What Big Snow Can Tell Us About Our Streets

So the snow that hit the Northeast over the weekend is gradually sublimating and melting away, and a couple of the blogs on the Streetsblog Network are looking at the difference in the way municipalities treated pedestrians and motorists during and after the first big storm of the winter.

The Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia has posted a telling video shot by local bike shop owner Michael McGettigan. It shows how, two days after the last flakes fell, the sidewalk on the Walnut Street Bridge — the busiest pedestrian bridge crossing in the state of Pennsylvania — remained uncleared. As a result, those on foot were forced out into the well-plowed roadway with motor vehicles.

As the BCGP blog notes, some private property owners are being ticketed for not shoveling the sidewalks in front of their homes, but "apparently the city doesn’t ticket giant transportation agencies for not keeping sidewalks clear."

Meanwhile, network member Greater Greater Washington launched a discussion about whether local officials and news media in the DC area were right to tell pedestrians to stay off the streets during and immediately after the storm. The blog’s David Alpert asks:

Was that the smart move to ensure safety, or another sign of how our
society has come to view streets as the exclusive province of cars? …A snowstorm that cuts down the level of traffic and restricts the
usable space in the roadway is an opportunity to examine how we think
about streets.

That’s exactly what Clarence Eckerson did in this video from the Streetfilms archives, which captured conditions on NYC streets in the wake of a blizzard that hit the city in February 2006. Check out the naturally occurring neckdowns (h/t @guiweinmann).

  • The NYT reported that “Philadelphia sales [to the blockbuster new movie ‘Avatar’ fell 57 percent on Saturday, Washington’s fell 75 percent and New York’s drooped 18 percent.” I know that D.C. and Philly got a good deal more snow than NYC, but I can’t help wondering if our higher transit/auto mode split also contributed to our lesser drop in ticket sales.

  • Ah yes, the day after the snowstorm I angrily snapped some pics right outside my building: roads free and clear, but sidewalks’ entrances to crosswalks were covered with–not one foot, like we got, but two and three feet of snow, because the plows that clear the roads shove all the snow onto pedestrian territory. And no one has any responsibility, it seems to clear those spots. It’s especially charming where I live, since there are so many seniors in my complex.

    Another highlight was a pair of very busy bus stops, a local and a limited, that were totally covered with 2-3 feet of snow.

    I’ll try to post the pics tonight.

  • J:Lai

    I always thought it was telling clearing roads of snow for motor vehicles is a city sanitation dept function with a major budget, but clearing sidewalks is left to private property owners.
    And clearing pedestrian/bike paths on bridges is apparently just ignored.

  • Danny G

    I’m on the fence with this one. On one hand it’s a weather-related situation that results from sidewalks being on the side (and thus where the snow ends up when it is shoved to the side of the road), but on the other it can be thought of as evidence for a bigger problem in street priorities.

    Part of me thinks that during such situations, sidewalks should be abandoned and and orange cones simply take away a lane of traffic to create a new temporary walking area. Plowing a street is faster and easier on the back than shoveling a sidewalk.

    Though maybe I’m crazy.

  • Let’s not forget that car owners have gotten a free pass on alternate side of the street parking regulations. Homeowners are responsible for having a clean sidewalk immediately after a snowfall but car owners aren’t responsible for having to shovel out their vehicles until days after a storm has passed. So far they’ve gotten three extra days of free parking after this storm…and we’ve all gotten three days delay on a proper plowing.

  • Danny G, plowing sidewalks shouldnt be a problem. Its hard when its manual labor, but sidewalk sized motorized plows are available, youll see institutions like colleges and hospitals deploy them all the time. A city like DC might not have them on hand, as they get less snow, but Philly, Boston, Chicago etc all should.

    The question is, residents are not responsible for clearing the street, theyre not responsible for maintaining sewer and power connections, so why are they responsible for clearing sidewalks?

