Tuesday, January 22, 2008

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.

1 comment:

andreae said...

Here's another reason a person might be diverted to the street:
someone has parked on the sidewalk.

I saw it (no kidding) today on Beacon Street in Newton Center (pickup truck, in front of Peet's--but the sidewalk also allowed pedestrians), but more commonly, someone who hasn't cleared the whole driveway (or has too many cars for the space, or has a sloped, icy drive) will park one or more of their cars/trucks on the sidewalk (top of the driveway). It's a particular problem on the ways to schools or transit.