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Large buildings have no excuse for not shoveling

Property owners in DC, as in most other cities, are legally required to clear sidewalks adjacent to their property.

Most jurisdictions can't issue more than a small fine and rarely do, however, and legal liability is questionable. But icy sidewalks are a problem.

Greater Greater Wife, who as I've noted before is recovering from knee injuries, has lost much of her mobility because many sidewalks are too difficult to walk on. She's had to start taking taxis instead of the Metro.

Some homeowners are out of town and some can't shovel because of age or disability, but at the very least, the larger apartment buildings have no excuse. Most did a great job; some of the clearest sidewalks were outside big buildings, like the Cairo. But just to its east, the building at the northwest corner of 16th and Q hadn't shoveled. They have a very long façade on Q Street, leaving a huge expanse of sidewalk unshoveled. That made reaching the gym at the JCC very tricky for her.

They did seem to have the energy to clear their circular driveway nicely, however. Reg Bazile shared a picture of Paul's Liquor Store on Wisconsin Avenue in Friendship Heights, which also managed to clear their driveway but not their sidewalk.

For an individual house, there's a clear onus on the homeowner to shovel; I couldn't hope someone else was going to do our sidewalk. But for big buildings, especially rental buildings, the management company might not be interested in spending money to clear sidewalks and benefit from a little nudge.

Reader JohnMatthew had a similar problem. Yesterday, his 80 bus to the Kennedy Center stopped at 20th and Virginia. But he and some less mobile riders couldn't get there. He wrote, "There wasn't a plowed sidewalk within one block, so I, and two others with walkers, walked on a narrow (halfway plowed) street to the sidewalk. Ultimately, I couldn't get to work, because not enough sidewalks were plowed."

What do you think we should do? Should jurisdictions get more active about fining property owners, starting with the bigger buildings and businesses? Commenters debated throughout the day on yesterday's Breakfast Links about whether cities should require residents to clear sidewalks, or should tax people and handle it as a municipal service, like road plowing.

David Alpert is the founder of Greater Greater Washington and its board president. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He now lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. 


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How about requiring it but offering a public option?

by Omri on Dec 22, 2009 10:14 am • linkreport

Kudos to the National Gallery of Art and the Archives. When I was down there on Saturday, they each had several plow-equipped lawn tractors and bobcats clearing the sidewalks. Pretty impressive.

by Eric F. on Dec 22, 2009 10:14 am • linkreport

Fine the owners a substantial amount per foot of unshoveled sidewalk, and then have the government entity in charge clear the sidewalk, and bill the owner a substantial amount per foot cleared. I would say at least $100 per foot.

And when snow is plowed, the city, county or whatever should make sure crosswalks and bus stops are clear. Having a clear sidewalk is useless if there is 3 or 4 feet of snow that keeps you from crossing the street.

by KenF on Dec 22, 2009 10:20 am • linkreport

I'd put together some shoveling teams employed by the city and set them to work on all the buildings that haven't shoveled their walks within 24 hours of a storm. Pay each person shoveling a good rate of $20-$30/hour and charge each building for the labor it takes to clear their walk, plus a fine.

by Mark on Dec 22, 2009 10:23 am • linkreport

I think that handing all responsibility for sidewalk shoveling to local governments might be the answer. Local governments are responsible for clearing road infrastructure, so why not sidewalks? I know, property owners own sidewalks. But beyond the ownership, sidewalks are analogous to roads. In fact, they're even more communal than roads, because you don't need a license, vehicle and such to use them.

They're public assets, so why rely on private people/entities for their upkeep?

by Tim on Dec 22, 2009 10:33 am • linkreport

Property owners frequently don't own the sidewalks, especially in DC, where the property lines tend to be set back pretty far from the curb.

by Eric F. on Dec 22, 2009 10:36 am • linkreport

Coming from places where there weather is usually the weather, and not the entire newscast, this behavior steams me. Fine the culprits, yes, but get the local news channels to stop urging people not!to!go!outside!under!any!circumstances! Instead, they should tell people to get out, walk around, shovel your walk, the neighbors' walk, clear the fire hydrant and the bus stop, pick up the dog poop. No body gets a newspaper or US mail when the walks are dangerous. Newscasters, use your power!

by Lisa Swanson on Dec 22, 2009 10:37 am • linkreport

Home owners should be held responsible for clearing the sidewalk or fined. But limit the fines to SF bulidings and increase them for multiple unit buldings, begining at 4 maybe? I say this b/c really, are you going to exorbitantly fine the old man/lady/person in wheel chair/on crutches/etc. in the SF house for not shoveling? Those big apts/condo buildings though should be punished so the motivation to clear the snow is acute next time.

