The First Rule of Sidewalk Snow Plowing: We Don’t Talk About Sidewalk Snow Plowing!

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“Stop advocating for better snow plowing of sidewalk and bike infrastructure. It’s a game everyone plays and we’re never gonna win.”

This was advice from an urbanist I very much admire and still do. In context, she was talking about the fact that, come winter, many cyclist and pedestrian advocates sidestep attainable goals and turn into raging megaphones, lambasting cities and communities for plowing snow on roads while ignoring sidewalks. And to some extent, she was right… too often Urbanists get caught up in the tangles of snow removal from non-car infrastructure and lose sight of attainable goals and advances like transit efficiency, zoning reform, density advocacy and inclusive development. It’s ironic really, because maintaining safe and usable sidewalk and bike infrastructure is literally what connects these elements in a sustainable fashion.

I can confidently address winter walkability in recent evening in which I took the bus downtown and back. A recent ice storm led to slick conditions for my Western New York home of Rochester. In an effort to connect with some friends downtown, I traversed these conditions on a 0.2 mile walk to my nearest bus stop. The stop exists on a plot of grass approximately 100 feet from the adjacent sidewalk. As I stepped off the icy sidewalk onto the even icier “grass” I immediately began to slide. Down I went, sliding down the subtle incline with nothing to halt my descent. Realizing that I had no chance of making it back up the icy hill on two feet, I army-crawled my way to the bus stop sign, sliding back down a handful of times. The drivers and passengers on nearby Goodman Street laughed in delight, one even taking a photo with their camera phone while waiting for the light to change. Finally, I made it to the bus stop sign, to which I gripped with my life until my bus arrived.

Evidence of my fall and subsequent slide down the hill. This shot doesn’t capture the whole ordeal!

I exited the bus at East and Goodman, and began my nearly 1-mile walk to my final destination, but the chunks of ice that had been flung from the road days earlier made it extremely treacherous. Since it was still light out, I began walking against traffic in the shoulder of East Avenue. I’m a relatively able-bodied person and still made a judgment call that I would be safer walking on the perfectly dry road than I would the slippery, Martian-like terrain of the unrecognizable sidewalk.

The perfectly clear and dry road on the right and the hidden sidewalk covered with rocky chunks from the plows meant that walking in the road was a safer option.

After hanging out with some friends I headed home in the bus, only to disembark here…

Yes, that’s a sidewalk. After a few steps, I hit a patch of ice and bit it hard, landing flat on my back on top of one of those icy boulders. So I crossed the street, hoping for better luck on the side of the street without a sidewalk. And while there wasn’t so much icy debris from plowing the road, it was a bit slicker which forced me to hang on to the wrought iron fence (see above) for dear life.

Again… I’m an able-bodied 42-year-old man, and even for me, these sidewalks were dangerously impassable. If I had attempted the same journey as an elderly citizen or a person with mobility issues, I would likely have suffered a serious injury.

This is not to place blame on the City of Rochester, which goes beyond what most cities do, offering citywide sidewalk plowing service. But when road plows cast snow and ice from the street onto the sidewalks, the message is abundantly clear. We live in a world where sidewalks are treated as seasonal recreation rather than essential infrastructure. Where it is literally perilous to simply walk at the expense of maintaining the most expensive and exclusive form of mobility. Where even a trip to the bus stop is a test of one’s ability to navigate a hazardous terrain.

This is an indictment of the car-centric mindset in which the plowing of snow from roads leading to the impassability of sidewalks is justifiable. There will be no additional funding to counter this scenario because generations of Americans have been led to believe there is no other alternative, nor should there be.

I agree in part with my friend that most winter-bound urbanists tend to pivot from attainable goals to snow-pocalypic rants. But there is simply no ignoring the blatant and exclusive accommodation of the automobile to the absolute exclusion of the pedestrian, even in cities like Rochester that go the extra mile to plow their sidewalks. This is not a Rochester problem, it’s an American mindset, and one that represents the “let them eat cake” mentality with regard to pedestrian infrastructure that we have purposefully created over the last century.

I have little issue standing up and saying “this isn’t good enough.” Because when we stand up for walkability, everyone wins. When we accept the pristine clearing of roads to the exclusion of walkability, we negate the very core of equity, mobility choice and pedestrian freedom in our society.

We can do better. Let’s do better.