A pilot program to clear snow from sidewalks could show how to make Chicago more walkable in winter
Syracuse, Wilmette and Toronto are among the handful of municipalities that have started plowing public sidewalks. With some of the apocalyptic winters we’ve had, it doesn’t hurt to see if a similar program would bolster public safety.
Chicagoans take the winter, and the clearing of the powdery white landscape that usually accompanies the season, very seriously.
We look up for slabs of ice when we walk past downtown skyscrapers and argue every year about whether “dibs” — holding a shoveled-out parking spot with folding chairs, traffic cones and other objects — is ethical.
And it’s part of Chicago lore that Michael Bilandic’s loss to Jane Byrne in the Democratic mayoral primary of 1979 was largely blamed on his administration’s failure to adequately plow the streets during the infamous blizzard that year.
“If you want to keep leading the city,” every mayor elected since has likely reminded him or herself, “keep the snow and ice off the roads.”
The city may soon consider turning its snow removal responsibilities up a notch to include sidewalks if advocacy groups have their way, according to a recent Sun-Times story.
Ald. Gilbert Villegas (36th), who has been consulting with these organizations, said it’s time the city tests the waters on making it easier for pedestrians to navigate the sidewalks in the colder months. Such a service, he said, would be a godsend to the tens of thousands of senior citizens and the disabled, including the blind and the visually-impaired.
Villegas’ plans to propose a city sidewalk ice and snow cleaning pilot program are worth exploring — in part because of concerns that some property owners don’t carry out their responsibility to clear a path at least 5 feet wide on adjacent public sidewalks.
Syracuse, New York, the nearby North Shore suburb of Wilmette and Toronto, Canada — a city often compared to Chicago — are among the handful of municipalities that have started plowing public sidewalks. With some of the apocalyptic winters we’ve had in the past, it doesn’t hurt to see if a similar program would bolster public safety, particularly for those who need mobility help the most.
Questions to answer
The pilot in Chicago, which comes with a $750,000-price tag, could help officials determine if snow cleaning is needed for most of the city’s 7,400 miles of sidewalks or just for certain areas that are routinely neglected, which can easily happen if there is a cluster of vacant lots or abandoned buildings.
Villegas, who plans to introduce an ordinance next month, said details and guidelines, including the amount of snow that would have to accumulate before the city takes action, are still up in the air.
No doubt there will be questions, too, about how to limit any potential liability if residents slip and fall on city-plowed sidewalks.
As Villegas and the advocates for the disabled mull over their sidewalk snow removal proposal, they should also consider suggesting that any city pilot or program should be free of environmentally destructive gas-powered snow blowers.
No one expects city workers to tackle the sidewalks with just shovels. But if we’re going to explore how to assist residents and make Chicago a more walkable city, why not do so in a way that’s greener too, with less environmentally harmful electric snow blowers and electric sidewalk snow plows?
Be a good neighbor
Many officials in the cities and villages that already clear public sidewalks stress that their programs are supplemental. Residents in most cases are still expected to do their civic duty and clear up snow on their private property and on public sidewalks if a huge snowstorm keeps workers tied up elsewhere.
The same expectation should apply here in Chicago.
Currently in Chicago, property owners can face fines of $50 to $500 if they don’t clear the snow on public property near their condos or homes. Keep that in mind as winter approaches. Be a good neighbor. Keep shoveling and help your neighbors who can’t.
The city’s 311 operators, who field complaints about sidewalks covered in snow, should also take these calls seriously and work to connect residents with youth organizations and other nonprofits that deploy volunteer crews to help with snow removal.
Every year won’t necessarily bring a record-breaking blizzard, but snow will remain a constant in our city. Even with a sidewalk-clearing program, Chicagoans will continue to have a personal responsibility to clean off ice and snow, for those who need help as well as for ourselves, whether on cars or on walkways.
The city might pitch in more, but our goodwill toward others should keep snowballing.
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