I too grew up in the upper great lakes region (Michigan) and lived in Chicago and one difference I've noticed here is the lack of wandering entrpenurial snow shovelers. In both of those places there were people (kids and adults) knocking on your door offering to shovel for a price or with a pick-up with a plow attached offering to clear the driveway (or the pile the city plow left in front of your driveway). Where are all the wandering snow shoverlers?

Also, I'm reminded of that old 'Homocide Life on the Streets' episode where someone shoots someone else b/c he parked in the spot person A shoveled.

by Bianchi on Dec 22, 2009 10:40 am • linkreport

If the public owns the sidewalk, the public should be responsible for clearing the snow. By which I mean anyone else but me.

by monkeyrotica on Dec 22, 2009 10:41 am • linkreport

There is especially no excuse when there were litterally parades of young men with shovels walking around the last few days trying to make a buck. These buildings should have enough on hand to shell out 100 bucks to get shoveled out.

by John on Dec 22, 2009 10:44 am • linkreport

diddo what Lisa Swanson said. Didn't even think of the fire hydrant. I'll go uncover mine when I get home. Really it hasn't even been that cold. She's absolutley right the public message should be "get out and shovel and help those who need it to shovel". And clear the fire hydrant!

by Bianchi on Dec 22, 2009 10:45 am • linkreport

I walk 2.5 miles to work from Columbia Heights to Georgetown each day and agree with the general zeitgeist of your post, but based on my limited commute area, the worst areas are sidewalks managed by our local jurisdictions themselves (NPS, GoDC). And I mean places where the accompanying property does not have a structure. None of these have been shoveled. Almost all of the 'reservations' in DC remain almost impassable, the P St. bridge sidewalks are a danger to the inhabitants of the city, and certain pedestrian islands in the middle of busy streets are plowed under and not only stop functioning as safe havens but force pedestrians to walk around them.

by Justin M on Dec 22, 2009 10:45 am • linkreport

The reasons that cities require residents to clear their own sidewalks are threefold:

1. The time and expense required for the city to clear them would be astronomical, much more than clearing roads with plows. Think about how much faster a plow can move (with one person driving) than a person can walking with a snowblower. Also all those sidewalk clearers would have to actually get to work in the first place - not easy.

2. The burden put on each individual homeowner to clear their own space is small, and you mobilize a much larger workforce than you could if the city employed people. Each sidewalk clearer is already at their workplace (see #1). For those who can't do it themselves (elderly/disabled) in other cities neighbors do their part, or enterprising kids walk around ringing doorbells and shoveling for $10-20.

3. It's not as vital for sidewalks to be completely cleared as for roads to be. A snowy sidewalk can still be used by most people (though it will create problems for people with limited mobility). A completely snowed-in road presents problems for the majority. Combined with #1 and #2 it seems to make sense just to have people shovel their own walks.

by MLD on Dec 22, 2009 10:47 am • linkreport

There is no excuse for not clearing your sidewalk. If you are too old or infirm, pay a kid to do it. It is your civic responsibility.

The beautiful sense of community that develops when you live in a walkable/livable community such as DC should provide a number of willing volunteers help clear a disabled neighbors sidewalk. I sure that if you ask around, someone would step up.

Out in exurbia, I, cleared the sidewalks of my two adjacent neighbors just because I was already dressed and had shovel in hand. I have never spoken to them, which is the practice in a car-centric environment, but I knew they would appreciate it. So I did it.

I'm sure I'm not unique. The city probably produce many eager volunteers.

by Tom on Dec 22, 2009 10:48 am • linkreport

With the city apparently unable to shovel the sidewalks in front of its own property (I'm looking at you, DPR--P Street in front of Stead Park was still unshoveled as of yesterday afternoon), I can't imagine they'd be interested in taking care of it for the rest of us.

Also, a big thumbs down to Kelsey Temple Church of God on the 1400 block of Park Rd NW, who hadn't shoveled as of Sunday afternoon.

by John on Dec 22, 2009 10:48 am • linkreport

@ John. I'm glad to know the shovelling entrepuniers were out. I didn't see any. Yes, those big buildings have absolutely no excuse.

by Bianchi on Dec 22, 2009 10:48 am • linkreport

Glad you made it to the gym though. Our maintenance guys worked hard to get the DCJCC sidewalk cleared. (They also worked hard to get here so we could open the building on Sunday and again on Monday).

by CPO on Dec 22, 2009 10:50 am • linkreport

@ John again. No you're not alone. I shovelled out my neighbors' car who have a toddler and an infant. I thought they might run out of diapers eww, or need to go to the pharmacy. While out there I met one of my other neighbors for the 1st time. He was doing the walk of yet another neighbor who is elderly. Concurrently my SO had gone to shovel the bike path to the metro.

by Bianchi on Dec 22, 2009 10:56 am • linkreport

above note meant for Tom.

