Walking After a Snow Storm Wasn’t Always This Icy and Dicy

New York in 2014 has nothing on New Haven in 1888.
New York in 2014 has nothing on New Haven in 1888. Photo: New Haven Museum via New Haven Independent

After a series of snow storms, this week has been a tough one for walking in New York City. Deep oceans of slush pool at corners where snow and ice block storm drains. Many property owners, including the city government, have failed to shovel their walks as the law requires. Long stretches of sidewalk are bumpy stretches of hard, slick compacted snow and ice. Bus stops? Fuggedaboutit.

Thanks to the city’s plow fleet, if you want to drive across town, the worst thing you might encounter is shoveling out your vehicle from its free on-street parking spot. Now that the storm has passed, spinning out on a snowy road isn’t much of a problem. But walking is a different story this week.

The indignity of walking after the storm is distilled in this video showing a man on the sidewalk of Coney Island Avenue in Brighton Beach early Wednesday morning. The walk remains covered in snow, but the car lanes appear to have already been visited by a plow at least once before. As the man walks, a pair of plows approach to put the finishing touches on the car lanes. The one closest to the curb speeds by, dousing the pedestrian in a torrent of snow and slush so powerful it knocks him to the ground.

Even after the snow has been cleared and the plows are done with their work, the snow that’s been pushed to the curb blocks bus stops, which are the city’s responsibility to clear. Passengers getting on and off the bus must navigate piles of snow and pools of slush. If you’re elderly or disabled, you may have to give up on getting around the city this week.

Is clearing sidewalks too labor-intensive to feasibly accomplish in a reasonable period of time? Well, cities used to be able to get it done. The Blizzard of 1888 ranks as one of the worst to ever hit the northeast. By the time it finished, 45 inches of snow buried the city of New Haven. “Workers cleared the sidewalks first, while the streets remained piled high with snow, indicating the different transportation priorities of the age,” the New Haven Independent explains.

There are a lot more sidewalks to clear in New York than in New Haven, and a lot has changed since 1888. (For one thing, the curb lane where they dumped snow in New Haven would probably be full of parked cars today.) But given the hazards of walking around the city this week well after snow stopped falling, maybe we can learn something from our forebears.

  • Yesterday evening I snapped this while walking over the Sunnyside Yards in Queens. Both sides of the sidewalk were filled over a foot deep of ice-incrusted, uneven snow-ice. But the roadway (where I would be willing to bet drivers easily exceed 45 mph at times) was absolutely clear. Not a blemish. I counted 11 pedestrians on my walk over, 3 children – ALL walking in roadway because they had no choice. I rarely feel fear in NYC that badly in NYC. We’ll never get to Vision Zero if we are only worried about clearing the roadways.

  • Brad Aaron

    This is criminal.

  • While I was walking (most of the time in the road myself because you just kept falling) I would turn and face the traffic when I heard trucks and cars and start waving my hands so drivers would see me and slow. It was truly frightening. Particularly because not only do cars soar over this but lots of trucks! And this is a long stretch – over 1/3rd of a mile to cross. Jimmy Van Bremer said he reported it.

  • Jeff

    While I generally prefer cycling over other modes anyway, this is another reason why I continue to ride in these generally unfavorable conditions. I’d rather deal with the minor drawbacks of poor-weather cycling than get my foot soaking wet trying to cross the street to get to the Subway.

  • asd

    Boulder, CO gets a lot of snow. They also have a network of off street multi use paths. They also have pickup trucks with plows that will drip something to deice the pavement. And smaller vehicles for narrower paths as well.

    The city used to be liable for poor sidewalk conditions (cracks, not sure about snow), though not for maintenance. Some lawyers kept track of every crack, notified the city promptly, and the city did nothing – they were supposed to investigate the claim, issue notice to the property owner telling them to fix it, and if they didn’t comply fix it themselves and send a bill I believe. They did nothing quite often. Then someone got hurt, and the city was liable for not repairing the hazardous condition they knew about. The solution? Pass a low to remove liability from the city, hoist it onto the property owners who generally don’t have very deep pockets. Lawyers lost their good thing. And sidewalks are in worse shape than they were ten years ago, or at least no better in many parts of the city. The roads aren’t in great shape, but the city seems to do a reasonable job with them, and do a decent job plowing them. Why can’t they with sidewalks? Because you’re more important when you’re in a car.


  • Reader

    “The walk remains covered in snow, but the car lanes appear to have already been visited by a plow at least once before.”

    Thank you, Streetsblog, for putting the focus where it belongs. What happened to this guy sucks, and certainly makes for one heck of a viral video, but perhaps we should all be more upset at the auto shop for not shoveling their sidewalk, as is required by law.

    Getting pummeled by snow from a plow is very rare. Having to deal with crappy walking conditions is all too common.

