There are 2,300 miles of sidewalks throughout Seattle.

Image: Irene Rinaldi

Jon Froehlich distinctly remembers the moment when Google first unveiled Street View in 2007. The computer scientist spent hours virtually wandering through distant city streets and immersing himself in parts of the world he had yet to visit in real life. Then Froehlich had a thought: “What else could we use this for?”

Within a decade, he’d developed Project Sidewalk, a web-based crowdsourcing tool that turns mapping sidewalks and improving pedestrian accessibility into a virtual game. To complete missions, users “walk” through city streets via Google Street View, labeling and rating the quality of sidewalks and features that make it easier—or tougher—to get around. They identify curb ramps, or lack thereof, assess their positioning, and point out tripping hazards. Froehlich, now a University of Washington computer science professor, launched Project Sidewalk in Seattle this April.

Since then, users have mapped roughly a third of the city’s 2,300 miles of sidewalks and labeled nearly 70,000 curb ramps, uneven surfaces, potential obstacles like lamp posts, too. Froehlich’s primary interest in collecting this data is to help people with limited mobility navigate city streets safely. The long-term plan: see the crowdsourced results integrated into navigation and routing tools like Google Maps and Walk Score so that pedestrians can choose their specific mobility level and receive route assistance that meets their needs.

Project Sidewalk could also serve another purpose in Seattle. It amasses a significant chunk of data at a moment when the Seattle Department of Transportation is reforming how it fixes sidewalks. In 2017, 14 iPad-wielding interns armed themselves with reflective orange vests and embarked on the city’s first-ever comprehensive survey of our roughly 34,000 blocks. They observed over 156,000 cracks, obstructions, and vertical height differences on Seattle sidewalks. SDOT estimates that full repairs could cost the city—and property owners—in the realm of $500 million to $1.3 billion. SDOT’s current budget for sidewalk fixes totals about $5.7 million, less than 1 percent of what’s actually needed.

Pedestrian activist Douglas MacDonald, also a former Washington state transportation secretary, thinks Project Sidewalk could help residents with reduced mobility maneuver around the city with more ease, even if its utility for guiding structural spot repairs is dicey. He’s particularly skeptical of the project’s use of Google Street View to collect data. With images being updated sporadically, he’s hesitant to believe the information is entirely current, especially considering Seattle’s changing landscape and ongoing construction. “The project sees the world as a static set of conditions, rather than a dynamic one,” he says. “The app is not the answer to the broken sidewalk.”

SDOT Sidewalk Repair Program Manager Ross McFarland shares MacDonald’s concern regarding the data’s reliability, but thinks the project has potential. It could raise awareness on sidewalk maintenance—and that’s critical: “General infrastructure repair isn’t always the sexiest thing.”

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