by Bianchi on Dec 22, 2009 10:57 am • linkreport

Certainly the city should be fining both institutional buildings and individual homeowners for failing to shovel. I'd like to note that all the large buildings in my neighborhood (Woodley Park) seem to have shoveled, with the one I live in having done a particularly excellent job. The building staff must have salted well because the sidewalks were totally free of snow and ice on Sunday morning. I view this as a service I'm paying for as part of my rent.

by Josh B on Dec 22, 2009 11:07 am • linkreport

Given that DC and the NPS already can't keep up with the work needed to clear sidewalks and roads around public buildings and property doesn't leave me with much hope that they would do a better job clearing the countless miles of sidewalk in this town. In fact, I was able to use the sidewalks in my neighborhood before the roads were clear; I don't think that would have been possible if residents waited for DDOT or DPW to come by.

Solution: Better enforcement of the laws we already have. There's no need to add extra bureaucracy by tailoring fines to the length of the sidewalk or the number of units in a building... that's just preposterous. If better enforcement doesn't help the situation, then perhaps we can talk about raising fines.

by Adam L on Dec 22, 2009 11:11 am • linkreport

>>"Fine the owners a substantial amount per foot of unshoveled sidewalk, and then have the government entity in charge clear the sidewalk, and bill the owner a substantial amount per foot cleared. I would say at least $100 per foot."

So if I'm out of town when a blizzard hits I'm going to come home to a $2800 fine?

There are clearly some people on this site who think bigger government is the answer to everything. The city government shoveling all walks? So we're going to drastically increase the city payroll or contract obligations for a once every 4-5 year snow event?

File me under the camp that snow just sucks and people gotta deal. Sometimes when stuff that sucks happens you're going to be affected. It's not government's responsibility to make sure your never inconvenienced. Be prepared. This is why so many people go to the grocery store because in the aftermath when it may not be easy to make grocery runs or perform other errands.

by Jason on Dec 22, 2009 11:53 am • linkreport

"So if I'm out of town when a blizzard hits I'm going to come home to a $2800 fine?"

Make arrangements with your neighbors before you leave. You seem to have no idea that you live in a community; you can't just vanish and your responsibilities disappear.

by Scott F on Dec 22, 2009 12:05 pm • linkreport


Amen. The problems caused by snow do suck and government shouldn't be the solution to all our problems; clearing your walkway is, as others have said, a civic responsibility. However, like other civic responsibilities (e.g. jury duty), at the end of the day there needs to be some enforcement mechanism to enforce compliance. There's a solution in the middle.

by Adam L on Dec 22, 2009 12:08 pm • linkreport

@MLD: Economies of scale would make it such that having a dedicated team to clear all the sidewalks in a jurisdiction would require fewer people, less time and ultimately less money than individual property owners doing it themselves (the money part is under the assumption that you commodify the time and labor that you spend clearing your own sidewalk).

A major example of this is snowblowers. I can't really give you anything near actual numbers, but I'd argue that there are easily more property owners who don't have snowblowers than those who do. So the ones who don't use shovels. If government employees were responsible, they would most definitely invest in snowblowers, which would save loads of time and labor compared to shoveling.

As for #3, it is definitely at least as vital for sidewalks to be clear as it is for roads, if not moreso. Sidewalks are a vital part of transportation infrastructure. People use them to get to work, to get to grocery stores, to visit friends and family, to shop, all kinds of things. Even if people have cars, the chances that they'd have to walk on a sidewalk to get to the car are pretty big. A snowy sidewalk can NOT be used by most people. That's the whole point of this post. How do you go about arguing that?

But furthermore, this post isn't about prioritizing sidewalk clearing over road clearing (or at least that's not how I see it). It's recognizing the fact that sidewalk clearing is important, and the government ought to have some increased role in making sure it happens, be it through increased enforcement, increased fines or even doing it themselves.

by Tim on Dec 22, 2009 12:11 pm • linkreport

Yes, Jason, be prepared: if there is going to be a blizzard, or in the case that it may snow during your winter vacation, or just as a matter of course, make plans for a neighbor or shoveling service to take care of your sidewalk. If someone falls on or is injured because of your property while you're away, you're still liable. Be prepared and take responsibility

by er on Dec 22, 2009 12:14 pm • linkreport

@Jason: I'm sorry you're out of town, but a few thousand people need to get to work, and it's extremely difficult when there's a 28-foot stretch with two-foot-deep snow.

