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Plow the Sidewalks

Great news! Plow the Sidewalks pilot program ordinance passed in City Council today

It may be late July, but it's a good time to think about how snowy weather in Chicago will likely become a lot more manageable for many people with disabilities, seniors, and families with small children.

Ordinance sponsor Ald. Gilbert Villegas (36th) at this morning’s Plow the Sidewalks press conference at City Hall. Photo: Better Streets Chicago

Update 7/19/23, 4:45 PM: Better Streets Chicago provided the following statement after today's vote. "We’re so thrilled at the passage of the ‘Chicago Plow The Sidewalks Pilot Program’ ordinance! This is no happenstance – this is the result of years of sacrifice and commitment from organizers committed to ensuring that Chicago becomes the beacon of accessible mobility that it should be. We’re so grateful for the tremendous leadership of Ald. Gilbert Villegas, for believing in us, and believing in this vision. We’re also so thankful for the collaboration of Committee on Pedestrian and Traffic Safety Chairman Daniel La Spata and Mayor Brandon Johnson, coming alongside us to get this ordinance over the finish line. The work is far from over – but today we can celebrate knowing we’re so much closer to plowing the sidewalks.”

This piece includes previous reporting by Steven Vance.

It may be late July and 80 degrees in Chicago, but it's still a good time to think about how our city's snowy weather will likely become a lot more manageable for many people with disabilities, seniors, and families with small children.

At today's City Council meeting, a vast majority of alderpersons passed an ordinance sponsored by Ald. Gilbert Villegas (36th) launching a "Plow The Sidewalks" pilot program where city workers would remove snow and ice from sidewalks in six pilot zones. The current legislation was introduced to the Council on May 24 of this year, with Mayor Brandon Johnson plus 23 other alders serving as cosponsors.

At today's meeting the vote was 49 to one. The sole opponent was Ald. Anthony Beale (9th.)

"Today, we’ve taking a huge step forward in making Chicago a fairer, more accessible city for everyone," tweeted the grassroots transportation advocacy group Better Streets Chicago, a key proponent of the ordinance, after the vote. The disability rights group Access Living was also a crucial promoter of the legislation.

The ordinance requires that the Chicago Department of Streets & Sanitation create rules that would choose the six zones (drawn according to criteria in the ordinance) and specify standards for streets and san workers clearing snow and ice from sidewalks and sidewalk ramps.

"This ordinance will establish a working group appointed by the chair of the Committee on Pedestrian and Traffic Safety [Ald. Daniel La Spata (1st)] consisting of city staff from various relevant departments to develop a plan for a pilot," Better Streets cofounder Kyle Lucas told Streetsblog. "This plan will then be presented back to City Council for approval in May of 2024."

Photo: John Greenfield

The proponents held a press conference at City Hall today before the Council meeting. According to Lucas, the event was also attended by representatives from AARP Illinois, Active Transportation Alliance, Elevated Chicago, Equiticity, Metropolitan Planning Council, plus Villegas and many of the co-sponsors.

"Everyone deserves the ability to get around our city during the winter, but the city’s current policy of leaving sidewalk snow and ice removal up to property owners has instead left people trapped or at risk of injury for over 150 years," Lucas said at the press event. "Cities across North America – from Toronto to Syracuse, to [Chicago suburb] Forest Park – have demonstrated that a different reality is possible, if only we were to plow the sidewalks. With the Chicago Plow The Sidewalks ordinance, Chicago has the opportunity to become a global leader in accessible mobility, enabling all Chicagoans to get around no matter the weather."

“Every winter people with disabilities lose their ability to fully access the community, to participate in society due to uncleared snow and ice throughout the city," Access Living transportation policy analyst Laura Saltzman said at the presser. "Plow the Sidewalks would help to restore that access, allowing disabled residents and tourists alike to use portions of Chicago that become lost whenever obstructed sidewalks are ignored or improperly cleared during the winter season. Access for disabled people creates access for everyone, and Access Living supports this endeavor in ensuring people with disabilities can continue to live independently year-round."

Plow the Sidewalks co-sponsor Ald. Andre Vasquez (40th), was one of multiple Council members who discussed the advantages of the ordinance while voicing support for a resolution that passed in honor of Disability Pride Month prior to the PTS vote. He said Plow the Sidewalks would help "make our city one that is truly open and accommodating for all of our neighbors."

Just before the Plow the Sidewalks vote, Pedestrian and Traffic Safety chair La Spata told his fellow Council members that the ordinance is equitable and practical. "In the ordinance is built-in equity. We need to use specific data and data points related to equity to determine where the pilot zones are going to be for this ordinance. The question was asked, have we talked to [Streets & San commissioner Cole] Stallard recently. Frequently and consistently in the development of this ordinance... [Stallard] said, '20 years ago when we were doing blue bags for cans and tins and bottles, if you were saying... we were going to have a blue cart behind every residence collecting recycling,' he would have said that's impossible... And now that is what we do."

"I only say that to say that the people in charge in developing this pilot have experience in the impossible," La Spata added. "All of this though is solely to have a series of conversations to develop a pilot that will then be brought back to you next spring."

"This initiative is bold but this is what leaders do," sponsor Villegas tweeted after the legislation passed. "I have confidence in our city."

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