Perils for Pedestrians

TV talk about people who walk

Sidewalk Obstructions

Sidewalks are often treated as unused space, available as a convenient place to put all manner of things, from parked cars to utility poles. But filling a sidewalk with obstructions can be highly detrimental to pedestrians trying to use the sidewalk for its intended purpose. Every obstruction is a pinch point, where pedestrians must go single file, or wait for someone from the other direction, or risk scraping their elbows, wheelchair, or grocery bags if they do not thread carefully enough through the narrow spaces.

In severe cases, obstructions may keep pedestrians from getting by at all. The capacity, the usefulness, and the friendliness of the sidewalk all suffer. However, if you stop thinking of sidewalks as an easy place to stick stuff, you can usually think of a better place to put potential obstructions. Here are some examples.

When There Is Space Between the Sidewalk and the Curb

Using Planting Strips for Utilities

Where sidewalks are set back behind a planting strip, there is a space to put signposts, utilities, and other fixed objects in the grass next to the curb and out of the sidewalk. (This is just one of the two dozen reasons to have a planting strip, see Sidewalk Setbacks).Utility poles in grass planting strip.

In this example, a row of utility poles uses the grass strip between the sidewalk and the curb on W Street, NW, in Washington, DC

Without a Planting Strip

Where there is no planting strip, and the sidewalk is at the curb, obstacles of all sorts need to be placed behind the sidewalk. This may require coordination between government agencies or regulation of utilities which may act independently of the agency responsible for the sidewalk.


Signposts are usually put in place by a government agency, such as the Department of Transportation or the Public Works Department, so the entity responsible for sidewalks has direct control over most signposts.

Signposts behind sidewalk.Signposts are placed out of the way in the grass behind the sidewalk in Bethesda, Maryland.

Just down the block, concrete was blasted to place this signpost in the sidewalk.Signpost in sidewalk.


Fire Hydrants: better for firefighters and pedestrians when not in the sidewalk

Fire hydrants are located in virtually every block where there are water mains from a public water supplier. Locations sometimes seem to be random, with some placed out of the way behind the sidewalk, while others are put right in the sidewalk.

Old and new WSSC hydrants behind sidewalk.A fifty-year-old fire hydrant and its replacement are located out of the way behind the sidewalk in Bethesda, Maryland. This location gives firefighters the full width of the sidewalk to maneuver when attaching their fire hoses in an emergency.

A few blocks away, the old fire hydrant has blocked the sidewalk for fifty years. White paint marks the location where its replacement will continue to block the sidewalk for the next fifty years.Old and planned WSSC hydrants block sidewalk.

Utility Poles

Utility poles are several times more numerous than fire hydrants in anyplace that does not have underground utilities. In some towns the overhead utilities run down alleyways, and do not interfere with pedestrian traffic. However, in other places overhead utilities run down the streets, and pole placement becomes a major issue for pedestrians.

Utility poles behind sidewalk. In this example, utility poles are placed behind the sidewalk, keeping the sidewalk clear for pedestrians.

In contrast, utility poles located in the sidewalk are an obstacle for pedestrians. The effective clear space is less than it looks because pedestrians walking too close to the pole risk contact with splinters and creosote.

Utility poles block sidewalk.


Accessible Sidewalks

The Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) requires that sidewalks be accessible, which means there must be a minimum clear width to get around any obstruction. However, it is far better to have obstructions out of the sidewalk entirely.

Blind pedestrian and streetlight poleA blind pedestrian is about to encounter a streetlight pole in the sidewalk. Navigation would be far easier without such obstructions. The streetlight could have been designed with a longer arm so that the pole could have been placed behind the sidewalk.


Just Pass or Excel?

Often those responsible for blocking the sidewalk will say that it is alright because they meet the minimum legally required by the ADA. That is like bragging that you passed because you got a D on your report card. We should expect better than that. Rather than striving for a D, they should attempt to get an A by putting the obstructions entirely out of the sidewalk.

Easier Maintenance

In addition to accessibility, a sidewalk clear of obstructions is easier to maintain. A 4-foot or 5-foot sidewalk plow or sweeper cannot be used on a sidewalk where only 3 feet of clearance has been left around obstructions. Also, sidewalks can be cleared of snow using wing extensions on road plows only if the sidewalk is completely free of all obstructions.

Snow blower clearing sidewalk.Clearing snow from sidewalks with plows is much faster and easier than with manual equipment. Even snow blowers take longer than a plow mounted on a small vehicle. However, if the sidewalk has obstructions, then a plow the width of the sidewalk cannot be used.


New Construction the Time to Plan

With new construction, there is usually no cost to locating obstructions outside of the sidewalk. Moving existing obstructions can be quite expensive, so it is better to keep obstructions out of the sidewalk in the first place.

Retrofit Opportunities Often Wasted

Infrastructure has a limited life span, which means poorly located poles and hydrants will eventually need to be replaced. This creates an opportunity to put the replacements out of the sidewalk at little additional cost. If the opportunity is missed, the new poles and hydrants will continue to block the sidewalk for another half century.

WSSC Fire Hydrant in Sidewalk

A brand new fire hydrant blocks a sidewalk on Bradley Boulevard in Bethesda, Maryland. The Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission (WSSC) is replacing old water mains and fire hydrants in southern Montgomery County. In many places, the old hydrants have been located in sidewalks, restricting the passage of pedestrians for half a century or more. Attempts to get hydrants moved have always been met with objections about the cost. Now that the entire system is being replaced, the new hydrants could be located outside of the sidewalk at little additional cost. Unfortunately, they are being put back in the sidewalk just like the old hydrants. The WSSC is showing an appalling lack of respect for pedestrians.

PEPCO Utility Poles in Sidewalks

Brand new utility poles were placed in the sidewalk along Foxhall Road in Washington, DC. A new turn lane required moving the curb, sidewalk, and a row of utility poles. Rather than put the new poles in the grass behind the sidewalk, PEPCO blasted holes through the concrete of the new sidewalk so they could obstruct the sidewalk. This lack of respect for pedestrians is why poles continue to obstruct sidewalks, even in cases where it might actually be easier to place the poles outside of the sidewalk.

Temporary Obstructions, Same Fixed Attitude

Pedestrians also have problems with temporary sidewalk obstructions, such as parked cars or overgrown shrubbery. Both temporary and permanent obstructions are the result of thoughtless people who show little respect for pedestrians.

Parked truck and streetlight poles both block sidewalk. This street near the Convention Center in Chattanooga, Tennessee, was built with the streetlight poles in the center of the sidewalk. The permanent obstructions are compounded by the temporary obstruction of a truck parked on the sidewalk, despite abundant space on the adjacent street. The biggest hurdles to creating barrier-free sidewalks are not technical or financial, but attitudinal.


Gallery of Sidewalk Obstructions.