would stretch from the city to Anchorage, Alaska. Everyone uses sidewalks at some point, whether walking is their primary mode of transportation or not: Drivers walk on them to and from their cars, transit riders travel on them to their stops and stations, cyclists lock up their bikes and walk to their destination on them.

City reports show that the city’s sidewalks are heavily used — and that getting even more people to use them is a priority. The City of Vancouver’s 2017 Walking and Cycling report card found that 25 per cent of all trips in Vancouver are completed by walking — meaning that it’s the dominant mode of transportation for a person’s trip. Meanwhile, the city’s Transportation 2040 Plan says that walking should be the “top transportation priority” for future growth.

The city’s 2019 budget includes $1.75 million for the construction of new sidewalks and $798,000 to rehabilitate roughly one kilometre of existing sidewalks. According to the budget, priority for sidewalk rehabilitation is given to areas that get a lot of pedestrian activity, such as commercial areas and transit routes. In addition, an uncertain amount of sidewalk is rebuilt each year as part of broader road-replacement work.

By comparison, the budget allocates $9 million for bikeways and greenways, and $8 million to repave major arterial streets.

Some feel that sidewalks are still an afterthought.

“I think it’s an overlooked form of infrastructure,” said Andy Yan, a director with the City Program at Simon Fraser University. “I mean, one hopes it’s seen as a form of central infrastructure.”

Yan defines sidewalks as formalized pathways that connect a city and facilitate movement across it by foot. But he says the pedestrian experience can quickly turn bad and even lead to injury and distress, when sidewalks fall into disrepair.

‘I have started walking a different route home’

A fall on an uneven sidewalk one dark and wet November night in 2018 left teacher Ellen Michelle with pain all over her body and so much anxiety that she permanently changed the route for her daily walk home from work.

Michelle, 26, was walking home along Cambie Street from the King Edward Canada Line station after a day of teaching when she fell.

“There was one part of the sidewalk that was raised, and it was right beside a tree,” Michelle said.

A tree root had pushed the sidewalk section up on the east side of Cambie Street between 26th and 27th avenues. The raised sidewalk caught Michelle unawares and sent her sprawling to the ground.

“I ended up flying forward a few feet, at least. Dropped everything I was holding, including a bag of student midterms that I was taking home to grade,” Michelle said.

Michelle ended up with a bloody, fat lip for three days and soreness in her entire body that lasted a week.

“It was very difficult to move the next day,” she said.

Injuries sustained from disrepaired or broken sidewalks can leave lasting marks. The most common injuries are broken ankles. The odds of injury increase during the rainy months of winter.

Michelle’s experience highlights how sidewalk accidents have more than physical consequences.

“One thing I’ll say is that since that fall, I have started walking a different route home to avoid that spot,” Michelle said.

Michelle wishes the city would “just fix the sidewalk when roots grow out of them,” so no one else has to sustain injuries, trivial or severe.

Pedestrians in areas where sidewalks are broken or collapsing on Marinaside Crescent in Vancouver.



Sidewalk monitoring

Tree roots pushing up from underneath are a common cause of damage to Vancouver’s sidewalks. Shifting ground also breaks sidewalks: As the ground moves, the sidewalk is not able to adjust.

In order to monitor the disrepair, Vancouver has a sidewalk maintenance policy that requires a team of city workers to visually examine every sidewalk in the city annually for such defects. According to the city, the inspection team of six or seven people examines the city’s sidewalks from about November or December to July or August and identifies any cracks or bumps that could present hazards. The policy states that any hazards that measure over one inch are scheduled to be repaired within seven days.

The city also relies on residents to report damaged sidewalks. But not many people know this.

Michelle, for example, didn’t report the sidewalk problem that caused her to fall. She says she was unaware she could.

It’s one reason why it’s difficult to determine the extent of the city’s liability for sidewalk injuries.

