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Sidewalk equity: How data helped Boston make better decisions

September 16, 2021

Ask an expert: Ramandeep Josen explains how reexamining repair practices in Boston yielded a new approach to public infrastructure

This article first appeared as “What do big data and broken sidewalks have to do with equity?” in Stantec Design Quarterly, Issue 12

As an asset-management specialist, Ramandeep Josen looks at surface infrastructure and helps cities spend their dollars wisely to maintain it. With the City of Boston reorienting toward resiliency, Ramandeep was instrumental in helping Boston Public Works reexamine its sidewalk-repair practices. He talks with John Dugan, editor of the Stantec Design Quarterly, about how data impacted the work.

How did you get into asset management?

Ramandeep: I graduated with an undergraduate degree in civil engineering. I intended to be a structural engineer, but then I saw this webinar by the Connecticut Department of Transportation where they talked about how they assess infrastructure conditions but don’t know what to do with that information. They had this huge data set with images, and they asked somebody to help make sense of it. So, I took that as a challenge and made that into my dissertation and that’s how I got into asset management.

Boston, Massachusetts

What is asset management?

Ramandeep: Asset management is essentially assessing the conditions of your surface infrastructure—where it is, what it looks like, how it’s deteriorating, and how should we plan to repair it to prevent it from becoming more expensive. When I started working at Stantec a lot of our work was single-asset management, so just pavement or sidewalks. As my career has evolved, it’s gone towards “What do we do with the information we’re collecting? Are we doing the right thing?”

You’re applying that data revolution to aspects of city government that may not have changed much in decades. Has that been challenging?

Ramandeep: I started working with the City of Boston eight years ago. We have worked together on so many things that we’re a team now. It takes time to establish that trust before you get into something like equity and to admit that change is required.

Once I earned the trust of the client, I was able to push the limits. The City of Boston hired a new chief engineer and she and I were on the same page regarding equity, so that opened the doors for me to start digging deeper, to analyze data differently. The first data-informed analysis we engaged in became the StreetCaster program.

Tell us about the project that began with the city’s 311 citizen reporting system?

Ramandeep: Typically, I’ll do an analysis based on the budget for sidewalk infrastructure for my clients. The result is a dollar amount required to keep the sidewalk network in a certain condition. Boston has a $485 million repair backlog for sidewalks and, like other municipalities, a limited budget. Boston had a 311 system and promised that if you make a complaint, they would send a crew for a spot repair. In 2016, Boston created a new smartphone app BOS:311 which made it even easier to file a complaint, but they couldn’t respond to them all.

With a huge number of work requests, they found themselves questioning everything, including, “Are these repair requests even indicative of the actual sidewalk conditions?” What they uncovered is that the system is not set up to succeed because it’s too reactive. If the city isn’t proactive enough to know what’s out there, then they have no idea of the legitimacy of these complaints. 

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Sidewalk in Boston, Massachusetts, where data helped make more equitable infrastructure decisions.

How accurate were the complaints?

Ramandeep: In 2014, with the city engineers, we inspected 1,600 miles of sidewalk. We went to each block with tablets and literally measured all the damaged sidewalks. We mapped the complaints to specific sidewalks to see the conditions where complaints were received.

The crazy thing was that most of the complaints about sidewalks came from high income, privileged areas where the sidewalks were in good condition. Yet, sidewalks in other parts of the city that are equally important with a population reliant on public transportation were in a worse state of repair.

So, it obviously wasn’t working efficiently.

Ramandeep: We realized that something needed to be changed. We thought, “Why can’t we focus our money and effort in areas where people walk a lot but also where people are socially vulnerable and fix accessibility in those areas first?”

So, we utilized trip-generation modeling data to see how many Bostonians in different zones were walking to the nearest school, park, retail and commercial zone, and transit routes. This helped us understand which quarters of the city are the most important walking areas. We also met with every neighborhood liaison and asked them to tell us where people actually walk. We took the top 20% of the high-walk scores, linked it all together and created a high-walk network. 

The crazy thing was that most of the complaints about sidewalks came from high income, privileged areas where the sidewalks were in good condition.

And how did the community react to this project?

Ramandeep: With Boston Public Works, we went to neighborhood fairs, held a sidewalk fair, and met with communities to get buy-in and engagement. It helped residents see the bigger picture.

What did you do with the high-walk network data?

Ramandeep: Once we mapped the high-walk network, the next step was isolating and finding places where need was the highest. We used a social-vulnerability index from a data set of six key metrics (low income, minority population, linguistically isolated, high school education or less, elderly or children, and people with disabilities) to isolate those regions of the city. Once we made a heat map of the vulnerability data, we overlaid it with the high-walk network. Using this overlay, we could see there are parts of the city that are highly walked and need repair the most from a social vulnerability perspective. So, why aren’t we building accessible corridors there? 

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Stantec and Boston Public Works compared sidewalk requests via the 311 system (heat map, left) with a map of actual sidewalk conditions as inspected (map, right) and saw that most complaints the city received (red, left) were for areas where the sidewalks were already in good condition (green, right).

So, how did this help Boston change its practices?

Ramandeep: We pitched this new approach to Boston’s budget team, and they said, “That makes a lot of sense, we should be doing this.” In 2018, the Boston Department of Public Works initiated the StreetCaster program to address sidewalk network improvements.

The success of the StreetCaster program justified a 20% increase in sidewalk repair funding for 2019 and the replacement of 3.5 miles of sidewalks in socially vulnerable areas. We originally targeted three zones needing repairs, which were both among the highest walked areas in the city and the most socially vulnerable. It also increased the percentage of ADA-compliant sidewalks in these areas. Since then, Boston has been investing $3 million to $5 million a year and we’ve done work in every single one of the zones we identified.

The idea took off. We submitted it to the Bloomberg U.S. Mayors Challenge and became a Champion City.

What’s next for the project?

Ramandeep: We’re trying to take the next step forward using a fine-tuned analysis to find the gaps in accessibility between these target zones. We want the city to get the best bang for its buck in network connectivity and walkability.

What’s next for you?

Ramandeep: One of my goals is to create our own asset-management software with a capital-planning component that incorporates equity. So, when you’re running plans from the data, it’s creating a module with an equity lens to give you that reality check.

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