    Why is every intersection perfect for cars, with their giant tired and motorized engines, but blocked with giant piles for pedestrians? And worse, as anyone who walks knows, those giant piles turn into giant puddles that defy the laws of physics. It can be 5 degrees out, and the puddle will still be liquid enough to soak you up to your knee.

  • Danny G

    Jass, you got an excellent point. Those mini-plows ought to be seeing much more action.

  • Bill

    Sometimes those miniplows make it worse when the thoughtless jackass “operator” hired by the institution gets to the end of the property line and leaves a huge pile in the middle of the sidewalk, completely blocking its entire width, forcing peds into the street midblock. I saw this done by the church on West Side and Kensington in Jersey City on Sunday morning.

  • Eileen

    And why is it that snowplow operators everywhere seem to think it’s acceptable to dump the snow they plow into the crosswalks? Even if the property owners in the video above had cleared their sidewalks, peds would still be faced with wading through a pile of snow at the curb in order to get into (and out of) the crosswalk.

  • dave

    after we got two feet of snow in denver this past october, I found out that our street never gets plowed. they just wait for the snow to melt and people deal. however, the day after the storm when I went out to cross country ski on the cherry creek bike path, I found that it had already been plowed. I didn’t get to go skiing, but as a bike commuter I certainly appreciate such priorities 🙂

  • Kaja

    > And why is it that snowplow operators everywhere seem to think it’s acceptable to dump the snow they plow into the crosswalks?

    Because nobody will stop them.

    (The answer isn’t cops; it’s bollards on extended curbs.)

    People respond to incentives.

  • Paul

    I friend of mine that is in a wheel chair pointed out that this pile of snow thing is a equal rights lawsuit waiting to happen. I never thought of this in the view as a person with a disability. She had the worst time getting from sidewalk to sidewalk.

  • BikeMaster

    This is also a civil rights issue. Why do car owners/operators get priority from government services. There are already Federal, State and City subsidies for automobiles.

  • Danny

    Growing up in Metro Detroit, snow is the number one reason I’ve been a bike transit skeptic. It may work great for warmer climates, but don’t northern cities need transportation infrastructure that is reliable 12 months a year? And I don’t think it’s simple solution of plowing more sidewalks, there are dozens of times here each winter when 1-3″ of snow falls and the roads don’t even get plowed. It seems much more feasible to operate a car in two inches of snow than a bicycle.

    Trying to be open-minded so I welcome counter arguments and alternate solutions.

  • TJI

    I bike year round in Minneapolis. A little snow isn’t a huge issue to bike through. We have a lot of winter bikers and I think there are a few things that can be done to make winter biking in snowy climates a success. One is having well plowed (i.e. curb to curb) routes connecting sectors of the City with one another. Having a few off-street bike trails plowed certainly helps as well. Another is having a transit system that can transport bikes so that bikers can switch to transit if it just sucks too much. Another is having studded tires, although not usually necessary. Just being prepared and learning how to bike in different conditions is usually enough. I find that if there’s just too much snow on the street where my tires can’t grip, I switch to the sidewalks if there aren’t pedestrians. Cutting through non-compacted snow is easy. But most of our winter, the amount of snow on the streets makes it a non issue. Main streets have been plowed and salted, and side streets have been compacted enough where a mountain bike tire can easily transverse.

  • I’ve been loving the traffic calming pilot program–or snowstorm, whatever it’s called. Sidewalk bulges at every crosswalk, narrowed traffic lanes, the “shared space” concept (i.e. motorists having to share space with pedestirans when the sidewalks are not yet cleared)… It’s beautiful! Of course my bike is completely covered in salt now, but i need a new chain anyway, so oh well.

  • Alex

    TJI – Also being in Minneapolis, I have to give the city a huge amount of respect for always being out there at 6 or 7am plowing the Greenway whenever we have a snowstorm. It only takes one pickup truck to do it all, and it makes an enormous difference to those of us who commute in the snow.