Governments already have payroll obligations or contracts for road plowing. Both road plowing and sidewalk shoveling need to happen when it snows, which is, as you say, every 4-5 years. So I could make the same argument about road plowing; why bother if it's only needed every 4-5 years?

by Tim on Dec 22, 2009 12:19 pm • linkreport

what bothers me the most are these large government buildings that are not far from Metro- and have substantial numbers of employees that take transit- and yet they have not cleared all of the walks and crossings- possibly this is an oversite due to the fact that so many gov't employees drive to work that they see no reason to cater to employees who walk or take Metro and walk from the stations. This is a hazard and it is unexcusable. I have seen this today on my walk to work here in DC.

by w on Dec 22, 2009 12:20 pm • linkreport

I grew up in one of the snowier regions of the country, and I always saw shoveling snow as a quite strenuous, yet very enjoyable and rewarding form of exercise. And I made a lot of spending cash as a teenager, clearing the sidewalks for elderly residents in my neighborhood.

by Ron on Dec 22, 2009 12:24 pm • linkreport

+1 for Jason.

So people now need to make plans with their neighbors to shovel their sidewalks if they're out of town? Seriously?

Or maybe the solution is for government to hire several thousand new employees to shovel snow for the once-in-a-blue-moon blizzard? Which means union wages for those employees. And a huge price tag which will be passed on to DC taxpayers via increased taxes or cuts in other services (but don't you dare cut any pedestrian/bike-centric programs! or social services! or education! or parks! or [fill in the blank with personal favorite sacred cow]!).

What delusional world do some of you people live in?

Yes it's the law the property owners clear their sidewalks. And yes you have some that simply fail to do it, either because they're old, sick, out of town, don't have shovels, are lazy, don't care, etc. And yes, large apartment buildings should have their sidewalks and driveways cleared. And some don't for the same reasons homeowners don't. Life isn't fair. Snow sucks. Icy sidewalks suck. People have somehow managed to deal with it for several generations without the need for creating a new class of government employee to shovel the sidewalk.

And one additional thing while I'm on my soapbox: some of the icy sidewalks simply can't be cleared because the snow has been packed so densely underneath. The only way to remove it is with a pick and lots of back-breaking work. If some of those complaining about how anti-pedestrian-centric it is to have icy sidewalks want to volunteer a few hours to help chop and shovel icy sidewalks, then by all means ring the owner's doorbell and offer your services.

Or maybe this is just another facet of the car-centric conspiracy that has tentacles everywhere - the government, the newsmedia, and now - even property owners!

by Fritz on Dec 22, 2009 12:29 pm • linkreport

"Yes, Jason, be prepared: if there is going to be a blizzard, or in the case that it may snow during your winter vacation, or just as a matter of course, make plans for a neighbor or shoveling service to take care of your sidewalk. If someone falls on or is injured because of your property while you're away, you're still liable. Be prepared and take responsibility"

By making the fine $2800 in this case you've effectively made it so high I cannot simply have a handshake agreement with a neighbor. At those stakes I would need a written contract because I don't have $2800 to piss away if the neighbor doesn't live up to his word. That's what you guys want? That's community? Hell, why stop at $2800 - why not put me in jail for 6 months too.

A $250 fine is more than ample to get the point across without crippling people's finances.

by Jason on Dec 22, 2009 12:34 pm • linkreport

I'm of the opinion that cities should give homeowners, condo associations, or building management companies a 24 hr period after the snow has stopped to clear their sidewalks. If they fail to do so within this allotted time, cleaar the sidewalks for them and send them a bill. Do *not* call it a fine, as that would lead to exceedingly negative reactions in the press. Instead, play it off as an avoidable service fee that helps enhance safety & mobility within the community. The service fee (not fine) should be adjustable according to the length of sidewalk adjacent to the property.

by Aaron on Dec 22, 2009 12:37 pm • linkreport

@Aaron: An avoidable service fee? Seriously? How Orwellian!

But you still run into a basic problem - who's going to clear the snow? Simply saying "the city" isn't the final answer. Because the city needs employees - temporary or permanent - for the job.

So do you hire a bunch of temp employees and pay them at union wages? Should they just be on standby in case the once-every-few-years blizzard strikes?

Or do you use city employees to shovel hundreds of miles of sidewalks that aren't cleared? In which case you have to pay them OT, and potentially risk a union grievance if the employee contracts don't specify that the employee may be called to shovel snow during blizzards?

And when you fine the home owner...pardon me, I meant to say "when you charge the homeowner an avoidable service you charge him/her with a set fee of $250/$500/$1,000/whatever? Or do you charge him/her the full cost of what it cost the city to hire people, buy equipment, and transport workers to the sidewalk and shovel it, in which case you could quickly run into the hundreds or thousands of dollars depending on the length of sidewalk or location of the offending sidewalk?

