Blog › 8 big ideas that can save the snowy sidewalk debate


8 big ideas that can save the snowy sidewalk debate

Marc Lefkowitz  |  02/21/14 @ 12:15pm  |  Posted in Walking

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.

<br />Photo by John Talbot.The snowplow bike<br />Photo by Gary Ross<br /><br />Sidewalk conditions in winter are treacherous without shoveling

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.

  1. Milford, Connecticut organized a volunteer ‘shovel brigade’which fans out to clear sidewalks after snowfalls. The shovel brigade includes 50 off-duty firemen.
  2. 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!
  3. 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.
  4. 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.”
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. University of Nebraska suggests making snow removal into a community service idea.
  8. 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.

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8 years ago

we are facing the same questions and issues in Cleveland Heights-University Heights..many of our students walk to school, and some residents have either chosen to forego a car for environmental purposes, or rely on walking and public transport for travel. FutureHeights has organized a public forum to bring the community together to discussion challenges, goals, and how to collaborate, plus boosting residential responsibility among homeowners.

Tuesday, April 1 6:30 pm at the Wine Spot in Cleveland Heights, 2271 Lee Road. representatives from the school district, the libraries, and our two cities will come to discuss their plans, and answer questions. there are city ordinances in place to keep sidewalks clear, but cooperation will keep us all safer...this is more of a public safety issue than just a conversation about snow removal.

Jerry Egan
8 years ago

Sidewalks are part of the public right of way. Cities recognize the need to clear a portion of the r-o-w - streets - but not sidewalks. People should be provided safe access along the public right of way regardless of the method of transport.
I think two approaches are needed:1- cities take responsibility to clear sidewalks along primary commercial corridors where buses travel and businesses are located (minimum 25% of block use is business/apartment). Property owners are assessed on property taxes for cost - as they are now for street cleaning or lighting. This work can be contracted out to snow removal companies to assist small business around the community. 2 - residential areas probably need to rely on encouragement to residents and a program of engagement of volunteers, especially near schools. People with snow blowers can be encouraged to do more than their own property. Public agencies and Churches can commit to clearing and neighborhood groups could assist. Although it is desirable to have residential sidewalks clear, when they are not it is usually safer to walk on a residential street than a commercial street.

8 years ago

I'm in favor of shaming those that don't fulfill their responsibility to clean the sidewalk. In that spirit, the Western Reserve Historical Society steadfastly refuses to clear their sidewalks even after multiple promtings. (I've slipped several times on the ice in front of their museum on East Blvd.)

On a more serious note, it seems to me that cities with a high proportion of walkers should be able to clear the sidewalks on one side of their busiest roads within a few days of a snowfall without it taking a huge toll on their budget. Clear the streets first if you must and then have a couple of the drivers get out and ride a snowblower down the sidewalks.

8 years ago

@Marc - Here's what communities should do: if a city has an ordinance on the books that requires homeowners and business owners to keep their sidewalks clear and the city is unwilling to enforce that ordinance, it should repeal it. That way, residents and business owners who honor their legal obligation to clear the sidewalk don't waste their time clearing their sidewalks, which they end up doing now because nothing is accomplished by only a few homeowners clearing their sidewalks. It is that simple. What's the point of having an ordinance on the books, if you're not going to even make an attempt to enforce it? Sad thing is that this is happening in communities that are trying to hold themselves out as being "walkable."

8 years ago

@Pedestrian - those are some astute points you make. I was just speaking to someone today who couldn't take advantage of this warm up and push a stroller for some exercise for that very reason you state. The private snow plowers are not doing the communities any service when they block sidewalks which is an all too common practice. Also, I agree that the vast majority of people are capable of plowing. It sounds like you would favor enforcing snow shoveling ordinances. Do you think fining people is the way to go? Do communities really have something to fear from making homeowners who get fined angry? Or should they stand firmly with the pedestrian in this case?

8 years ago

One piece of low-hanging fruit is the private plow services that intentionally pile snow on the sidewalk adjacent to the apron, thus blocking the way. In those instances, the plow service or the property owner should be subject to a fine without question.

One other thought: here we are worrying about the financially distressed and physically unable, which is a legit concern, but the reality is that in many communities those folks represent a small portion of homeowners who do not clear their sidewalks or have their sidewalks cleared. The real issue is elected officials not having the political will to upset the lazy and inconsiderate homeowners who don't care if their blocked sidewalk means that a child, elderly person, a neighbor walking the dog or someone walking to transit has to take the more dangerous path of walking in the street.

8 years ago

Scott - I just read an article about community tool shares, and their pros and cons here: motherearthnews.com/nature-and-environment/forming-community-tool-co-op-zmaz04amzsel.aspx?PageId=3

The article suggests that they work best with the right (handy and organized) people behind them.

Scott Johnson
8 years ago

How about a combination of some sort of block/neighborhood organization and a city-provided pool of snowblowers+equipment the organization(s) "check out"? Manpower could then be organized/utilized locally and exceptions can be made for those unable to contribute (or maybe they could contribute to organizational tasks)

8 years ago

@Pedestrian - I hear what you're saying, that Medical Excuse doesn't mean excused from keeping your walk clear. I think cities are in a tough spot here, and are looking for strategies that help the most disadvantaged -- the kids, the poor, the disabled, etc. -- walking without putting undue hardships on my next door neighbors, the retirees in their 80s. Depending on your tastes, the solutions discussed so far have been a range from enforcing their ordinances, to spending what I've heard is $500,000 a season for equipment and manpower. I was hoping this forum could provide some more 'boot-strap' ways to get the hold outs participating. I don't know the answer about Cleveland Heights' offering exemptions for lawn care. I might ask one of our council. Thanks.

8 years ago

@Marc - thanks for your response. As I mentioned, I agree that there are legitimate medical excuses. But that shouldn't exempt someone from having to have their sidewalk cleared. After all, no one is claiming that a home or business owner him or herself has to clear the sidewalk; instead, the obligation is to have the sidewalk cleared (how that is accomplished is up to the individual home or business owner). I would like to know if Cleveland Heights provides medical and financial hardship excuses for folks who can't cut there grass, pay to replace a cracked segment of sidewalk or otherwise maintain the exterior of their houses?

8 years ago

@pedestrian - thanks for your comment. There are legitimate examples of people with medical conditions like heart and respiratory, I think, that should be taken into account. To your point about paying the neighbor's kid, when that option is available and if it's not a financial hardship to the homeowner, that could be an option.

8 years ago

"Medical excuse"? I anticipate that excuse being used often. But, I accept that there are folks for whom it is valid. In their case I ask: what's wrong with paying your neighbor's kid $10 to shovel the sidewalk for you? Or, the city does it for you and charges a fee? After all, is "medical excuse" a valid excuse for not mowing your lawn?

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