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Enforce sidewalk shoveling, especially for large properties

This morning at 10 is a DC Council hearing on Tommy Wells' and Mary Cheh's bill to fix the enforcement rules for unshoveled sidewalks so DC can realistically write tickets. Now that Tommy Wells is chairing the committee, chances for passage are very good. Below is my testimony.

Sidewalk being shoveled. Photo by faz the persian on Flickr.

Mr. Chairman,

My wife has knee and ankle problems which have been a struggle for several years now. It's frustrating enough to have to limit mobility, but when there is snow and ice, she is unable to walk on sidewalks to the store or to the Metro. That forces her either to be trapped at home or to walk in the street, which makes me worry very much about the inattentive drivers she might encounter.

Uncleared sidewalks are a nuisance to most of us, but to those with disabilities, even very minor or temporary ones, they can pose serious hazards or make sidewalks practically unusable. This is not acceptable.

I urge the Council to pass a version of this bill. It's important that we enable the DC government to actually enforce the sidewalk shoveling law that has been on the books since 1922. It's also important that DC follow through and enforce this law, at least for the biggest offenders.

Those offenders are usually the buildings with substantial street frontage, especially corner buildings, which are more often either commercial properties or large apartment buildings, which DC law considers to be commercial properties for many purposes such as trash removal.

For instance, during last year's enormous storms, the MarcParc in your own Ward 6, between 5th, 6th, and K Streets and New York Avenue, NW, shoveled its own parking spaces and vehicular entrances and exits but none of its sidewalks. That parking lot occupies an entire city block, affecting a great many residents.

Closer to home, during the last snow, the building on the corner of my street shoveled its 18th Street frontage but not its longer frontage on my side street, creating a very long, treacherous, icy walk to the Metro.

I am concerned that the $250 fine proposed for commercial properties may not suffice if the cost to a large property owner to shovel the sidewalks exceeds the potential fine. I hope you can hear from some BID representatives who might shed light on what it will take to push compliance. I also encourage you to ensure that the definitions of residential and commercial properties are appropriate.

As we just discussed in the pedestrian and bicycle safety hearing and on the blog, there are two approaches to incentivize following a law: large fines or frequent enforcement. Frequent enforcement is better, since it is more effective and seems less unfair. However, if DC lacks the resources or ability to write many smaller tickets for the bigger property owners after each storm, we may need large fines for these large properties with large quantities of sidewalk.

Focusing enforcement resources on these large properties will not only deal with the biggest safety hazards, but also reduce concerns that poor, elderly owners of small homes might be getting fined for actions they aren't physically able to perform and/or can't afford to contract out. However, there should still be a fine, the mechanism to enforce it, and some tickets written.

This bill will not solve all of the problems with snow removal. The DC and federal governments are still neglecting sidewalks in many cases. DPW failed to clear many bridges after the most recent snowstorm.

In my own neighborhood, the Q Street overpass over Connecticut Avenue was still icy two days after the storm, and many people on my blog reported similar problems with the Glover, Taft and Ellington bridges over Rock Creek, the Key Bridge, overpasses on North Capitol Street, and many more.

Likewise, examples still abound where the National Park Service devoted resources to clearing internal walkways inside some of their small parks in DC, but not clearing the sidewalks on the periphery, which are much more important for pedestrian circulation.

However, we must pursue all of these avenues at the same time. This bill will take one step toward solving the problems with noncompliant private landowners, which do create real safety hazards by not clearing sidewalks after snowstorms. Please move this bill before winter ends and people lose focus on this important issue.

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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I agree with you the fines need to be high enough to enforce compliance. I think there should be a high fine for both residential and commercial. I do not think there should be exceptions though - if you live/own a place then it is your responsibility. If you are unable to clear your sidewalks yourself that is what neighbors are for! Every snowfall I shovel 3/4 if not my entire side of the block because I know some of my neighbors are unable to shovel. A group of us even shovel their stairs. I believe that is how a neighborhood and community should work.

by Sally on Feb 9, 2011 8:18 am • linkreport

In Bethesda-Chevy Chase - along Bradley Blvd there is a series of homeowners who do not shovel their sidewalks, forcing pedestrians to walk in the street. Montgomery County - Bethesda is not a city and this is a county road - does not care. Bradley Blvd. is a lawless road - there is no speed enforcement, no parking in front of fire hydrant enforcement [despite direct pleas to police officers parked nearby] and no snow shoveling enforcement.

by Capt. Hilts on Feb 9, 2011 8:18 am • linkreport

You can add the parking lot at the corner of 7th and M, SE, who miraculously finds the time to plow and clear entrances, but does not shovel the sidewalk adjacent on three sides. I believe this property is actually owned by DC (it is the site of a former public housing building) but is operated as a private parking lot under lease.

by Michael Perkins on Feb 9, 2011 8:19 am • linkreport

A certain amount of inconvenience is unavoidable in any city after it snows. In places where snow is a way of life, the sidewalks and streets are never as clear as it is in summer. Those that have difficulty getting around have added problems no matter what city they live in.

