Cold Comfort: Fines for Shoveling Scofflaws Went Up, But Not Enforcement

John Slivka2
A pedestrian walks in the street to avoid a snowy sidewalk near Harrison and Franklin. Photo: reader submission

[The Chicago Reader recently launched a new weekly transportation column written by Streetsblog Chicago editor John Greenfield. This partnership will allow Streetsblog to extend the reach of our livable streets advocacy. We’ll be syndicating a portion of the column on the day it comes out online; you can read the remainder on the Reader’s website or in print. The paper hits the streets on Thursdays.]

Despite the current deep-freeze, we’ve had a remarkably mild—some would say anemic—winter so far. (Thanks, climate change.) Still, there have already been a couple of nasty snow and sleet storms, and for days afterward, you didn’t have to look hard to find unshoveled sidewalks and impassible bike lanes.

Last week, for example, a stretch of the narrow sidewalk along North Avenue near Leavitt Street in Wicker Park was coated with crunchy snow and ice. That made it tough going for a father pushing his baby in a stroller.

While snowy and icy walkways are aggravating, they can also be a major barrier and hazard, especially for people with disabilities, seniors, and families with small children. Nearly 27 percent of patients admitted to three Buffalo, New York hospitals one winter were injured on icy surfaces, according to one study.

The city of Chicago is usually aggressive about fining people who don’t comply with local laws. So it’s a mystery why the Chicago Department of Transportation, which is responsible for enforcing the snow removal ordinance, doesn’t write more tickets to shoveling scofflaws.

Last winter, a challenging season that included our city’s fifth-heaviest recorded snowfall, CDOT wrote only 226 citations for failure to shovel. Meanwhile, Evanston, with about 1/36th the population of Chicago, issued 53 tickets for noncompliance, according to Evanston city staffer Carl Caneva. That’s more than eight times CDOT’s ticketing rate.

Moreover, Evanston has a very sensible approach to maintaining the public way. After issuing warnings to those who don’t shovel, the city hires a contractor to do the work. The offender is invoiced an average of $190 for the service, which becomes a $230 property lien if the bill isn’t paid. Other suburbs like Forest Park, Wilmette, Winnetka, and Glencoe clear all public sidewalks for residents.

A snowy sidewalk on North near Leavitt makes it challenging to push a stroller. Photo: Linsday Bayley

In Chicago, however, shoveling sidewalks for pedestrians continues to be a much lower priority for the city than plowing roadways for drivers. Ever since Michael Bilandic lost reelection following theGreat Blizzard of 1979, local mayors have generally been fastidious about keeping streets clear of snow, and the Department of Streets and Sanitation often salts the roads if there’s even a rumor of a storm.

City Hall did take a step in the right direction last fall by passing a new ordinance that hiked the fines for failure to shovel from the previous $25-$100 range to $50-$500. The law also clarifies that a five-foot-wide path must be cleared, and corner properties must clear the wheelchair ramps leading to crosswalks.

“For people who use wheelchairs or other assistive devices, winter can be a difficult time,” says Gary Arnold, a spokesman for Access Living, which advocates for people with disabilities in Chicago. “Curb cuts are often a problem area because accumulation from snow plows can wind up blocking them. We’re thrilled that the city is making an effort to address this.”

The new legislation also lays out the required timeframe for clearance: snow that falls between 7 AM and 7 PM must be cleared by 10 PM, while snow that falls overnight needs to be removed by 10 AM the next morning.

The ordinance also specifies that snow can’t be dumped in the street, including curbside protected bike lanes, which are useless when filled with slush or ice. In addition, it stipulates that shoveled snow may not block building entrances, bus stops, train stations, bike racks, or Divvy stations.

You might guess that all these new rules would lead to a blizzard of ticketing—but you’d be wrong. A CDOT summary of the ordinance prior to its passage stated, “There are no current plans to increase enforcement.”

Read the rest of the post on the Chicago Reader website.

  • Lisa Curcio

    If a law is enacted but not enforced, does it really exist . . . .?

  • johnaustingreenfield

    “Zen and the Art of Snow Clearance.”

  • Scheinfeld says “call 311” but does that actually *do* anything to eventually clear the sidewalks?

    Uncleared sidewalk is also not a part of open 311 in Chicago so it can’t be added to apps like SeeClickFix for easy reporting.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    CDOT has to resolve all 311 requests (believe me, I got hounded pretty hard about resolving 311 requests back when I was in charge of bike rack installation), so this will probably at least result in an inspector checking out the location and issuing a warning.

    There is a special 311 category for “Snow – uncleared sidewalk or bike lane,” so it seems like this should be part of open 311: If it’s not, we can probably count on Steven Vance to follow up with them on this!

  • Anne A

    This MUST be added to open 311 if it’s not already included.

  • forensicgarlic

    I filed out the online request for 3 scofflaws after the icy snow fall a few weeks ago. I just went to see what the status was, and the online site doesn’t support statusing snow shoveling 311 requests. boo.