Rather than coming up with a new bureaucracy (the Department of Snowpocalypse Employment Services), how about this crazy idea: shovel your sidewalk and if you don't, you run the risk of a fine by the city, or the lawsuit of someone who slips and falls? It has a certain je ne sais quoi to its simplicity.

by Fritz on Dec 22, 2009 12:58 pm • linkreport

Yes, some people are too old. Or infirm. Or whatever. But I bet most unshoveled sidewalks are the result of lazy/inconsiderate/selfish owners/residents. I know that that is the case on my block. As for the sidewalk becoming a block of ice -- that only happens when you don't shovel! If you shovel in the first place, the snow never gets packed down and icy. I shoveled my sidewalk, my two neigbhbors sidewalks and the crosswalk in front of my house. It took about 30 minutes, maybe less. We are not talking about a major effort or time commitment!

Let me take this opportunity to publicly call out the owners of 1740 Potomac Avenue SE and 1847 Mass Ave SE. In the case of the latter, an apartment building apparently owned/managed by a lazy/cheap/indifferent/moronic incompetent (add your own adjective) company/staff/slumlord, the result is that people walking to Stadium/Armory Metro have to walk on a very busy 19th Street. Walking on the other side of 19th street is not an option because the owner of that property, the DC Department of Corrections, has also failed to clear their sidewalk. (They did a wonderful job of clearing their employee driveway and parking lot, though.) I am thinking of contacting my Councilmember to see who I send the fine to. The Director of the Department of Corrections? The Mayor?

by rg on Dec 22, 2009 1:29 pm • linkreport

You know what? We're in a budget crisis. Let's save tax dollars.

Since we already require residents to shovel the public right-of-way for pedestrains in front of their properties, lets require them to shovel the street too.

Property owners would be required to clear the street and parking strip in front of their house to the center line, in addition to the sidewalk, of course.

With the money we use for plowing now, we could provide free shovels to people who need them.

by Matt Johnson on Dec 22, 2009 1:41 pm • linkreport

I posted this in another thread, but it fits better here.

Is there a way to report uncleared sidewalks to the city? I would assume that if a large property owner still has not cleared their sidewalk (as is the case with the NRSC's corner property at 2nd and E NE), the city ought to fine them. (They have, of course, cleared the driveway to their underground garage, and probably cannot understand why anyone would be using these old-fashioned sidewalks. A quick look at their homepage even brings up a link to an op-ed on safe holiday driving!)

by Matthias on Dec 22, 2009 1:51 pm • linkreport

@Matt Johnson:

We should probably also mandate the cyclists be required to clear the dedicated bike lanes, since they're the only ones who use it.

And, we may want to consider requiring pedestrians to shovel their own paths along sidewalks, so that they carry their own weight.

After all, we're in a budget crisis (but don't you dare touch any pedestrian/bike-centric programs!).

by Fritz on Dec 22, 2009 2:35 pm • linkreport

@ Matthias, maybe you could contact one of the local news stations to see whether anyone might be willing to bring a little more publicity to the issue? I can just see a reporter & camerman knocking on the door of a residence which has failed to clear their sidewalks. Bad publicity could be a way to get the District to more strictly enforce the snow removal regulations. (of course it's also important to report violations in the first place so that you can more easily argue your case with any media outlet)

by Aaron on Dec 22, 2009 2:42 pm • linkreport

Aaron--Chances are that reporter would find 9 of the first 10 people not home (probably on vacation) and the 10th would be an infirm little old lady (or man).

by ah on Dec 22, 2009 2:55 pm • linkreport

Maybe we could just chop off a hand of one or two offenders chosen at random. A bit of news coverage on that and the sidewalks would be cleaned in no time.

by Brian S on Dec 22, 2009 3:31 pm • linkreport


Stop whining and shovel your sidewalk you lazy load

by UrbanOtter on Dec 22, 2009 3:36 pm • linkreport

"I'm of the opinion that cities should give homeowners, condo associations, or building management companies a 24 hr period after the snow has stopped to clear their sidewalks. If they fail to do so within this allotted time, cleaar the sidewalks for them and send them a bill. Do *not* call it a fine, as that would lead to exceedingly negative reactions in the press."

I grew up north and my city did exactly this, except they did actually call it a fine. Nobody cared.

As for the people whining about having to find someone to shovel their sidewalks when they are out of town, you can also get fined for not attending to your lawn when out of town. This is just another one of the responsibilities of home ownership. If you don't like it then get a condo, move to the suburbs where the HOA will clear your sidewalk, or rent an apartment.

by Phil on Dec 22, 2009 3:48 pm • linkreport

@MLD: "A snowy sidewalk can still be used by most people (though it will create problems for people with limited mobility). A completely snowed-in road presents problems for the majority."

