Snow removal for whom?

If you ever needed confirmation, recent snowstorms showed once again that there is no equity between pedestrians/commuters/cyclists and drivers in New York City. All lanes of vehicular traffic were cleared of snow in 12 hours, while bus stops, bike lanes, corners and sidewalks were impassable. We should not be surprised: the NYC Sanitation Department (DSNY) calls its mission “restoring the blacktop“.  So – one week later – entire sidewalks and bike lanes are still submerged under snow and no one is bothering to even inspect the situation: 311 refuses to accept complaints about snow, a sure way to eliminate problems!  With so many stores closed, the situation is dire for public transit riders, first responders, seniors and people with disabilities and the vast majority of the population that does not drive.  

Today the taxpayers pay for DSNY to clear the roadways. Although bike lanes are part of the roadway, they require smaller trucks which are few and far between in the DSNY fleet.  Clearing the sidewalks is entirely the responsibility of businesses and residents, who are unlikely to clear a consistent pedestrian path, corners, pedestrian crossings and bus stops  or to receive a fine if they do not comply. Areas adjacent to Parks or MTA are the responsibility of these agencies, subject to negotiation. 

There are so many good reasons to change the way the streets are cleared of snow in New York City. 

  • First,  it violates the American with Disabilities Act (ADA). Maintaining the sidewalks during snowy weather is never optional according to the ADA: “Reasonable snow removal efforts are part of the public agency obligation to maintain its Walkways in an accessible condition, with only isolated or temporary interruptions in accessibility”.[1]  Throughout the City snow pile-ups are not “isolated nor temporary” for Persons with Disabilities, they are a persistent hazard!”
  • Second, it is dangerous: in our era of Vision Zero forcing people to walk in the street, while at other times we penalize pedestrians for walking in the street, is absolutely wrong. And there is ample evidence that citizens are not happy about the current state of affairs:  during the last snow fall, a tweet titled ”Why do we treat cars better than people” garnered 18,400 likes in no time at all. 
  • Third, you cannot fine your way out of the problem: “There are people who simply can’t adhere to shoveling ordinances, like those who are elderly or disabled, and single parents working multiple jobs”[2]. And now with the COVID and retail crises, many storefronts may remain empty for years to come, perpetuating a patchwork of impassable sidewalks.  
  • Municipal snow clearing from sidewalks is not an outlandish concept: many cities and states do it. Stockholm clears all its major arterials prioritizing bike/ped facilities to address equity concerns.[3] In the United States a 2013 survey of 33 state DOTs [4] showed that 49% of those states did clear sidewalks (to some extent, based on various criteria). Such states include Connecticut, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. “Although most cities don’t treat sidewalks as necessities, some do, and prioritize them to varying degrees. Most sidewalks in Toronto are cleared by the city. In Rochester, New York, the city steps in when snow totals reach more than four inches. Rochester pays for removal through an “embellishment fee” on property-tax bills, which averages $35 [annually] per homestead. Duluth clears 100 miles of priority sidewalk routes, including routes to schools, high-pedestrian traffic locations, and public-transit locations. Bloomington, Minnesota clears all of its 250 miles of sidewalks. These cities’ programs could act as templates for New York to formulate a plan for safe pedestrian paths in the winter.”[5]

To clear the streets/sidewalks equitably a new protocol for snow removal is required. 

The New York City protocol must get Emergency services back on cleared roads ASAP and  restore public transportation in priority. To facilitate the work of DSNY, vehicular traffic would be restricted to emergency vehicles and High Occupancy Vehicles (HOV) for the duration of the storm and for two days after. 

  1. Create a network of safe access for emergency vehicles and bus route by  clearing one lane on each arterial (bus lanes and others)
  • What is the point of clearing a bus lane if passengers cannot get on the bus? As a second priority NYC would clear bus stops, corners and sidewalks.  A simple operational  change will make this much easier: on arterials, plows should push the snow to the left rather than to the right. As a result, there would be minimal accumulation at bus stops and street corners. Snow would be piled instead in a car lane.  
  • Snow must be removed from bike lanes after sidewalks are cleared. This prevents bike lanes being re-buried by the sidewalk snow removal. Snow from bike lanes gets pushed onto parking lanes and not the cleared sidewalks. 
  • Lastly car lanes on arterials would be cleared. 

The majority of vehicles on the road are SUVs, trucks and 4X4  and navigating snow is no longer a challenge for them.  It is common practice elsewhere for cars to have snow tires. Driving is restricted to vehicles equipped with chains, 4-wheel drive transmissions or snow tires. Taxis, uber and limo would be compelled to use those.  

Many additional interventions could make this process more efficient: marking the street in red where buses stop on the road prevents snow pile-ups there ; trucks follow snow plows to pick up accumulation; safe spray sidewalks and bike lanes in advance to reduce accumulation. 

In the end it is a matter of equity and common sense: pedestrians and cyclists are at much greater risk when it snows. And why are millions of citizens who do not drive paying taxes to clear streets for cars,  while certainly not getting the same level of  service. 

(AS originally published in Streetsblog )


[1] 28 CFR – 35.133  (9-12-06) @USDOTFHWA @DOTCivilRights Questions and Answers About ADA/Section 504

[2] Kathi Valeii, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2019-01-11/sidewalks-not-just-roads-need-municipal-snow-removal

[3] https://www.fastcompany.com/40515235/how-to-make-snow-bound-cities-less-of-a-frozen-hell-for-people-with-disabilities

[4] https://www.dot.state.mn.us/research/TRS/2013/TRS1306.pdf

[5] Kathi Valeii, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2019-01-11/sidewalks-not-just-roads-need-municipal-snow-removal

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