Cities can be held liable for injury if they have not met a minimum duty of care to ensure that sidewalks are safe for people to use.

This falls under the concept of “reasonableness,” according to personal-injury lawyer Mark Carter. That means that as long as the city has made an effort to maintain the sidewalk, it has fulfilled its duty of care.

Vancouver works to meet its duty of care through its annual inspection program. In addition, the city relies on people to report sidewalks in poor condition through the VanConnect app, the city website or calls to 311.

Yan said that such reporting methods give the public the opportunity to hold their city accountable in maintaining the standard they have set when it comes to sidewalks.

VanConnect appears to have led to an increase in the number of complaints. When the app went online in the middle of 2015, the number of sidewalk complaints from people increased more than 40 per cent, from an average of 1,250 to 1,760 a year.

Yan also said that just checking a sidewalk complaint isn’t enough. Action, in many cases, must happen as well.

“You can imagine that if something happened and it’s a part of a sidewalk that’s been complained about several times, it does present the city with a certain liability,” he said.

Is it enough?

This raises the question of whether the current system is good enough for those who live and work in the city.

Carter said the answer to this depends on three things:

• Whether a city policy exists.

• Whether that policy can be considered “reasonable.”

• Whether the policy was followed.

Carter says Vancouver is not meeting a “reasonable” standard.

“Let’s say they had a program, and they would check the sidewalks once per year to see if they’re safe or not. Well, that’s not very reasonable. They would have to check it several times a year,” Carter said.

Yan isn’t quite so critical of the city’s sidewalk maintenance standards, saying they stand up well compared to other cities.

He said the one-inch minimum for defects warranting repair, for example, may seem like a poor standard, but he argued it’s reasonable given the amount the ground can shift or the fact that so many sidewalks run beside trees.

However, he says the city needs to better define its maintenance policy.

“If you do see a problem on your sidewalk, how do you report it in? What are the protocols for maintenance that the city has towards maintaining sidewalks, much less maintaining public infrastructure?” Yan said.

“I mean, we arguably have minimum standards towards maintaining our roads; one might expect that one has standards towards maintaining our sidewalks.”

Ultimately, it means that the city’s duty of care is arguably open to question — and that could invite legal action.

However, Carter said that while lawsuits against the city do happen, they are rare. A freedom of information request revealed that between Jan. 1, 2014, and Jan. 31, 2019, there had been 28 “civil lawsuits brought against the city as a result of injuries incurred on city sidewalks. A total of $117,000 was paid out by the city to settle these lawsuits, an average of less than $24,000 a year.

Carter said many people don’t file civil lawsuits, and those who do will settle because of the cost of seeing it go to trial.

However, he said many people injured in sidewalk falls do not even think about a lawsuit, and have no idea where to turn to or what recourse they have available to them.

‘I didn’t hear back’

Reporting sidewalk issues to the city isn’t a guarantee of their repair, say people who have tried to navigate the system.

Erik Hearn broke his collarbone when he tripped on a West End sidewalk during his regular 10-kilometre morning walk.

Hearn was aware he could report the damaged sidewalk to the city, and took action.

“I did take a picture and I did send it to the website,” Hearn said. “But I didn’t hear back.”

Hearn said the city “planted trees that are huge trees and with that comes huge roots. And the roots are now the ones that are causing the problem with the sidewalks, curling up and making the sidewalks uneven.”

Hearn said he is worried that his neighbours may have similar accidents and injure themselves as he did.

“The city has neglected totally to repair sidewalks here, which is probably an area of the city where they should pay specific attention to that because a big portion of the residents in this area are seniors,” he said.

Since his own fall in Yaletown, Horton has reported several other damaged sidewalks. He, too, questions the city’s response to reports of disrepair.

“Some of the things that I’ve personally reported multiple times have not been fixed within months or years,” Horton said.

While on the job at Provence Marinaside, Horton said he has repeatedly seen unsuspecting pedestrians trip and get hurt.