In DC there are so many ways to get a fine. At what point does an addition minor infractions diminish the value of living here? Will DC be a better city with officers writing tickets for not shoveling? In my opinion, no.

by goldfish on Feb 9, 2011 8:22 am • linkreport

Good testimony. A few suggestions, the first and last being the most important.

1) Suggest that the height of the tickets should be tied to the length of the uncleared sidewalk. The city could make simple categories. <20 feet, 20-100 foot, 100-5000 foot, 500-1000 foot and >1000 foot. Fines should increase exponentially. <20 foot could be a symbolic $20, while >1000 foot should be $10,000 or more. Fines should go to the property owner, and leave it to them to make their renters shovel, or do it themselves.

2) DC should set up a good website where people can report unshoveled side-walks. While the police does its normal patrolling, it can start ticketing immediately, based on the live reports on that site.

3) To entice the Feds to shovel, DC should fine them symbolically, and publically name and shame them.

4) Make sure the shovel requirement kicks in within 24h of the end of snow fall, preferably 12.

5) Make sure that large property owners are required to shovel "missing connections" to neighboring properties. There are often short stretches of no man's land between large properties, and large property owners should be required to collaborate with neighbors to make sure there are no "missing connections".

by Jasper on Feb 9, 2011 8:37 am • linkreport

I'd suggest one alternative approach: private litigation.

NYC has a rule that if a sidewalk is not cleared within 24 hours -- and a complaint has been made -- it is open season for the landowner for slip and falls.

Plaintiff attorneys in NYC hire a lot of homeless men to walk around and file the complaints.

Far from a perfect system, but you effectively do the same thing in DC along certain larger streets.

by charlie on Feb 9, 2011 8:48 am • linkreport

This should be an interesting hearing. The Tenleytown listserv has been on fire with all sorts of bizarre complaints about this bill and the oddest worst-case scenarios about people who are unable to clear the sidewalks and the unfairness of them being ticketed.

One area I hope gets some focus is whether the city has - and will have with upcoming budget cuts - the resources to actively enforce the law.

by Fritz on Feb 9, 2011 8:50 am • linkreport

Too bad we can't get the same in Fairfax County. I've been told that state law prevents the county from implementing such an ordinance.

by Froggie on Feb 9, 2011 8:50 am • linkreport

@Froggie; you've got to stop believing your council members when they blame their laziness on Dillons rule. Arlington has that rule. OK, maybe it is related to VDOT control but again Fairfax could exempt itself -- it just doesn't want to pay for it.

by charlie on Feb 9, 2011 9:11 am • linkreport

Although I'd LOVE it if the city were to actually enforce its snow-clearing laws; I can't help but to concede that unless the D.C. government, NPS, and federal government all clear their respective walkways (bridges for example), they have no leg to stand on when fining private property owners for ignoring the same laws.

I know the 11th Street Bridge walkway was a craggy, icy, uneven stretch of craters several days after our last snow "storm" a few weeks ago. There is no excuse for that.

When the government clears its own walkways, it can *then* start fining private property owners for failing to do so. Set the example. Do the right thing. Hypocrisy will get you nowhere.

by Josh C. on Feb 9, 2011 9:13 am • linkreport

Good testimony.

Can I suggest a different picture for the blog post though? That is a sidewalk that someone is actively shoveling. It feeds into paranoia about the purposes/enforcement of the law. Like you will be fined if you walk isn't cleared the second it stops snowing and that kind of thing.

@goldfish - yes -- it will make this a better city to live in. I have a bad knee and several commercial properties near my home that don't ever shovel. At all.

by Kate on Feb 9, 2011 9:15 am • linkreport

@ Josh -- I sort of agree with you on DC government, but DC government and DC citizens have no way to control the Feds so waiting for them is the same as giving up.

by Kate on Feb 9, 2011 9:18 am • linkreport

If the District needs a system to handle complaints regarding uncleared sidewalks, they can buy the code from Arlington County. This is what Arlington County has put together:

by ksu499 on Feb 9, 2011 9:39 am • linkreport

DPR needs a sidewalk clearing budget. The park by me is never cleared of snow inside or on the periphery that includes a bus shelter.

by Ward 7 on Feb 9, 2011 9:45 am • linkreport

This picture was taken a few days after the big snow storm.

by DC Dan on Feb 9, 2011 10:03 am • linkreport

@charlie: that came from my civic association, not from the county board. That said, I'll have to look into Arlington's ordinance and see how they did it. A preliminary look suggests that they received enabling authority from the state, but whether that enabling authority is statewide or specific to just Arlington needs to be looked up.

by Froggie on Feb 9, 2011 10:12 am • linkreport

@ Froggie: Too bad we can't get the same in Fairfax County.

