Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Walking in Winter Wonderland

The season of snow is upon us--well, those of us who live outside of Southern California anyway--and with it comes the perennial problem of snowy sidewalks. For those in more wintry climes, major snowfall can be a serious impediment to walkability. Particularly for less adroit walkers or for those in wheelchairs, navigating sidewalks-turned-snowdrifts is iffy at best.

Many northern cities address this issue by including sidewalk snow removal regulations in their municipal ordinances. Philadelphia, for example, requires "the owner, agent, and tenants of any building or premise shall clear a path of not less than 36 inches in width on all sidewalks, including curb cuts, abutting the building or premises within 6 (six) hours after the snow has ceased to fall." Saint Paul allows property owners a leisurely 24 hours for snow removal, while the ever-hurried residents of New York City have a mere four hours to comply.

Other cities vary slightly in timing and specific requirements, but nearly all stipulate that sidewalk snow removal 1) is the responsibility of adjacent property owners, 2) must be finished within a relatively short period of time following significant snowfall, and 3) if not completed according to city regulations can result in stiff fines. If you're interested in reading about more cities' policies, you can find a nice summary of a dozen or so here.

While having a strict snow-removal policy in place is a great start, those of us in the business of writing ordinances know all-too-well that having a law on the books doesn't always lead efficiently to the anticipated outcome. Tony Hull of Bike Walk Twin Cities tells the story nicely in a post from earlier this year on Seasonal Sidewalk Disorder: given the time it takes to process a violation, two weeks is a best case scenario for clearing a non-compliant sidewalk of snow.

Can you imagine the outcry if it took two weeks to clear roadways of snow after a storm?

If we're serious about walkability, sidewalks deserve the same treatment as roadways when it comes to snow removal. Leaving snow removal to adjacent property owners isn't enough. As Kent, Ohio City Manager Dave Ruller puts it "Shoveling tends to benefit from the guilt of peer pressure which means as more and more shovelers wave the white flag and give up, the less others are inclined to keep fighting the good fight, and before you know it, sidewalks all over town are blocked."

Madison, Wisconsin does a somewhat better job of sidewalk snow removal, dispatching crews to clear city-owned sidewalks and crosswalks along with its other snow-removal duties. However, the best example I found was in the City of Rochester, New York. There, sidewalk snow removal is a "partnership" between the city and its residents. Like other jurisdictions, property owners are required to remove snow from adjacent sidewalks. However, the City also provides a supplemental snow removal service during significant winter storms. Using private contractors, the City clears all sidewalks wider than five feet (a total of 878 miles of sidewalks), dividing plowing duties into smaller districts to facilitate snow removal.

Importantly, the supplemental service is funding by an "embellishment fee" on local property taxes. These fees, which are calculated based on property frontage, help ensure that snow removal isn't cut during tough budget years. Property owners are charged about $30 per year for the sidewalk snow removal, though it wasn't clear to me if this fully funded the removal program or not. Nonetheless, dedicating a pot of money for proactive snow removal is more effective than relying on after-the-fact fines to deal with the problem of non-compliance.

Interestingly, the City also has an embellishment (doesn't it sound so much nicer than "tax"?) fee for hazardous sidewalk repair that averages about $20 per year. City of LA, are you paying attention?

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