  • I’m actually surprised that CBS2 just had a teaser for a story this afternoon about unplowed bus stops in NJ forcing people to wait in the street. Maybe we can get the news finally talking a little more about this rather than only being fixated on roadways.

  • red_greenlight1

    A couple days ago I and a few other pedestrians were waiting for a walk signal to change. A salt truck driver proceeded to wave cars which now had a red light. Once the cars were out of his way he began to blast the salt out hitting us in the process. I was pretty angry that he carefully avoided hitting the cars and didn’t give us a second thought or even a first thought.

  • We are the afterthoughts.

  • anon

    it was five in the morning. I think it was reasonable that the sidewalk was not shoveled. I don’t it was reasonable for the plow to be going so fast that a 10 foot high spray was created that knocked this guy over and showered the front of the building, which you can see on camera #2

  • HamTech87

    Welcome to the world of living in the suburbs. We often don’t have any sidewalks, and the narrow roads make for scary experiences. Drivers often zoom on slick, icy roads just a few feet from pedestrians. One ice patch and that person is dead.

  • Joe R.

    For what it’s worth there are two reasons many sidewalks weren’t shoveled yesterday. One, and this applies all the time, it’s usually the responsibility of the property owner adjacent to the sidewalk to shovel it. This means sidewalks are shoveled piecemeal, if at all. If the property owner is away, the sidewalk doesn’t get shoveled. In many other countries, municipalities plow sidewalks as well as streets. Two, the snow yesterday was particularly difficult to shovel. It snowed, then rained, turning the snow to slush. The slush then froze. I had a heck of a time clearing my sidewalk. The only thing which worked was sliding a square garden shovel under the ice to dislodge it. Once dislodged, the ice was extremely heavy compared to snow. I couldn’t imagine an elderly person, or someone with physical disabilities, being able to clear their sidewalk yesterday. That’s why the city should plow sidewalks.

  • JamesR

    What’s out there on the ground right now isn’t even snow anymore. It’s
    frozen so solid, and packed so hard, that it’s sort of a snow-ice
    hybrid. None of this is getting shoveled until we get some thawing
    first, which may be as much as a week away. Walking conditions will remain treacherous until that point.

  • Joe R.

    That’s why I made sure to clear my sidewalk yesterday before the deep freeze comes. Unfortunately, my back gave out before I had chance to do the neighbor’s sidewalk. I usually do his because he’s almost 70 and walks with a cane but I was just too spent from doing mine yesterday.

  • Charles

    That particular overpass could be improved significantly with a road diet. No way it needs two vehicle lanes that wide in each direction. Even when the sidewalks are clear it is dangerous; drivers absolutely floor it, like they’re on a freeway.

  • J_12

    It’s unfair to both business/property owners and pedestrians to put the onus on individual owners to keep sidewalks clear. The dept of sanitation clears streets at taxpayer expense, but does nothing for sidewalks (often they make sidewalks worse when plowing streets.) small businesses and residential property owners usually do not have the resources to properly clear sidewalks of snow and ice, which is why you have conditions that vary greatly block by block. Meanwhile, all the streets get plowed down to the asphalt, usually within 24 hours of any snowfall, by the city.

  • Guest

    This can be chipped out. It’s a little extra effort, but there’s no excuse for not clearing it.

  • Ian Dutton

    NYC famously spends $1m/inch on snow removal, keeping streets clear for the convenience of drivers in their warm, dry vehicles. How much does the city spend on snow removal for *all* of us, the pedestrians? The children trying to get to school, the senior getting to the bus, you and me? I’ll bet the number is within a rounding-error range of zero.

    Mayor deBlasio, NY City Council, does this sound right?

  • wak

    The city should have a program (contracted out if need be) where they shovel the sidewalks of any property owner who wants. (and then send them the bill of course, can make it a set fee for the year no matter how much or little snow) If you don’t sign up, and you don’t shovel the sidewalk within a reasonable time after the storm, then the city should send you a fine and have someone clean the sidewalk, and automatically enroll you for the next year. Any contractor who doesn’t clear the sidewalk could get removed from the program.

    Well, actually, maintaining a ROW for pedestrians should be a basic municipal service, but if nyc wants to push that onto property owners then they should ensure that they do their job.

  • HamTech87

    The next time someone complains that “gov’t is the problem”, and “the private sector can do it better”, I’ll bring up the complete failure of private property owners even to shovel their own sidewalks.

  • Joe R.

    I agree wholeheartedly. Most private property owners don’t have equipment to deal with the icy sidewalks we had this week. That’s why they weren’t cleared. Neither did any of the “for hire” people offering to clear snow ( they had shovels just like me ). You need heavy, costly equipment to deal with a mess like this. That’s something only the city or a very large company specializing in snow removal can afford.

  • Frank Dell

    Time to call Mr. Plow.

