“I’ve actually walked it before, and it’s an hour to walk versus 45 minutes to take two buses,” he said.
Malone, who relies on public transportation because his epilepsy prevents him from driving, said his difficulty traversing the city inspired him to start Walkable Houston, an advocacy group that promotes accessible transportation and sidewalk infrastructure in the city.
In recent months, it appears that the city is making strides toward these goals.
In April, after a fatal pedestrian accident in the Heights involving a person in wheelchair, Mayor Sylvester Turner promised the city would “fast-track” over 40 sidewalk repair requests initiated by residents with disabilities or by residents advocating on behalf of residents with disabilities.
Since then, the city has spent $2.4 million completing 28 out of the 40 projects and has spent $100,000 improving the intersection where the accident occurred, Houston Public Works confirmed.
Long-term progress, however, will require more systemic change, Malone said.
An ordinance with ‘no teeth’
Houston’s municipal code states that sidewalk maintenance is considered the responsibility of private property owners.
If a sidewalk falls into disrepair and the property owner does not fix it, residents can file a request with the city through 311. However, there are no penalties specified by Houston’s municipal code to penalize property owners for unkempt sidewalks.
“There’s no teeth to the statute, so nothing will get done,” said Craig Stone, an Upper Kirby resident who put in a sidewalk repair request.
With a property owner’s permission, the city will agree to construct new sidewalks in certain high-need areas but typically will not assume responsibility for repairs, city officials said. In some cases, poor sidewalks can be filled with crushed rock as a temporary fix.
Stone said he filed a request with the city to repair a sidewalk along Greenbriar Drive, where his wife regularly walks with their baby stroller and has to direct her path into the street. After getting permission from the neighboring property owner, his request to Houston Public Works was initially denied, his correspondence with the city showed.
“Leaving sidewalk repairs up to the property owners makes Houston different than a lot of other major cities,” Malone said. “Austin, for example, has taken on the ultimate responsibility for the sidewalks.”
Taking responsibility of all sidewalk maintenance would have a dramatic effect of Houston’s budget, city officials confirmed.
For now, Stone and Malone both said the most meaningful progress in accessibility would come from amending the ordinance to include penalties for property owners with poorly kept sidewalks or to establish city ownership of sidewalks.
“When your main mode of getting around is walking, you feel like you might be the only one who is seeing this, especially in car-centric cities like Houston, but there’s a large percentage of Houstonians who do walk and see the problems and are frustrated.”