“I’ve had customers fall on their face,” Horton said. “A guy just went down face-first on the ground right outside because he tripped on the edge of one of the cobblestone bricks there that’s starting to lift. Broke his nose, lost consciousness.”

Accessibility challenges

Even when reported sidewalks are fixed by the city, some say the repairs aren’t adequate.

Horton said the fall that severely injured his ankle was caused by a piece of sidewalk that had been previously repaired by the city with asphalt, a common fix. He said city crews covered the damaged area with asphalt, which then chipped away over time.

Accessibility advocates like Gabrielle Peters say that such repairs aren’t good enough — and that’s compounding problems for those with mobility issues.

Peters, who has served on the city’s Active Transportation Policy Council, says her advocacy began when she began taking photos of sidewalks and posting them online.

“The city will instruct people to contact 311. Every block, I could be calling 311,” said Peters.

She refers to some of the repairs she’s seen as “almost a work of art.”

“Literally, they poured asphalt on top of pouring asphalt on top of pouring asphalt. And you honestly have this little sort of pyramid, built in the middle of the sidewalk.”

For those with mobility issues, such uneven sidewalks pose an obstacle in reaching public transit or personal vehicles.

Sandy James with the advocacy group Walk Metro Vancouver on W10th Ave where cars, cyclists and pedestrians share space.

Gerry Kahrmann /


‘Pedestrians are disenfranchised’

For Sandy James, improving the state of sidewalks in the city is about more than repairing cracks and bumps. It’s about making journeys better for the most vulnerable road users, like people with mobility challenges and those who use wheelchairs or push strollers.

James worked at city hall for nearly three decades, including 22 years as a city planner. As a greenway planner, she designed streets to give walking and biking priority over car traffic.

She left the city in 2011, and is now the managing director of Walk Metro Vancouver, a group that advocates improved walkability. She’s critical of the city’s sidewalk policy.

“The challenge here is that pedestrians are disenfranchised,” she said. “It’s just not been on the radar.”

To improve the city’s walkability, James said streets need to be “clean, curious and comfortable,” meaning wider sidewalks, curb ramps for those using wheelchairs, streets clear of gum and other garbage and installation of plants or other street decorations to enhance the overall experience.

James also highlighted the problem of trees. In a city that loves its leafy boulevards, there’s a struggle between maintaining both trees and sidewalks. James said ash trees on Commercial Drive, for example, destroyed the sidewalk. New sidewalks were installed, but that didn’t address the underlying problem.

“Trees sometimes have a shelf life,” James said, adding that’s something she thinks many in Vancouver don’t understand.

Taryn Scollard, the city’s director of streets, said the city’s engineering department works with the park board to select trees that are less disruptive to sidewalks, and have developed root barriers to try to guide root growth downward instead of popping up and leading to sidewalk hazards.

The city has also installed rubber sidewalks made of recycled tires in a couple of locations to see if they are more durable than pavement.

“We’re always looking for new ideas to meet everybody’s needs,” Scollard said.

Construction on Slocan Street. Vancouver tries to extend its sidewalk budget by rebuilding sidewalks at the same time roads are being rebuilt.



‘A high priority for the city’

Scollard said while the city could always use more money to address concerns, she believes Vancouver’s sidewalks are in much better condition than those in other Canadian cities. She added that the city makes the most of their budget by combining sidewalk maintenance projects with other construction work whenever possible.

“All areas of pedestrian movement are a high priority for the city,” Scollard said.

She said the city has made a number of changes to sidewalk standards in recent years, including making them wider, putting sidewalks farther away from roads when possible, and installing “pedestrian bulges” at the corners of sidewalks to reduce the amount of time pedestrians spend on the road while crossing the street.

Nathan Durec, Roxanne Egan-Elliott and Mandy Moraes are among this year’s recipients of the Langara College Read-Mercer Journalism Fellowship. This feature was produced through the fellowship.

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