  • High_n_Dry

    There must be a better approach to publicly (non-aggressively) shaming non-shovelers or at least encouraging shoveling. Signs that read “Can’t we all just shovel along!” “Where’s the shovel?!” “Your 70 shovels per year can help this young child…” maybe too far.

  • Wewilliewinkleman

    It took 10 weeks for the city to come unplug the storm sewer near my business. Water, when it would rain, would back up so bad that people getting off the bus stepped ankle deep into water that had gone over the curb.

  • High_n_Dry

    Evanston’s approach is sensible but that doesn’t sound easy (or cheap) for the City of Chicago to implement, mainly due to the land area required to oversee but this is why we 311, right?

    Maybe they have similar processes in place that can be easily replicated for sidewalk snow removal. If not, this sounds like another costly bureaucratic process added to an already ineffective city government. It could cost more to implement than the revenue brought in.

  • Thanks John. A pretty well-informed neighbor told me that it wasn’t yet on Open311 but maybe that’s changed since I asked.

    Good to know about 311 requests too! Guess we’ll just keep using that

  • Vic

    So when it snows during the day, my 87 year old dad needs to shovel it by 10 or he can get a ticket? And because he lives on a corner has to do the curb cuts too of risk a ticket? And when I come up first thing in the morning, being that I live 30 miles south, he worries all nite about fines? Not so fair. And you can’t always find someone to shovel it at 9 at nite either. Thank god the city diesnt stick you with a ticket.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    From the city’s snow shoveling info page:

    “Request a Snow Corp Volunteer

    Chicago Snow Corps is a program that connects volunteers with residents in need of snow removal – such as seniors and residents with disabilities.

    To request a volunteer to shovel your block in case of extreme snowfall, call 311. This is a volunteer-matching service. The City will do its best to match those who have requested assistance.

    Visit the City of Chicago Snow Corps website:

  • Sometimes they resolve them by marking them fixed with no comment (and no actual fix in reality). I had to report the same nonworking street lights every third day for two weeks in September to get anything done.

  • Jeff H

    This. It’s bad that it’s not there, it’s something that would potentially have a high volume of requests. And the online form is so cumbersome. It should be easy to snap a picture, add an address, and submit, with all other information being saved in the app. You don’t get the photographic proof when you call. The photo would also have the timedate stamp proving that the property owner was violating the ordinance.

  • Anne A

    For a long time, the city has tended to accumulate a backlog of blocked sewer requests. I gave up reporting them. I go out with a rake and shovel and unblock the one in front of my house when it gets clogged by leaves or debris.

  • Anne A

    Similar results near my place in recent months for both street light issues and pothole issues.

  • Kevin Mulcahy

    I was reporting a ton of non shoveled sidewalks in the 311 app (whatever it’s called) last winter. They would always languish for weeks until the next thaw and then they would magically all get resolved in bunches.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    See, problem solved! Just kidding, that’s a very lame way to resolve 311 requests for non-shoveled sidewalks.

  • Wewilliewinkleman

    In this case, the plug was underground. If it was as easy as cleaning the top of the drain, I have employees that could do that.

  • forensicgarlic

    I’m a volunteer with the Chicago Snow Corps. I’ve never gotten called to service.

  • forensicgarlic

    this is why I hate the city’s response to issues when they say “but we got hardly any complaints!” — it’s because complaints don’t do anything! why waste my time calling you when you won’t fix the problem?

  • High_n_Dry

    Same here. We probably need to sign up every year?

  • FG

    Does the city still require people to give their name to report shoveling scofflaws? I think that has been one of the biggest hindrances to enforcement.

    I know my neighborhood google group got people together to pressure the city (via the aldermen) to shovel approaches to metra stations (which is their responsibility).

    One caveat with Evanston: sidewalks are not universal and many residential blocks have chosen to not have them. Does the ordinance apply only to commercial sidewalks?

  • johnaustingreenfield

    Went you report a location to 311, your name is not shared with the scofflaw. The ordinance applies to all sidewalks, but the city says they’re writing 90 percent of the tickets for commercial and large multiunit properties.

  • neroden

    Oh come on: just do what Wilmette and Winnetka do and shovel the sidewalks as a city service. That’s what tax money is for, and surely there are people in Chicago who can use the work.

  • If you take the total tax revenues for Wilmette and divide it by the total area of sidewalks, you get a humongously larger number than you do for Chicago.

    Shoveling (or plowing, in neighborhoods with sidewalks wide enough to use a mini-bulldozer), is labor-intensive. Labor costs money. How much money do you think it would cost to hire people to a quick shovel (say, a 2″ fall that’s not too wet) of THE ENTIRE CITY OF CHICAGO? Probably more than the entire budget for the public school system (which we have not got, at the moment, but let’s say last year’s).

    It would be great as a job-creation scheme if we had any way at all to fund it.

    My dad likes to get smug at me about how in Skokie the streets and sidewalks are all clear within 6 hours of a fall, but (a) most of the residential neighborhoods in Skokie don’t HAVE sidewalks and (b) the tax-dollars-per-ground-area number is enormously huger.