Better Streets Chicago calls on the city to develop a plan for municipal sidewalk snow removal

Snowy sidewalks by the Morse 'L' stop. Photo: Jeff Zoline
Snowy sidewalks by the Morse 'L' stop. Photo: Jeff Zoline

Ever since Mayor Michael Bilandic lost reelection to Jane Byrne after the great blizzard of 1979 paralyzed Chicago, city officials have been highly methodical about getting main streets plowed for drivers in a timely manner. However, sidewalk clearance is something of a free-for-all, with property owners technically required to clear adjacent walkways, but little actual enforcement of that law.

The result is that during snowy weather like we’re experiencing this week, the sidewalks become an obstacle course for pedestrians. Many seniors and people with disabilities find it unsafe or impossible to leave the house at all under these conditions. Snow and ice on sidewalks also cause problems for families with strollers or young children, and create barriers for people catching buses.

Photo: John Greenfield
Photo: John Greenfield

The transportation advocacy group Better Streets Chicago, which formed last year (Streetsblog Chicago co-editor Courtney Cobbs is a founding member) is trying to change that dynamic. They’ve launched a new campaign and petition to exhort the city of Chicago to take charge of winter sidewalk clearance.

“The reality of how we clear snow in our city tells a story about our priorities that’s all too familiar,” the group stated. “One block [of sidewalk] might be clear, the next covered in snow and ice. Mounds of snow get piled up at bus stops blocking access for transit users. Crosswalks get plowed in under piles of snow and slush. The public has few options to remedy the issue, and city departments play the blame game.”

Better Streets argues that the lack of effective municipal sidewalk clearance is not an issue of excessive snow or lack of funding. “The city has found the money to clear roadways for car users. It is a problem of priorities and policy. The city has chosen not to take responsibility for public infrastructure during the winter.”

The group is calling on the city of Chicago to level the playing field for residents who drive and those who don’t by developing a plan for municipal sidewalk clearance by next winter. They’re asking city departments to do the following.

  • Get input from residents most likely to benefit from this service such as seniors, people with disabilities, transit riders, and people in in lower-income neighborhoods and communities of color.
  • Do a survey about what types of snow removal services practices would like to see the city manage as a public service.
  • Conduct a study of costs and best practices to determine the best way of bankrolling and implementing this program.

Better Streets notes that having the municipal government take charge of sidewalk clearance is nothing new in North America some examples from other cities:

  • Rochester, NY, clears all city sidewalks when there are 4 inches or more of snow.
  • Denver, which has plows that fit sidewalks and bike lanes.
  • Minneapolis is currently studying municipal sidewalk snow removal.
  • Toronto and Montreal both clear snow from sidewalks as a municipal service.

Closer to home, 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. As of early 2016, the offender was 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.

“It is time for the city of Chicago to stop shirking its responsibility to those who do not drive and begin clearing public sidewalks,” Better Streets declared. The group has launched a petition demanding that the city prepare a plan and allocate the resources to make municipal sidewalk snow clearance happen by next winter. So far they’ve collected almost 1,250 signatures. Sign the petition here.