After a blizzard blows through Boston, you don’t walk the sidewalks. You traverse them. Snow and ice transform the city’s pedestrian spaces into obstacle courses that can feel like trails in the White Mountain National Forest. Often, you’ll start off ambling along thoroughly shoveled pavement, only to find your path blocked by snowdrifts that will permeate your footwear or a mountain of snow boulders created by plows at corner crosswalks. You shouldn’t need trekking poles and microspikes to make it to the bus stop or the pharmacy. But sometimes you do.
In Boston and other snowbound cities across the United States, property owners are responsible for removing all snow and ice from sidewalks adjacent to their homes or businesses. If you fail to remove the frozen detritus, you get fined. In theory, this is meant to incentivize citywide snow clearing. But some Bostonians choose the fine — which is $50 for a building with 16 or fewer units, $100 for a building with more than 16 units, and $200 for commercial property, regardless of whether it’s a repeat violation.
This ends up allowing sporadic pieces of sidewalk to become unusable for pedestrians — especially those with mobility limitations — while “no man’s land” spaces such as crosswalk entrances are often used as dump sites for snow cleared from the streets. Brandon Stanaway, who lives near Oak Square, has scaled these snow piles before. This past Sunday afternoon, he found himself pushing a stranger in a wheelchair through a stretch of snowy sidewalk. “He eventually had to use the road to continue,” Stanaway says. “That really upset me.”
The evidence is clear: Outsourcing sidewalk snow removal to homeowners and businesses isn’t getting the job done. So what if cities cleared the sidewalks themselves?
If you’ve ever poked around Montreal in winter, then you know what this looks like. The reliably shoveled and thawed sidewalks in Mile End and the Quartier Latin are the result of citywide snow clearing handled by municipal workers. Residents are responsible for shoveling their walkways and exterior stairs, but the city handles the rest, just as it does the roads. The same arrangement yields consistent winter sidewalk conditions in Ottawa, Winnipeg, Halifax, and Prince George, British Columbia. And now, a handful of American cities are experimenting with municipal programs for clearing their own sidewalks.
In Rochester, N.Y., when it snows four inches or more, the city will plow all the sidewalks. Syracuse recently prioritized 100 miles of high-volume sidewalk for clearing after storms. Minneapolis has adopted a hybrid approach wherein the city clears any sidewalks that property owners haven’t shoveled first. The delinquent property owner is then billed by the city. It’s not the most efficient process. The city issues warnings before taking matters into its own hands. But this policy still signals a shift in how cities are thinking about keeping pedestrian spaces open during the winter.
City councilor Kenzie Bok wants Boston to be the next US city to adopt a more proactive policy for keeping the sidewalks free of snow and ice. In March 2021, Bok hosted a hearing to discuss what a supplemental sidewalk clearing program might look like in Boston. The chief operating officer of Syracuse was a guest speaker, along with representatives of Boston’s Public Works department. Bok says the Public Works representatives “were basically there to explain how taking on something like what Syracuse has been doing would be an enormous expansion of their mission and would require more resources than they currently have.” Shortly after the hearing, Bok and her staff initiated talks with Public Works to figure out what equipment would be needed to remove snow from sidewalks and to see if these resources could be procured for an informal pilot program.
By November, Public Works was able to persuade its plowing contractors to bring along some Bobcat and Skid-Steer loaders that could remove snow from pedestrian ramps and crosswalks in high-foot-traffic areas throughout Boston. The power loaders were deployed for this purpose on Jan. 7 and following last weekend’s blizzard. “It was a behind-the-scenes partnership,” Bok says, but it could become a lasting one. Bok has ordered another hearing to discuss the possibility of an official permanent solution for plowing Boston’s pedestrian spaces.
But in the meantime, Bostonians will have to continue treading gingerly across snowy sidewalks.
People in Boston cultivate a special kind of grittiness to help them get through the freezing winds or the long nights spent digging out cars or walkways. Winter always sucks, the common thinking goes. So let’s suck it up and deal. It’s an understandable coping mechanism for a gloomy season, but the way it’s been isn’t how it always has to be.
While Boston has codified standards for what constitutes a safe sidewalk, the ground reality for pedestrians is a patchwork of dutiful snow removal mixed with zones of snow neglect and outright snow dumpage. It’s what happens when you try to address a structural problem with policy that relies on people being responsible and doing the right thing. These last two years of pandemic misery have shown that this individualistic approach to public safety gets us only so far.
As a Bostonian, I’ve shoveled “my” sidewalk while wishing frozen pipes upon the neighbors who neglect “their” piece of pavement. But I’m tired of passively stewing in resentment when people like my neighbors don’t rise to the occasion. It would be much more satisfying and rewarding to see the City of Boston grab some shovels and help pedestrians dig their way out of the problem.
Miles Howard is a journalist in Boston. Follow him on Twitter @milesperhoward.