By Vanessa Casado Pérez*
When we think of transportation, we hardly ever think of sidewalks, albeit they are transportation corridors as much as roads or highways. Managing sidewalk space is not easy. There are multiple uses competing for this public space, as it is even called “our last commons.” The rights over sidewalks are murky, and their governance is often fragmented and suffering from lack of planning. The public has a right of way over them and walks on them. Hospitality and retail do business on them by installing terraces, announcing their latest sales on a blackboard, or by alluring passersby with wonderful window displays. Homeless people sleep on them.
COVID-19 has exacerbated the conflict between uses. On the one hand, our sidewalks are too narrow to social distance while walking on them even in the absence of street furniture or businesses. On the other, restaurants and bars have taken over the sidewalk as a lifeblood of their business. The latter makes the competition between users even more acute as pedestrians see their space reduced, something particularly challenging for those with disabilities. Where possible, local authorities have transformed parking spots as space for terraces, taking parklets to a whole new level, to expand sidewalks. Making parking more difficult may increase congestion due to people circling around trying to find a spot in the short term, but it may discourage driving in the long term. Expanding the sidewalk by reducing space for cars is an interesting move as normally what we see is shifting road problems to the sidewalk without carefully considering the impacts on the latter.
Two such cases of shifting road congestion to the sidewalk are micromoblity devices and delivery robots. Both solve the last mile problem. Our roads are often congested. Some commuters waste more than a hundred hours a year in traffic. Vehicles emit greenhouse gases and local pollutants, which contribute to climate change and harm our health. There is no single recipe to mitigate our dependency on cars and reduce emissions. But often, an ingredient is public transportation. Public transportation can be inconvenient if it does not take you door to door as your private vehicle will. Finding an emissions-free way to fill the last mile gap between the public transit stop and your place of work or home is paramount. A successful way to do so are shared bikes or scooters systems. Beyond bikes docked on parking spots, there have been scooters or bikes scattered on the sidewalk in cities across the United States. These micromobility devices have taken a hit during the pandemic as there were fewer commuters and shared transportation was perceived as a contagion risk. However, the consulting firm McKinsey predicts that scooter and shared bike companies may recover as those micromobility devices are less risky than public transportation, can adapt to social distancing and hygiene requirements in the medium term, and in the long run cities are likely to discourage the use of private vehicles.
Another new user of our sidewalks are delivery robots. Our demand for home delivery of goods has skyrocketed in recent years too, but, in contrast to micromobility devices, it has accelerated during recent lockdowns. The problem for delivery companies is the last mile, which is particularly costly. The last mile is also socially costly as vehicles parking and stopping add to congestion and pollution. While there have been advances in self-driving delivery vehicles, recently delivery robots have been deployed in university campuses or some neighborhoods to solve this last mile problem. A van arrives to a neighborhood, and the Serves (Postmates), Scouts (Amazon), or Relays (Savioke) decamp to deliver our food or our latest online impulse purchase. There are concerns related to privacy and job loss but also related to the use of sidewalks. Sidewalks are shared spaces. People with disabilities have had problematic encounters with those robots. Others have played pranks on them. But they, jointly with scooters, are a new private use of a shared resource: sidewalks. Reducing pollution is a step forward, but moving congestion from the road to the sidewalk benefiting both private companies and drivers is just another example of the disregard for pedestrians.
Our sidewalks are home to pedestrians window-shopping, neighbors walking their dogs, blackboards with the latest addition to a restaurant’s menu, homeless individuals, terraces, and a long etcetera. Scooters are an additional obstacle to fluid mobility. While scooters are not allowed to be ridden on the sidewalk, they are left on it, often scattered, making it hard for those using the public right of way to walk on the, often narrow, sidewalk. Delivery robots, on the other hand, are circulating, and perhaps we can consider them as using the public right of way. But still, they also help illustrate that the space in our last commons, sidewalks, is scarce, both physically -because they are narrow- and as a result of regulation -because ordinances allow for multiple private uses of it. COVID-19 lockdowns have made it even scarcer as people made their sidewalks their gyms or social outlets and restaurants have transformed them into dining rooms. But even before cities have regulated what uses are acceptable on a sidewalk—for example, some cities ban food vendors—, or have discouraged certain uses—such as sleeping on benches by designing benches with individual seats that impede lying down.