    On the other hand, St. Paul is just awful about street cleaning in regards to bikes. They generally don’t ask parked cars to move on snowy days and just pile up huge amounts of snow into bike lanes. Just check out Marshall from Minneapolis on up for proof – a week after the last big storm and the bike lane is all car snot and hard packed snow, and drivers get pretty anxious if you try to share that car lane with them.

  • SeeClickFix has proven to be an excellent way to report snow as well as alerts go to City, Neighbors and Private Companies.

    Reports are popping up all over NJ, Philly and CT.

    We posted an article here about the success in New Haven: http://seeclickfix.blogspot.com/2009/12/it-takes-village-to-shovel-sidewalk.html

  • Doug

    Komanoff, I thought the same thing when I read the article on Avatar. Seeing a movie on a cold, winter day is a great option in New York. If I lived somewhere where I had to think about parking a car or driving through bad weather, I wouldn’t go.

  • Eileen

    Paul/Bikemaster — GMTA. On the ADA, I called the Department of Justice’s ADA technical assistance line this morning and asked whether the practice of dumping snow in crosswalks violates the ADA. The answer was a cautious “maybe.” They said there’s definitely an argument to be made, and that people do have the option of filing complaints on this issue (anyone interested in that option can go to http://www.ada.gov/enforce.htm for the form), but that the argument would be strongest where the local/state government has responsibility for maintaining the sidewalks and curbcuts leading to the crosswalk. They cited me to Title II, Section 35.133 of the ADA (I think the 35.133 may actually be part of the ADA regulations in Title 28 of the Code of Federal Regulations, not the statute). I haven’t had time to look at it further yet, but thought the information was certainly interesting. More generally, I’ve also wondered whether there are constitutional arguments to be made — e.g. is it a denial of equal protection for the government to devote all (or almost all) of its resources to helping drivers while ignoring the needs of other users? Does the government unconstitutional burden the right to walk by requiring pedestrians to use crosswalks/sidewalks and then placing obstacles in their paths and/or failing to enforce the laws requiring people to shovel their sidewalks? All interesting questions I haven’t figured out yet (and this is more of a hobby for me).

  • J:Lai

    I’m an avid biker, but I bike much less when there is snow and ice on the streets. It’s not impossible, but it is more difficult, more dangerous, and slower. Often it is messier and colder as well, requiring modifications to clothing. I usually don’t go more than 3-4 miles maximum when roads are bad, and I don’t go anywhere that it would be awkward to wear waterproof/insulated clothing.

    Impracticality in the winter is one of several reasons why biking is not a good substitute for other forms of transportation. There could definitely be a lot more biking than there is now, but what we really need is investment in transit.

  • I regret that you neglected to link to my writings on this subject. Granted one of the entries was a reprint from last January–making the same points–but the entries were a more focused discussion on what to do than the entries you highlighted.



    – – http://urbanplacesandspaces.blogspot.com/2009/12/walk-this-way-to-school-and-transit.html

    – reprint: http://urbanplacesandspaces.blogspot.com/2009/12/reprint-planning-for-complete-places.html

    And note to Komanoff, DC proper has very few theaters in the city any more, 2 multiplexes downtown, one multiplex somewhat subway accessible in Georgetown, one nice old theater at Cleveland Park, a couple others here and there (Union Station’s theaters just closed). So when you see statistics on declines in audience, well, that’s mostly about the suburbs.

  • Clearing the road during snow time is one of the major problem, Jamie Labelle Snow Plowing offers those services residential or commercial.

  • Jamie Labelle Snow Plowing offers clearing services residential or commercial during snow time.


The Art and Science of Designing Good Cities for Walking

Editor’s note: This is the second installment in a three-part series this week by renowned Danish architect and livable streets luminary Jan Gehl. The pieces are excerpts are from his book, “Cities for People,” published by Island Press. Donate to Streetsblog and Streetfilms and you’ll qualify to win a copy of the book, courtesy of […]