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D.C. Ignores Hazardous Sidewalks for Months But Fixes Street Potholes Fast: A Case Study in Public Data Access

Fritz Mulhauser | June 13, 2024 | Last modified: June 14, 2024

Repairs to fix sidewalk dangers such as uneven bricks take hundreds of days and injured pedestrians collect millions in damages from the District each year, while drivers are the real priority—pothole complaints total only half as many as sidewalk problems but get fixed in 5-10 days.

These findings emerged from research on sidewalk safety and DC response by the Capitol Hill Village (CHV) staff and volunteers, reported earlier by the nonprofit and amplified in emails to the Coalition from Village project leaders Scott Price and Dawn Nelson.

The Washington Post featured the research in Theresa Vargas’s column “Broken ribs, bloody faces and a push to make D.C. sidewalks safer.”

ANC leader Chuck Elkins testified on the research to the D.C. Council oversight hearing in February on the Department of Transportation (DDOT). He noted “DDOT’s response to these requests for sidewalk repair, many of them representing tripping hazards for the District’s pedestrians, has been tepid, at best. The Department does a great job of filling potholes to make driving more pleasant for the District’s drivers, but somehow does not seem to sense the public health urgency of protecting pedestrians from falling on its unrepaired sidewalks.”

The CHV group compared treatment of sidewalks and streets in tens of thousands of repair requests. They culled these from the 600,000 total complaints each year to 311, each with 30 data elements, posted on OpenDataDC. This large dataset crashed ordinary spreadsheet programs, requiring assistance from a George Washington University expert with data science training.

The sidewalk safety research demonstrated the usefulness of public access to government data. As Ellis told the Council, the group was reporting “indisputable facts that DDOT’s inaction on sidewalk tripping hazards results directly in serious injuries to the District’s residents. DDOT can no longer claim that it does not know about how their neglect is causing such serious health problems for people.” Urging a heightened funding priority and formal 30-day repair target (replacing the current 270-day goal), Ellis noted at the present pace, it will take ten years to address only the top half of a list of needed repairs (those sites with the greatest need). The testimony was well received, judging from the committee’s budget report and action to add funds for sidewalk repair and direct faster work.

DDOT’s comparative neglect of sidewalks has left District residents with the understandable impression that sidewalks, and by extension the pedestrians who use them, are not as important as the roadways used by motor vehicles.

D.C. Council Transportation and Environment Committee, FY25 Budget Report, p. 87.

The study and related community advocacy drew attention from the D.C. Open Government Coalition that has pushed for public access to government data so that it can be used to aid in public policy discussion without need of a request or advanced technical knowledge.

Access to government records and meetings is assured by law, but data are open only to the degree the mayor allows (now authorized by an order issued in 2017).  Public members of the mayor’s Open Government Advisory Group (including a Coalition board member) advocated for maximum access as the draft order was in process. The Coalition’s website help section (click on “Access”) includes a description of the current open data scheme. D.C. agencies have identified 2,330 data sets of which 1,061 are eligible for release. Why almost 300 are not released is a continuing puzzle, but did not hinder the pedestrian safety research.

If you have questions about access to government data, contact the Coalition at