Sidewalks are a tangible reminder that pedestrians are vulnerable in a match-up with a couple of tons of speeding steel, aka motor vehicle. It’s an awareness that makes sense, given that while people share a common denominator of legs, the default favors cars. During my morning post-blizzard walks, I realized that streets and sidewalks are a case study for separate and unequal.
Our local snow removal ordinance requires that property owners clear snow post-storm from sidewalks adjacent to their property within a designated time period, claiming a focus on safety and accessibility. Providing clear, safe roadways and pedestrian routes ensures access to jobs, schools and services in our walkable community. The snow removal ordinance helps ensure safe access for pedestrians and to make all transportation modes available as soon as possible after a snow storm.
At first glance, this supports the county’s claim as a premier walkable community. But, let’s dig into that a little bit. The underlying premise is that the immediate efforts of tax-paid machinery and manpower are directed at the road networks. The implied message is for the benefit of motor vehicles… After the storm, sidewalk clearing is delegated to home owners, with financial penalties for non-compliance. Sidewalk shoveling is a symbolic gesture, rather than practical or effective. Here is the reality.
Problem: non-contiguous sidewalk network. Unlike the streets, sidewalks may stop in the middle of the block or are completely missing on certain streets. With an inconsistent system of sidewalks, pedestrians have to use the streets for walking anyway. Also, sidewalks are a handy repository for snowplowed piles.
Problem: icy sidewalks While roads are crowned for drainage, sidewalks are generally horizontal or tilted slightly towards the street. When snow melts during the day, it puddles on the sidewalk. When temperatures drop below freezing at night, the sidewalk becomes a skating rink. My husband conducted first-hand research on the dangers of icy patches, resulting in a trip to the doctor and use of a cane.
Problem: transitions between sidewalks and street. The plowed snow has to go somewhere, so towering piles accumulate at intersections. While sidewalks might be cleared, the intersections may or may not be. With access to crosswalks obstructed, pedestrians are in an icy maze, backtracking to find a clear driveway, needing to scale the mounds or wandering in a hypothermic daze until a good Samaritan takes pity.
We want the roads plowed for emergency response, but I wonder how many of the 911 calls were as a result of drivers who ventured out in the storm ill-equipped, without taking precautions such as chains?
Laws often seem enacted to compensate for failures of common sense. You would think that people would analyze the conditions and stay off the roads, but, in the aftermath of storms, why not limit vehicle traffic, except for emergencies, transit or vehicles equipped with snow tires or chains. I recall driving during the winter in northern California where you had to stop and put chains on the wheels before heading over passes. One driver’s negligence could cascade into a bad day for many. Develop traffic laws, including reduced speed limits to make roads safe, even for those who are not car-encased, and ensure that users know that streets are intended for mixed use of vehicles and pedestrians.
As more people choose to get around by bike and on foot, we need to remember that streets belong to all of us. Unless a road is designated as high speed, limited access like an interstate highway, we are responsible for sharing roads with everyone else using them. It’s time to take back our streets.
© Joan S Grey, 29 Jan 2016