Like with other gig economy innovations, scooters or robots have asked forgiveness instead of permission, but cities have moved to regulate them. For scooters, some cities did sign agreements that were quite lucrative. For delivery robots, state and local authorities are wrestling for the authority to regulate them. Some cities want to ban them, while state authorities seem more accommodating. Often, monetary compensation for the city is the solution. Fees do not solve the problem that space occupied by scooters or delivery robots is not occupied by the public; that while we accept these devices, we do not allow homeless people to station themselves on the street even if they have nowhere to go. Allowing scooters and delivery robots on our sidewalks is the nth illustration monetization and privatization of the sidewalk, a public space. In the cases of micromobility and delivery devices, privatization also benefits the public at large by reducing emissions because these devices reduce the need for automobiles. The conflict between uses remains though. While here is no straightforward solution to the incompatibility of uses, widening our sidewalks would mitigate scarcity and mitigate the conflicts. Widening the sidewalk may imply reclaiming space now granted to cars, further discouraging the use of private vehicles and, thus, further reducing emissions. Widening sidewalks may ensure that the public’s right of way has a clear path without so many obstacles, but it will not make all uses and users welcome. The decision of whether a city accepts homeless people or delivery robots, which will also reduce the number of delivery jobs, is a political one.
 Cities have more incentives than ever to want to reduce air pollution. Beyond the problems caused by smog, higher levels of air pollution have bene linked to worse coronavirus outcomes.
Maria A. Zoran, Roxana S. Savastru, Dan M. Savastru, & Marina N. Tautan, Assessing the Relationship Between Surface Levels of PM2.5 and PM10 Particulate Matter Impact on COVID-19 in Milan, Italy, 738 Sci. Total Env’t 139825 (2020); Leonardo Setti, Fabrizio Passarini, Gianluigi De Gennaro, , Pierluigi Barbieri, , Maria Grazia Perrone, Andrea Piazzalunga, Massimo Borelli, Jolanda Palmisani, Alessia Di Gilio, Prisco Piscitelli, & Alessandro Miani, The Potential Role of Particulate Matter in the Spreading of COVID-19 in Northern Italy: First Evidence-Based Research Hypotheses, Health Scis. Preprint (Apr. 17, 2020),https://www.medrxiv.org/content/10.1101/2020.04.11.20061713v1.full.pdf.
 Vanessa Casado Perez, Reclaiming the Sidewalk, Iowa L. Rev. (forthcoming 2021) (on file with author), https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3747436.
For an account of how our laws have benefitted cars, see Gregory H. Shill, Should Law Subsidize Driving?, 95 N.Y.U. L. Rev. 498, 551 (2020), https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3345366.
* Vanessa Casado Pérez is an Associate Professor at Texas A&M School of Law and a Research Associate Professor at Texas A&M Department of Agricultural Economics. Her scholarship focuses on public property and natural resources law. She is affiliated with the Bill Lane Center for the American West at Stanford University.
In several publications, she explores the role of property rights in the management of scarce natural resources and urban public property spaces. She has published in, among others, Southern California Law Review, Iowa Law Review, Florida State Law Review, the NYU Environmental Law Journal, or the California Journal of Public Policy.
Prior to joining Texas A&M, Professor Casado Perez was Teaching Fellow of the LL.M. Program in Environmental Law & Policy and Lecturer in Law at Stanford Law School. She holds an LLB, a BA in Economics, and an LLM from Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona, where she is from. She also holds an LLM from the University of Chicago Law School and a JSD from NYU School of Law.