Snow Removal Best Practices: The Right Path
Does your snowy city pay adequate attention to the needs of pedestrians and transit users when the white stuff is falling?  Montreal uses mini-plows, above, to clear sidewalks.  Photo: sfllaw, Flickr.

Does your snowy city pay adequate attention to the needs of pedestrians and transit users when the white stuff is falling? Montreal uses mini-plows, above, to clear sidewalks. Photo: sfllaw, Flickr.

The Washington, D.C. metro area has the second highest percentage of public transit commuters in the United States, behind only New York City. Many of those riders walk to the Metro or the bus, and 89,000 other commuters walk to work, according to the 2008 American Community Survey. What’s more, local leaders and advocates hope to increase the transit and pedestrian mode shares even further. However, some would argue that the District’s response to the recent record-setting blizzards overlooked the needs of pedestrians and transit users, posing safety hazards, hindering accessibility to bus stops and destinations, discouraging people from taking transit (and potentially encouraging them to drive in unsafe conditions), and costing the city money by slowing school re-openings when kids couldn’t walk to bus stops.

To assist in preparations for the next storm, TheCityFix took a look at how other walkable, transit-friendly cities address pedestrian safety and access during snow events. It’s important to note that many of these cities routinely get a lot more snow than D.C., so some of the practices outlined here may not be feasible in our environment.

Sadly, few U.S. cities assume the responsibility of clearing snow from sidewalks. Like Washington, many require property owners to clear the sidewalks in front of their buildings.

Chicago is a typical example. The Windy City has been getting high marks for snow removal lately, but this praise has been focused on the city’s efficient street plowing methods. The government takes a much less proactive approach to clearing sidewalks. Chicago has a law on the books requiring building owners or tenants to remove snow and ice from any walkway narrower than 5 feet within three hours of snow falling. But earlier this winter, Mayor Daley noted publicly that the City won’t enforce this rule. Instead, officials are focusing on positive reinforcement, distributing door hangers that remind community members of their shoveling responsibilities and recognizing businesses with outstanding snow-removal performance with a thank-you letter and a certificate. Though the Mayor’s statements basically removed all fear of punitive action, some community groups are using the stick rather than the carrot. The Active Transportation Alliance is encouraging residents to post fliers on the doors of neighbors who don’t promptly shovel the areas in front of their homes.

Unlike Chicago, Philadelphia has been actively enforcing its sidewalk clearance laws. The city’s code requires residents to shovel a 30-inch wide path on sidewalks within 6 hours of snowfall. Since a recent storm, officials have begun patrolling the streets and fining residents who do not comply with the law within a one-week grace period. Residents who haven’t shoveled their walks get $50 (per day) tickets. To educate the public about the necessity of this enforcement, leaders stress the serious safety implications of un-shoveled sidewalks and the liability of property owners should someone become injured on a slippery walk.

Madison, Wisconsin has a more comprehensive strategy in place for dealing with pedestrian pathways. Similar to other localities, the City ordinance requires that property owners clear sidewalks of snow and ice by 12:00 pm on the day following the snowfall. Officials target high-mobility pedestrian corridors for strict on-the-ground enforcement. These corridors – including downtown, hospital areas and neighborhoods with high concentrations of elderly and disabled citizens – were identified in community meetings. The day after a significant snowfall, inspectors review the corridors and issue fines to noncompliant property owners. The City itself maintains responsibility for clearing publicly-owned sidewalks, bike paths, crosswalks and bus stops. There are also resources in place to aid residents in complying with the ordinance. The City maintains an easy-to-understand website on sidewalk snow removal policies, provides free sand to property owners, and alerts residents of snow removal deadlines via text messages or emails. Furthermore, the state of Wisconsin is now considering allowing all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) to plow roads and sidewalks.

Hartford, Connecticut also removes snow and ice from city-owned sidewalks, parking lots at municipal buildings, police substation walks and parking lots, publicly-run daycare facilities and recreation center walks and parking lots. Additionally, the Capitol Region Council of Governments has spearheaded efforts to improve winter sidewalk maintenance. Its Regional Pedestrian Plan instructs municipalities to better address snow removal and code enforcement.

Of the cities we reviewed, Montreal takes by far the most proactive role in sidewalk snow removal. Working street-by-street, the City declares temporary no parking zones, uses mini bulldozers to clear the sidewalks and push the snow into the street, then uses powerful snow-blowers to move the snow into dump trucks and hauls it to dumping sites. (Snow is carted away because Montreal receives a lot of it and has very low average temperatures, limiting opportunities for melting.)

Calgary’s approach may not be as ambitious as Montreal’s, but it maintains a priority system that concentrates efforts on high traffic areas first, including downtown pedestrian hot spots, major bus routes and bus stops. 130 kilometers of pathways are kept clear during the winter. Home owners or occupants are not required to shovel sidewalks on this priority list. The City of Calgary is currently revisiting its snow removal policy; an interim policy, meanwhile, puts additional emphasis on clearing bus stops. (This article on snow removal in Calgary also brings up the interesting point of the implications of sprawl for snow removal; Calgary’s spread-out, low-density development pattern means it has 14,000 lane kilometers of road to clear and only 1435 residents per square kilometer to pay for it.)

Other sidewalk snow removal ideas:

  • The New York Conference of Mayors suggests in a sample law that cities may remove snow, but charge adjacent businesses for the service.
  • For example, in West Hartford Center (CT), a few large property owners pay the town to remove the snow from abutting sidewalks.
  • Cities may consider borrowing money from their contingency funds for snow removal. Any unused snow removal funds remaining when winter winds down are returned to the contingency fund.
  • To account for the special needs of the elderly and the disabled, cities may allow these groups clemency when it comes to the enforcement of shoveling laws.
  • WalkBoston, a non-profit pedestrian advocacy group, has created a best practices guide to addressing pedestrian needs during snow events. Recommendations include creating a social “norm” of responsibility for snow clearance, identifying a municipal point person, setting priorities for clearance, improving monitoring and enforcement, and designing sidewalks better. The group also suggests partnering with safe routes to school programs.
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