Are you referring to the entire metro area? In DC itself, a majority of residents get to work in ways other than driving. We have the 2nd lowest rate of commuting by car after Manhattan. So, a snowed-in sidewalk is actually what presents problems for the majority.

by Ken Archer on Dec 22, 2009 4:16 pm • linkreport

Do you make arrangements for someone to water your plants when you're out of town? Feed and walk the dog? Pick up your mail? Then why is it so hard to consider snow removal part of that list of "things to find someone to do"? Oh, right, it doesn't DIRECTLY benefit you, so you can't be bothered. You wanna have an attitude like that then go live in BFE Idaho or somewhere similar where an uncleared walk won't affect anyone. Living in a community requires that you maintain community standards, which includes things like keeping your sidewalk clear and tree lawn in good repair (oh, right, that's another thing you don't own but are required to maintain).

If you park your car on a snow emergency route, your car gets towed and you get a fine. In essence, the city takes care of what it asked you to do - move your car off the emergency route - and charges you a fee for the service and a fine to try and convince you not to do it again. I don't see how a "x amount of time to clear your walk or WE do it and send you a bill and fine" is all that different. In fact, it's quite similar to the grass-cutting laws in effect. We would not need legions of additional city workers to pull this off by any stretch of the imagination. Temporary workers, temporarily reassigned workers, or private contractors would work just as well. While I often loathe contractors, I think contractors are the ticket in this case. Especially if the building owner has a reasonable amount of time to remove the snow, the city won't be competing with residents for their services (should have already been rendered to all the citizens who desire the services), and no additional layer of bureaucracy is needed, except to find someone to call Joe's Plowing and say "go clean up address A, B, C, D..."

My elderly grandmother cannot cut her own grass or shovel her own snow. Like a responsible, adult homeowner, she has the neighbor boy do both. Not that hard.

by Ms. D on Dec 22, 2009 4:18 pm • linkreport

@Urban Otter: I cleared my sidewalk and my parking spaces. It was my workout for the month. I also cleared my neighbors' spaces and sidewalk. Sure beats sitting around in a cubicle whining and moaning about how the car-centric conspiracy is out to get me.

@Ms. D: How would your plan of requiring city workers to clear sidewalks NOT require legions of city workers? Additionally, how would your plan NOT require paying several millions of dollars to contractors? Furthermore, if you have any knowledge or experience with how DC does contracts, you'd know that by the time a contract for snow-shoveling is properly written, put out to bid, bids are reviewed, and a contract is awarded, the blogosphere will be complaining about the summer heat and humidity.

by Fritz on Dec 22, 2009 4:40 pm • linkreport

Just so everyone knows, the property mentioned by GGW, at 16th/Q is owned by Daro Realty. They own 14 properties around the city, and they haven't shoveled the walks for any of them. Most are corner properties, compounding the neighborhood impact.

by not telling on Dec 22, 2009 5:02 pm • linkreport


I in fact do live in the city and do not own a car. I spent this weekend walking around everywhere just fine, and having lived my life in places with a lot more snow than DC I have tromped through my fair share of unshoveled sidewalks. It seems to me that any able-bodied person can walk through a snowy sidewalk just fine - obviously having a shoveled one will be better, but I think throwing out a perfectly good system (self-shoveling) to make up for the few jerks who don't do it seems silly. Without plowing the roads, however, you won't get your mail, businesses can't get deliveries, etc. Our transportation infrastructure is used for more than just commuting!

I guess I don't understand how paying a labor force $20/hr to snowblow all the sidewalks (and investing in snowblowers, and transporting all that equipment, etc.) would be better than having each house put 30-60 minutes into shoveling their walk. People here are saying "oh the city should do it" but as one person pointed out above, have you even begun to think about the logistics and cost involved there compared to what we do now?

by MLD on Dec 22, 2009 5:02 pm • linkreport

I live in Arlington. I always am quick to shovel our sidewalk and help out neighbors with shoveling.

But the houses across the street (and others nearby) have no sidewalk. It seems like a public utility (one that I support) is being left to the private homeowner to maintain--while other private citizens get out of that duty simply by not having playing host (by dint of proximity) to that utility.

I think municipalities should have to maintain anything that is publicly owned and accessible. It would cost something but would not be hugely expensive to hire snowblower crews after major snowfalls.

by JB on Dec 22, 2009 5:44 pm • linkreport

I'm back visiting my family in Minneapolis for the holidays, and right now we're forecast to get 20+ inches of snow. I'll try to document how a northern city does snow removal - with residents shoveling their own walks, opposite side parking restrictions, and a professional plowing force.

by Alex B. on Dec 22, 2009 5:51 pm • linkreport

There's another scale of economy to forcing people to shovel their sidewalks. Some, like retired TV reporter Jim Clarke, have heart attacks and die. Clarke was in his mid-70s and collecting Social Security. The system is going broke.

Since an undetermined number of seniors on fixed income don't have the money to pay for heat, food, and medicine, they'll have to shovel. They won't have the money to pay some kid to shovel, and won't be able to afford the fine.