  • qrt145

    It only becomes an icy mess when you don’t shovel it in a timely fashion and let it melt and refreeze. And you don’t need any expensive equipment anyway; you can use salt and chip the ice with a long-handled ice scraper. I’ve done it and I’m not a professional ice remover.

    I do grant that this is not easy for an average 75-year old, that a four-hour timeframe is ridiculously short, and I don’t see why the government couldn’t do it. My pet peeve is that even when property owners do shovel their sidewalks, they often do a substandard job: I see plenty of 15-foot sidewalks in high-density areas where the “owner” thought that shoveling a 2-foot path should be enough.

  • Joe R.

    Last week we had a perfect storm of conditions to create this icy mess. The snow turned to rain, which in turn made slush. Later when the precipitation finally stopped temperatures dropped and the slush froze. Unless you wanted to be out shoveling in freezing rain, there was no opportunity to remove the slush before it froze. I had a heck of a time clearing my sidewalk the next day. I’m 51 and in reasonably decent shape from all the riding/walking I do. I couldn’t imagine a 75-year old doing this. We need to accept that this has been an exceptional winter and getting around is going to be difficult for all modes at times. This isn’t your usual winter where you have a few inches of snow a few times.

    I totally agree on the people who think a lousy 2-foot wide path is enough. Nothing more frustrating than to be stuck behind a few slow walkers for blocks because the property owners couldn’t clear a path wide enough to pass them.

    Incidentally, if the sidewalk is icy all you need to do is put down sand or sawdust or some other material to increase traction. You don’t have to remove the ice until the weather permits (I assume that means above freezing temperatures). Here’s the part of the law dealing with ice removal:

    N.Y. ADC. LAW § 16-123b. In case the snow and ice on the sidewalk shall be frozen so hard that it cannot be removed without injury to the pavement, the owner, lessee, tenant, occupant or other person having charge of any building or lot of ground as aforesaid, may, within the time specified in the preceding subdivision, cause the sidewalk abutting on such premises to be strewed with ashes, sand, sawdust, or some similar suitable material, and shall, as soon thereafter as the weather shall permit, thoroughly clean such sidewalks.

  • Donachristensen

    Do they have two functioning arms? Sidewalks do NOT require that much time to clear.

  • Donachristensen

    And when we are forced to walk in the streets some drivers are loath to give us even a little consideration by moving into the inside lane. Drivers can be very selfish, sitting on their comfortable car sofa seats, sipping their hot coffee, some can’t even move over to give us a break. How I hate them. If you are forced at times to walk on the street, make sure you have a light.

  • J_12

    That’s a bit glib. Maybe under perfect conditions (light, powdery snow, and the opportunity to clear it before it melts and re-freezes into ice) it doesn’t take much time or effort, but in reality it usually does take awhile.

    A given block will often have 10 or more property owners responsible for various parts of the sidewalk. The chances that at least one of them will be unwilling or unable to properly clear the sidewalk is quite high.

    It’s a system which implies that pedestrian mobility doesn’t really matter, as we are willing to leave it to these haphazard measures.

  • Donachristensen

    I cycle to work as well, I also have a fat tire bike which well facilitates even 12 mile commutes (one way) each morning. However, some years the snowfall challenges even the capability of snow tire bikes to travel safely, particularly when curbs disappear under feet of snow.

  • Donachristensen

    I certainly understand your point and I am particularly cognizant that sometimes homeowners are unable to clear sidewalks, either the snow has fallen overnight or perhaps the homeowner is elderly and or incapable of clearing snow.

    My biggest annoyance however is making my way along a sidewalk along a major street between bus stops (2 mile stretch) only to find that the homeowners have for the most part cleared their sidewalks, the BIGGEST culprits are the BUSINESSES and FACTORIES which lose no time clearing their approach and parking lots, but leave the sidewalks uncleared, and never make ANY effort to clear them. I’m not kidding, no effort at all. This means that snowfall after snowfall the sidewalks in front of factories, child daycares, banks and industrial parks become absolutely impassable. I’m not making those examples up either.

  • arothwell

    I need to know who is responsible for clearing the sidewalks after a snow storm on Sunrise Highway in front on the LIRR. It is impossible to walk on Sunrise Hwy after a snow storm in front of the LIRR. Business and home owners are required to shovel their properties, why is no one responsible for Sunrise Hwy


Today’s Headlines

The Indignity of Walking After a Snowstorm (Gothamist, MTR, DNA) The Indignity of Riding the Bus After a Snowstorm (Advance) Montreal Has Pedestrian-Friendly Snow Removal Figured Out (NY Mag) Sanitation Department Had 920 Shovelers Clearing Sidewalks and Bus Stops (Post) It Was a Nasty Morning Commute for LIRR Riders Yesterday (WNYC) Of Course Rory Lancman Is Going […]