Why Cities, Not Individuals, Should Clear Snow From Sidewalks

In the car one dark evening last winter, on a busy five-lane road in Kalamazoo, Michigan, my spouse saw a pregnant woman walking down the right lane of traffic. The nearby sidewalk was covered by mounds of snow. Wedged between plowed business lots on one side and the plowed street on the other, the sidewalk had become the snow-container—there was nowhere safe for the woman to walk.

He carefully drove around her and, concerned, looked back in his rearview mirror. At that moment, a car grazed her, knocking her into a snowbank. He turned back, helped collect her bags and possessions that were scattered across the slushy lanes, and drove her to her destination.

Unfortunately, her experience was not an anomaly. Each year, I witness close calls and pedestrians being forced into dangerous situations because the sidewalks in the winter become impassable—especially for people using wheelchairs and walkers and parents pushing strollers. And my Michigan community isn’t unique in not effectively keeping its sidewalks clear.

A man clears snow from the sidewalk in front of his house in Albany, New York. (Mike Groll/AP)

Most cities across the United States leave the responsibility of sidewalk snow removal to homeowners, landlords, and businesses. The results are haphazard at best, and don’t account for vacant properties and residents who don’t have the physical ability to shovel or the means to pay someone to do it for them. In cold-weather cities, the most vulnerable residents can be at risk for months at a time.

Syracuse, New York, currently comes a close second behind Anchorage for accumulated snow totals. Syracuse is a college town with a high poverty rate, and pedestrian traffic is robust there. But residents who walk—including children walking to school—are often forced to shuffle along the edge of the road to get to their destination in the winter months because the sidewalks are regularly heaped over with snow.

Last year, spurred by resident activists and a sympathetic new administration, the city decided to take steps to change that. Beginning this snow season, Syracuse will hire a private contractor to plow 20 miles of priority sidewalks after each snow event that accumulates totals of three inches or more. The priority walkways were determined by reviewing feedback from residents at “snow summits” the city held, and from data compiled by the Syracuse Metropolitan Transportation Corporation. The data from SMTC identified which sidewalks were major thoroughfares with the highest pedestrian traffic.

The city considers this a pilot program, which means that after this year, officials will reconvene to evaluate its success and potential. “The next phase of this will be for us to analyze how the service worked, what it cost, and what that means as a municipality for the overall cost,” Sharon Owens, the deputy mayor of Syracuse, told CityLab. She said that funds for the initial pilot (approximately $170,000) came from the existing Department of Public Works budget. Funding costs and sources for future years will be determined after the pilot is complete.

Although most cities don’t treat sidewalks as necessities, some do, and prioritize them to varying degrees. Most sidewalks in Toronto are cleared by the city. In Rochester, New York, the city steps in when snow totals reach more than four inches. Rochester pays for removal through an “embellishment fee” on property-tax bills, which averages $35 per homestead. Duluth, Minnesota clears 100 miles of priority sidewalk routes, including routes to schools, high-pedestrian traffic locations, and public-transit locations. Bloomington, Minnesota clears all of its 250 miles of sidewalks. These cities’ programs could act as templates for others to formulate a plan for safe pedestrian paths in the winter. So why don’t more cities do it?

Mostly, it boils down to funding. With municipalities operating on tight budgets, considering a program to clear (often hundreds of miles of) sidewalks is daunting. Instead, many cities take the position that educating residents and fining them for non-compliance is the solution to getting people to pitch in and clear their own sidewalks. But Owens said that approach isn’t practical. “Clearly, that hasn’t worked, because we still have people walking in the street,” she said.

Resident activists tire of the outreach-and-punishment approach, too. “You hear a lot of people saying, ‘Fine ‘em!’ so much, and they want to put it on the individual,” said Annabel Hine Otts, a Syracuse resident who has been working for the past year to call attention to the need for sidewalk snow removal. But there are people who simply can’t adhere to shoveling ordinances, Hine Otts said, like those who are elderly or disabled, and single parents working multiple jobs. “You start getting fines on top of fines … who does that hurt the most?”

Both residents and officials in Syracuse agree that 20 miles of plowed sidewalks is not sufficient, but most believe it’s an important start. “In a city that gets this much snow, that has the kind of issues that we have with poverty, you have to have municipal snow removal. You have to have a solution,” Hine Otts said. “I think that we have an administration that is hearing that, and I see it as my job and the job of other advocates in the city to push them and say, ‘Thank you, you’re doing a great job; we’re gonna need more.’”

Deputy Mayor Owens said the city wants to keep people out of the street and the pilot program is a step toward a solution. “Some people choose to be in the street; that’s one thing, but we don’t want you in the street because you couldn’t be on the sidewalk. And so instead of being just paralyzed because we couldn’t do it all … we’re saying let’s try this.”

Syracuse is proof that sidewalk snow removal doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing proposition. Cities that follow Complete Streets models, which aim to make streets and passageways safe for all users, should evaluate how a lack of sidewalk snow removal obstructs that commitment to pedestrians for a significant portion of the year.

Even if all a city can do is begin with two streets, Owens urges cities to start there. “How people are able to move around in a city that gets snow, who don’t have the benefit of a car, is important,” she said. “Does it mean we’re gonna get it right [immediately]? No. But we’re sure gonna try. We gotta start by trying something.”

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