Their fatal heart attacks will cull them from the rolls of Social Security, leaving at least some money in the Trust Fund for the readers of this blog when they grow up and eventually get old.

by Future Social Security Recipient on Dec 22, 2009 5:59 pm • linkreport

There is especially no excuse when there were litterally parades of young men with shovels walking around the last few days trying to make a buck. These buildings should have enough on hand to shell out 100 bucks to get shoveled out.
So do you hire a bunch of temp employees and pay them at union wages? Should they just be on standby in case the once-every-few-years blizzard strikes?
These are mutually contradictory statements, people. Yes, grow the city government by 10,000 people for a single week. Give them an hour's training, $12/hour, and an effective snowblower and let them go at it in a declared 'snow emergency'. Throw some prison labor at the problem like California does in fire season. Provide the homeless with food, shelter, blankets, and coats if they work through a few blocks of sidewalk. It's not rocket science.

If individuals who are physically unable to shovel snow can arrange for others to do it, why can't the city? Send the mayor to a Home Depot parking lot if need be.

I see so many reflexive accusations! This all stems from the American obsession with hard work and our national hobby of calling other people lazy & selfish rather than working together to improve the situation. We're the only nation on Earth that decided to react to a post-industrial economy by *working harder*, requiring three low-end jobs to raise a family uncomfortably while CEOs got three yachts. Well damnit, it doesn't work well. If your opposition to "make-work programs" doesn't allow you to increase the size of government in a crisis of overproduction, unemployment, low investment levels, and potential deflation, when the weather dumps a minor natural disaster on your doorstep, please reconsider your philosophy on life - it's doing noone any good.

by Squalish on Dec 22, 2009 6:46 pm • linkreport

For comparison - my 10k person plan costs perhaps $15 million dollars, after accounting for supervision and equipment, for a 10 year storm. I would expect people to still continue primarily shovelling their own sidewalks, for their own & their neighbor's benefit, without compulsion.

Is clear sidewalks in a major snowstorm worth raising taxes sufficient to increase tax receipts by 0.03%?

How much are we spending in fine/lawsuit overhead? How much did we spend cleaning up this snowstorm on city streets?

PS: Obviously, my numbers are estimates that may be off by an order of magnitude. So what?

by Squalish on Dec 22, 2009 7:02 pm • linkreport

Who is responsible for sidewalk adjacent to rail and Metro stations, in particular, the stretch of King Street underneath the rail and metro bridges in Alexandria? It would seem to me that Metro, Amtrak, or VRE should be, but none of them did anything to clear the snow.

by Craig on Dec 22, 2009 8:16 pm • linkreport

Local governments are responsible for clearing road infrastructure, so why not side walks? I know, property owners own sidewards. But beyond the ownership, side walks are analogous to roads. In fact, they're even more communal than roads, because you don't need a license

by Mio Navman Spirit S500T on Dec 23, 2009 5:43 am • linkreport

For those of you clamoring that local governments should clear sidewalks, can any of you name a major northern/winter city that has such a policy?

I can guarantee you that Syracuse, NY (climatologically the snowiest city in the US) is not amongst that number...and they manage just fine, as does Minneapolis, MN.

by Froggie on Dec 23, 2009 8:36 am • linkreport

My opinion is that the city should give residents and businesses a certain timeframe to take care of it themselves (Alexandria does this). After that, they get cited. Since the fine should be large enough to get a large property owner's attention, but small enough that a resident townhome owner is not unduly burdened, it should be based on the frontage measurement.

I agree that it should be the property owner's responsibility. That's a model that works in other cities. It's also not a terribly large responsibility to shovel your own walk if you own only a townhome. If you're in a larger apartment building you likely have some sort of management company that can do the job.

It's a much larger task to clear the street, and that's a job that can be done with city-level heavy equipment and resources.

Based on what I saw the past couple days, the cities and locals need to coordinate better with WMATA to determine the high priority bus routes in advance and clear those streets with higher priority.

by Michael Perkins on Dec 23, 2009 9:22 am • linkreport

Fining people for not clearing the sidewalks does not clear the sidewalks. The local governments should clear any uncleared sidewalks AND issue a service charge large enough to cover the cost of the service, thereby making it revenue neutral. This should satisfy the "I was out of town" argument because the government will provide the service for a fee, sparing you the time of pre-arranging it on your own. If you're like me and like the exercise, get your shoveling done before the city comes around.

Also, the only defensible argument for roads having any sort of priority is that emergency vehicles need access. Even in the worst conditions, that can be achieved relatively soon after a storm. At that point, priority should be evenly divided between sidewalks and roads. That is already overly generous to drivers: EVERYONE is a pedestrian; only a small fraction of people in urban and dense suburban areas are drivers. Importantly, road crews have no business burying crosswalks; the only reason they do this is because nobody has taught them not to (I have explained the problem this creates to quite a few plow drivers and seen light bulbs light up over their heads).

