Thursday, January 31, 2008

Public Hearing on Snow Clearing Ordinance

There will be a public hearing on Wednesday, February 6, in the Aldermanic Chambers to hear testimony on a proposed ordinance that would restore residents' obligation to clear snow from sidewalks abutting their properties. (No agenda online, yet.) I assume the meeting will begin at 7:45 PM.

It won't be a complete cure to the problems on our sidewalks, but it will help. The Board of Alderman need to pass this ordinance.

Here's the language to be added to Section 26-8 as a new section (D):

(D) In order to allow for safe pedestrian and wheelchair passage, every owner or occupant of a building or lot of land abutting upon a sidewalk or any person having charge of such property shall cause snow to be removed from the sidewalk and ice on the sidewalk to be removed, sanded or salted to allow for a passageway of at least thirty-six (36) inches in width, provided that where the sidewalk as defined herein is less than thirty-six (36) inches in width, the passageway shall encompass the entire width of such sidewalk. Snow shall be removed and ice shall be removed, sanded or salted within twenty-four (24) hours after such snow has ceased to fall or such ice has come to be formed, provided that when such property is owned or occupied by a low income elderly or low income handicapped person as defined in the foregoing paragraph (B), the time for compliance shall be forty-eight (48) hours. The Commissioner of Public Works, or his/her designee may grant a waiver from the terms of this paragraph (D) to persons defined in paragraph (B) for good cause shown. This paragraph shall apply to snow and ice which falls from buildings, other structures, trees or bushes, as well as to that which falls from clouds. This paragraph shall not apply to owners or occupants of a building or lot covered by Section 26-8.

As I discussed previously, I had been concerned about adding another requirement when the city isn't enforcing an existing prohibition against putting snow on sidewalks, Section 26-9. But, the new ordinance will regulate conditions not conduct making it more easily enforced. Ironically, it may even create greater compliance with Section 26-9. So, now I'm an enthusiastic supporter.

There are a few issues with the ordinance language:

  • It's unclear whether a citizen is responsible for snow that ends up on the sidewalk as a result of city street plowing. Here's the applicability sentence: "This paragraph shall apply to snow and ice which falls from buildings, other structures, trees or bushes, as well as to that which falls from clouds." Is this meant to apply to snow that comes over the grass berm onto my sidewalk? It should.
  • It's also unclear whether this covers the apron from the sidewalk to the street at corners. Again, it should, though that would impose an extra burden on corner-lot owners given the high mounds the city leaves.
  • It really should cover the apron at the end of most people's walks, where homeowners are supposed to leave garbage cans and recycling. This might reduce the cans-on-top-of-snow-banks problem.
  • The ordinance should include a provision that allows the Commissioner of Public Works extend the period for snow clearing in exceptional circumstances. It needn't be in the ordinance, but the Commissioner of Public Works could communicate the extension on the city web page, reverse 911, and any other communications mechanisms that the city uses in the future.

Try to make the hearing. Or, communicate your support for the new ordinance by e-mailing members of the Public Safety and Transportation and Public Facilities committees. E-mail the clerks:

  • Shawna Sullivan (PS&T)
  • Christine Owen (Pub Fac)
  • Rosalie Myers (Pub Fac)

Ask the clerks to forward your message to the committee members.


Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Chicane cartoon

Want to understand how a chicane calms traffic?

From Streetsfilms.


Pushing people to the street

Last week's death of a Watertown man who was walking in the street in West Newton brings unfortunate urgency to the question of sidewalk clearing. While it may turn out that the man was walking in the street for reasons other than the sidewalks being impassible, it seems unlikely.

There are four reasons why a sidewalk might be impassible, and the city is currently responsible for three (arguably all four). It's important to note that, in any given block, any single one of these factors will send pedestrians into the street, even if a sidewalk is otherwise clear. It may not be the brightest decision, but people generally don't go into the street to avoid an impasse, then get back on the sidewalk. Once they are in the street, they stay in the street.

Here are the four reasons:

  • There are high mounds at the crosswalks/corners from city or city contractor snow plowing. This is not illegal, but section 26-8C does say that the city "shall endeavor to minimize the blocking of sidewalks and intersections with plowed snow."
  • There are high mounds besides driveways because residents or businesses violate ordinance 26-9, which prohibits placing snow on city roads or sidewalks.
  • A sidewalk in a business district is not cleared, in violation of ordinance 26-8, which requires that owners and residents within a business district clear snow from sidewalks.
  • A sidewalk not in a business district is not cleared. The city only clears 60 miles or so of sidewalks. And, there is no ordinance which currently requires sidewalk clearing, though such an ordinance is currently working its way through Public Safety & Transportation and Public Facilities.

We know that the city does not minimize the blocking of sidewalks with plowed snow. But, high mounds at corners are standard operating procedure, not the exception. Former DPW Commissioner Rooney once explained that it is much more costly to avoid putting snow on the corners. If that's so, the ordinance should be struck. Or, DPW should be funded to adhere to the ordinance. The city does remove some of the mounds on the routes handled by the city's sidewalk clearing machine.