Actually, I was talking to someone from my HOA about this. I wondered if they had something on the books, as they do prescribe the color of our trash bags. The HOA does not, but she mentioned that Fairfax actually does have something on the books, but that the period in which you must clear your side walk is something long like 48h. Plus, they don't enforce it.

I was already thinking that if this thing gets decently implemented, I might send a link of that to the board. They can then just copy paste.

One problem in the burbs is that a lot of people have way more side-walk than they realize. People in my neighborhood tend to shovel the part in front of their house, but nobody does the sidewalk next to their house...

by Jasper on Feb 9, 2011 10:42 am • linkreport


by Jasper on Feb 9, 2011 10:47 am • linkreport


Who is responsible for clearing snow from the sidewalks in my neighborhood?

Neither the state nor the county clears snow and ice from public walkways (sidewalks and trails). While not legally obligated, residents and businesses are asked to help keep sidewalks safe. They should, as soon as feasible, clear snow off the sidewalks in front of their property so that all pedestrians, especially school children, those with disabilities and the elderly, may walk securely. Homeowner associations may require members of their communities to clear walkways abutting their property. Please contact your association or property manager for further information.

by Jasper on Feb 9, 2011 10:52 am • linkreport

David- Thanks for bringing out the accessibility for people with disabilities perspective. Well said.

by Penny Everline on Feb 9, 2011 12:41 pm • linkreport

@Jasper: the key part there is "not legally obligated". Arlington's ordinance provides that legal obligation...something Fairfax lacks.

by Froggie on Feb 9, 2011 1:00 pm • linkreport

@Froggie; Arlington is not enforcing the law now, which MAY be a dillon's rule issue, or letting people get used to the new law during a mild (although cold) winter.

by charlie on Feb 9, 2011 1:18 pm • linkreport

@ Froggie: the key part there is "not legally obligated".

Hoho. Fairfax only says that itself is not legally obligated to clean the side walks. That seems fair. Fairfax is also not obligated to shovel the roads. I am not even sure VDOT is, despite the fact that they are the ones shoveling.

The statement says nothing about Fairfax having the authority to make a law/ordinance that says that residents/property owners need to shovel their side walk.

[BTW: What's the difference between a law and an ordinance? Law = state/fed, ordinance = county/city?]

by Jasper on Feb 9, 2011 1:33 pm • linkreport

@ Jasper; yes, basically, that is it.

Probably has something to do with Home Rule; i.e. is a state it's own entity, or (like the US) a union for various counties. Kinda of a big issue back in the day, all forgotten now.

by charlie on Feb 9, 2011 1:40 pm • linkreport

@goldfish: are you serious? I'm a perfectly healthy adult,and I've slipped and fallen on uncleared sidewalks. I can't even imagine what it must be like for the elderly or people in wheelchairs.

First off,there's no way you can convince me the people living in $1M+ homes in NW can't afford to have someone shovel their walks for them. Second,with all the lawyers in DC,you're taking a big risk by not shoveling. If you(and any family members living with you) are perfectly healthy,and make a good living,given that it's the law you must shovel,how could you hope to defend yourself in a lawsuit from someone who has slipped and hurt themself? It's like gambling with your nestegg.

99.99% of the people who don't shovel have no excuse other than laziness and/or apathy.

by dynaryder on Feb 9, 2011 2:33 pm • linkreport

@charlie: Plaintiff attorneys in NYC hire a lot of homeless men to walk around and file the complaints.

Can we try to stick to reality and not wild-eyed myths?

by David desJardins on Feb 9, 2011 9:09 pm • linkreport


by charlie on Feb 9, 2011 9:27 pm • linkreport

Charlie, your link doesn't say anything about lawyers paying homeless people to patrol the streets of NYC and report sidewalks that weren't cleared within 24 hours.

by David desJardins on Feb 9, 2011 11:32 pm • linkreport

Yes I am serious.

The cities in my experience -- Wisconsin, northern Illinois, all of Massachusetts, and upstate New York -- were never clear of snow. Try crossing the salt and pepper bridge after a snowstorm.

Property owners in DC are pretty conscientious are clearing their walks, but there will always be room for improvement. Fines will not improve pedestrian mobility, because the worst offender is the city itself.

DC does not have the resources to clear all the walks it is responsible for, nor does it have the resources to send a small army of officers around to ticket property owners a few hours after a storm. Can you imagine how foolish that would look when there a far bigger problems? I'd rather that they spend our tax dollars on more important things.

by goldfish on Feb 10, 2011 9:48 am • linkreport

@goldfish: Fines will not improve pedestrian mobility, because the worst offender is the city itself.

This doesn't make any sense. Even if most of the problem is the city, you can still improve mobility by forcing property owners to obey the law.

And if you set the fines high enough, then the revenue from the fines more than offsets the cost of writing tickets, so we aren't talking about a cost to taxpayers, we're talking about a benefit to taxpayers.

by David desJardins on Feb 10, 2011 3:42 pm • linkreport

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