With 65 inches of snow, winter 2013-14 has surpassed the last four and the 60-year average of 60.4 inches of white stuff falling on Northeast Ohio. Skiers and sledders are happy, but those with driveways and side walks to shovel, well, not so much.
The responsibility of home and business owners to keep sidewalks clear for pedestrians—school kids, the disabled, transit riders, university students, the religiously observant or those who choose to walk to work—has prompted a seasonal discourse about the volume of snow which seemingly has overwhelmed property owners who might otherwise take a few minutes to keep their walk clear.
The debate has been robust. Opinions range from those who insist cities can do more —with their tax dollars such as purchase sidewalk clearing machines—to those who think cities should prompt citizens to clear sidewalks with a more pointed end of the stick.
As a winter walking commuter, I see clear sidewalks as more than a legal obligation. It’s a common good that must be maintained for public safety but also a clear sidewalk provides the freedom to choose a low-carbon form of transportation that walking provides.
Cleveland Heights Councilman Jason Stein recently raised this question of what cities can do to keep sidewalks clear. Stein posted the question on his Facebook page and got a flood of responses, from, the city should buy a snowplow to the city should enforce its ordinance. Council then debated it and, Cleveland Heights, where 5.05% of the populace walks to work according to the Census, decided to take some steps to improve winter walking. They include:
- Friendly warnings and the possibility of fines for those who don’t clear their walk
- A method of reporting property owners who don’t clear their walk in a timely fashion or don't have a medical excuse
- Complaints will be followed up by a city inspector
- An effort by the city’s Public Works Department to map the most used walking routes and come up with a plan to plow those
- The city will also look for best practices from other municipalities
Stein explained the city's approach in an article in the Heights Observer titled, “It takes a village to keep sidewalks clear.” The city weighed the options from punitive to encouragement, he said, and decided to split the difference.
“When the sidewalks are covered with six inches or more of snow, pedestrians tend to walk in the street (which is) dangerous and a public safety issue,” Stein wrote. “It does take a village.”
This issue affects every metro in the region that is trying to promote more walking and biking.
When the Akron-Beacon Journal reported that African-American and poor children are being hit by cars in disproportionate numbers because they walk in the street when sidewalks are not clear, it sent hackles up for Jason Segedy, the director of Akron Metropolitan Area Transportation Study (AMATS), the agency that sets policy and funds infrastructure throughout Summit County.
“Sadly, they are often invisible to a society and a culture whose devotion to the automobile borders on the obsequiously slavish,” Segedy wrote in his blog. “The generalization ‘no one walks anyway’ misses the point entirely. Social equity and fairness in transportation is not about a tunnel-vision view of the needs of the majority that drives, considered in a vacuum; but rather, about looking out for the needs of the minority that does not drive.”
Segedy sees some hope emerging in Safe Routes to School plans for Akron and Cleveland, and in the regional sustainability vision of VibrantNEO, which he co-chaired. If people want a more holistic approach to transportation, which recognizes the importance of safe and reliable public infrastructure for pedestrians, cyclists, and bus riders, he writes, they should speak up in VibrantNEO's petition to local leaders.
In order to advance the conversation, GCBL is collecting the best ideas in what communities are doing to keep their sidewalks clear of snow. We’ll collect creative ideas here, and seed the conversation with best practices from other metros who have acted, sometimes very creatively, out of safety and compassion.
- Milford, Connecticut organized a volunteer ‘shovel brigade’which fans out to clear sidewalks after snowfalls. The shovel brigade includes 50 off-duty firemen.
- In 1992, Colynn Kerr and Jeff Gruttz, two avid cyclists who worked for the city of Calgary, invented a snow plow that they hitched to a mountain bike and provides human powered snow removal!
- In New York City, property owners have a mere four hours to clear their walk. Like many big cities, NYC has a “311” hotline for citizens to call in complaints. It also has a clear description of its snow clearance code on its web site.
- Back up north, the city of Edmonton provides free sand for walks, in addition to encouraging folks to “be an urban hero and remove snow within 48 hours.”
- Buffalo business owner Ward Pinkel convinced his Business Improvement District to outfit a golf cart with a snow plow which he (gleefully) uses to clear sidewalks for shoppers.
- LaCrosse, Wisconsin is toying with the idea of having a snow removal “cop” and concierge service provided by a local non-profit like a Boys and Girls Club which could charge a fee for snow removal.
- University of Nebraska suggests making snow removal into a community service idea.
- Tony Hull of Bike/Walk Twin Cities suggests forming a pedestrian advisory committee in your community which can do walking tours to document conditions and host conversations about options. Hull says enforcing shoveling regulations is a two-week process, and therefore, rather ineffectual.