Sidewalk clearing in business districts is, from my own observation, mixed at best. I do not know — and will inquire — how many citations the city issues, but I would bet it's none or very few.

Businesses and residents put snow on sidewalks all over the city. Last year, the city issued no citations for violations of Section 26-9. The stated reason for issuing no citations: the police can't issue a ticket unless they see a plow actually pushing snow onto the sidewalk. It seems obvious that if a driveway has been plowed and plow detritus is on the sidewalk, the detritus is the direct consequence of the plowing and a citation might properly issue. But, even if you accept the lame rationale, there's a very simple solution. Note a street that seems to have a high incidence of plowing and have an officer monitor the street during the next storm. As a plow operator leaves a job, give him a ticket if he's left snow on the sidewalk. Or at least a warning.

Sidewalks outside the business district will be residents' responsibility if a proposed ordinance is adopted. I've been reluctant to get too excited about a resident snow-clearing obligation because the city refuses to enforce existing ordinances, namely Section 26-9. But, it recently occurred to me that Section 26-9 and the resident snow-clearing obligation are different enough to reduce my concern.

Section 26-9 prohibits a conduct: putting snow on the sidewalk. The proposed ordinance will obligate people to cure a condition: the presence of snow on an abutting sidewalk. While lame, the we-didn't-see-it rationale for not enforcing Section 26-9 won't apply to the new ordinance. If there's snow on your sidewalk, you are in violation. In fact, the proposed ordinance would enhance Section 26-9 as a snow plow operator that puts snow from the driveway on the sidewalk increases the homeowner's burden.

It's time for the new ordinance, but it's only part of the solution. In response to the problem of the high cost of salt, the TAB quoted the mayor as saying "public safety comes first." I hope that means a look at the whole problem of sidewalk clearing: crosswalk mounds, enforcement of existing ordinances, expanding city clearing, and lobbying for a resident snow-clearing ordinance.


Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Snow capped cars

If you're going to buy and drive a tall vehicle — SUV or mini-van — can you also invest in a small step stool and a shop broom?

Then, clean the snow off the top of the tall thingy before you start out in the morning.

Riding down my street this morning, a minivan in the other lane hit a bump and a sheet of snow from the roof slid down and covered the windshield — with the minivan pointed right at me. The driver stopped short, sending the rest of the snow from the roof right into my path.

There's no law in Massachusetts requiring owners to clear their vehicles, but do we really need a law to use their cars and trucks in a thoughtful manner?


Sunday, January 13, 2008

Thaw surprise

Somebody seems to have taken advantage of the spring-like conditions to freshen up Newton Centre.

I counted over 35 new trees up and down both sides of Centre Street just north of Langley Street. This picture is looking north, with Centre Street to the right.

As best I can tell, they were planted in the last week or so. Some of the trees had little signs saying that they were donated by Newton Andover Theological School.


Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Meet the new boss

I think that it's good news that Alderman Stephen Linsky is going to be the chairman of the Public Safety and Transportation committee and, by extension, a member of Traffic Council. I would characterize him as one of the more pro-pedestrian and pro-bicycle aldermen we have, but not among the most vocally so.

He got a B from NS&S on his answer to the League of Women Voter's pedestrian and bicycle question — How would you encourage safe walking and bicycling in the city, especially during the winter? — mostly because his answer lacked the specifics that other alderman gave. Here's his answer in full:

PTOs at some elementary schools are now sponsoring initiatives to encourage safe walking to our schools, reversing the trend toward increased reliance on individual transportation. Not only does this help promote overall safety, but it also helps combat the rise of childhood obesity and reduce carbon emissions. Through participation with the Bicycle and Pedestrian Task Force, I hope to encourage safer biking and walking opportunities throughout the city, including and especially bike paths.

He strikes me as among the more thoughtful aldermen and not a big defender of the status quo. And, he's appeared at Bike and Pedestrian Task Force meetings!

Among Christine Samuelson's virtues as PS&T chairman and Traffic Council member were her strong technical grounding in traffic issues, her apparently good working relationship with the city Traffic Engineer and Transportation Planner, and her willingness to listen to community insight about the particulars of neighborhood traffic issues, although she could be a bit brusque to residents in meetings. (My read on her concern for the neighbors is not universally held.) I hope that Chairman Linsky follows former Alderman Sameulson's example in these regards, save for the brusqueness.



The northeast is a great place to ride year-round, provided you have the right gear for cold and wet. It was it's own kind of fun to ride when Neena's time and temperature sign showed 4 degrees last week.

But, it sure is nice to ride when it's warm enough for shorts.


Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Happy New Year, indeed

There's a proposal to make five miles of Storrow Drive car-free on Sundays.

A nice treat for 2008.