Please help me and go forth and lobby for these common sense solutions.

by Brian on Dec 23, 2009 10:23 am • linkreport

Is Syracuse large and dense enough for a suitable comparison with DC? I know that many large Canadian cities have made sidewalk clearing a municipal service. I'm not one to take up the everything's-better-in-Canada schtick, but they seem to deal with snow reasonably.

by Brian on Dec 23, 2009 10:29 am • linkreport

To follow up on my question from yesterday, I have learned that residents can report uncleared sidewalks to the Mayor's Office by calling 311 (202-737-4404 if you're calling from a non-DC number). They will ask you for the address and send someone to investigate, and provide you with a confirmation number that you can use to track the progress of your request. You can also submit and track requests at

by Matthias on Dec 23, 2009 11:39 am • linkreport

This should be an individual responsibility, not the city. Its hard for city workers to get to each location in time (especially in the snow), and its not the sort of thing that needs some specialized equipment out of reach of most people. There might be economies of scale, but the solution to that is for local apartment owners to hire someone to do the job.

by SJE on Dec 23, 2009 1:04 pm • linkreport

For those of you clamoring that local governments should clear sidewalks, can any of you name a major northern/winter city that has such a policy?
Can you name a northern/winter city that you feel dedicates as much resources to the pedestrian as it should in relation to the automobile?

From a quick Google:

A sidewalk plow in Ottowa
Did you know that it snows an average of 220 cm each winter in Ottawa? It requires a lot of work and coordination to effectively plow and clear that much snow from streets and sidewalks. In fact, during the winter months it takes about 400 workers to maintain more than 980 km of roads and nearly 965 km of sidewalks throughout Ottawa. Many residents wonder how and in what order the City goes about maintaining these areas.
Sidewalks are prioritized for winter maintenance in the same way as roads. For instance, sidewalks on arterial and collector roads are cleared first. In the central area of the City and in business districts, sidewalks are stripped bare. Once these top priority areas have been taken care of, winter operations crews turn their attention to sidewalks on residential streets. Once sidewalks are cleared, sidewalk plows apply abrasives to reduce slipperiness. Grit may be applied a number of times after a snow storm depending on the weather and the condition of the sidewalk surface.

Snow plows often create small windrows across sidewalks at intersections and in other areas. The City will clear snow from intersections, cross-walks and bus stops within 48 hours after the end of the plow run. Small snowbanks left behind by plows can also block residents' driveways. Unfortunately, we have not yet found a cost-effective means of avoiding this problem but we are always investigating any promising new ideas.


Residents are only fined if they intentionally pile snow onto sidewalks.

by Squalish on Dec 23, 2009 4:41 pm • linkreport

That sidewalk plow's neat! But the "specialized" equipment argument at least one of you is making is a total strawman--you can put a snow plow on the front of just about anything, like a riding lawnmower or electric cart of some sort. I know the city has plenty of those. I'm willing to be the city already has small machines like this outfitted with plows. Add-on plows are maybe couple of hundred bucks each; total investment to the city, running into the thousands. Dear lord!

by Brian on Dec 23, 2009 4:56 pm • linkreport

What percentage of DC residents own a riding lawnmower or electric cart with snow chains?

The "specialized" equipment argument is not that the gear is prohibitively expensive, but that a barely-enforceable individual mandate does not encourage that it be used effectively on a scale appropriate to its purchase.

by Squalish on Dec 23, 2009 5:15 pm • linkreport

I was referring to posts doubting whether the city could handle sidewalk plowing, not individuals. (Obviouly most private citizens wouldn't own a riding lawnmower. And you wouldn't need tire chains.)

The city ought to be nearly equipped to do this already. Regardless, there is an army of underemployed, unemployed, and people in need of a few extra bucks that the city could mobilize to do the job manually. I'm not sure about DC, but most places have an army of on-call contractors supplementing the municipal road crews, so the mechanism for extra labor already exists. Moral of story: The argument that the city's handling removal of snow from sidewalks presents some insurmountable logistical challenge is utterly absurd.

by Brian on Dec 23, 2009 5:32 pm • linkreport

Actually, no one has no excuse for not shoveling. Large building, small building, large home, small home, whatever ... ensuring that your snow is cleared off of the sidewalk in front of your place is as much your responsibility as is ensuring all the other maintenance is performed at your place. Do we excuse people from not paying their water bill ... because they're out of town when it happens to show up ... ?

The law says you arrange for it yourself. Yes, the law could say 'city will pay for it and charge you' or 'city will pay for it and take it out of your taxes' ... etc. But as it stands, it says it's not taking over your responsibility for it.

by Lance on Dec 27, 2009 6:15 pm • linkreport

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