Posts about Snow
8 DC councilmembers tabled a bill this afternoon to enforce DC's law requiring shoveling sidewalks. This means that, for the umpteenth time, DC is doing nothing about the serious safety problem of unshoveled sidewalks after a snowstorm.
Only bill authors Mary Cheh (ward 3) and Tommy Wells (ward 6), joined by David Catania (at-large) and Chairman Kwame Brown, voted against tabling the bill. Phil Mendelson (at-large) sounded like he favored the bill during the debate, but supported the tabling.
Listening to the debate, it was clear that many councilmembers just don't think there is a problem. Marion Barry (ward 8) said he has gotten few or no complaints about unshoveled sidewalks. Muriel Bowser (ward 4) spoke passionately multiple times about the burden on anyone for getting a ticket but said nothing about her residents' ability to walk to stores and the Metro.
Jim Graham also argued against enforcing this law, even though, as Mike DeBonis noted, he represents the (residentially) densest ward in DC. He introduced an amendment that would have restricted fines to only apply on streets which have already been plowed. One of the bill's supporters called the amendment a "poison pill." That sends the ironic message that if drivers can't get through a street, it's not important that pedestrians be able to either.
Kwame Brown, who did support the bill but also supported Graham's amendment, made the amusing comment that Mayor Gray has done a good job with snow clearance this year. We've had only 1.7" of snow this year, compared to an
annual average average through January of 8.4" and the lowest in 124 years.
Graham insisted that he wants to do something about shoveling; he just wants to use incentives rather than fines. But he's never given a practical incentive-based proposal.
Many councilmembers opining on this issue would have more credibility if they actually walked to transit to get to work in a snow, or for that matter any other time.
During the years he chaired the council's transportation committee and sat on the WMATA Board, Graham came under periodic criticism for very rarely riding transit. He stuck up for low bus fares, but never addressed the problem of unsafe sidewalks after storm. Graham even bragged during today's debate about not moving bills like this one during his tenure as chairman.
Large numbers of DC residents have to get to work or school on foot and on transit after snowstorms, and unshoveled areas create serious safety hazards. Sidewalks are often completely impassable for people with disabilities or even just temporary injuries.
DC already has a law that residents and businesses have to clear their sidewalks, but it's not enforceable. The government has clear the sidewalk and then sue individual violators to collect up to $25. This bill simply makes the penalty for violating this law a straightforward ticket and fine, just like in most cities including Arlington, Alexandria and Montgomery County.
Cheh made many changes to the bill during the last few months to cut the fines even further from the original proposal, put in exemptions for poor and elderly residents, and more. Property owners get a warning before having to pay any fine until the end of 2013.
It's not clear if this law does enough to push the egregious violators, like the large parking lot in Mount Vernon Triangle, to actually take any action, but a majority of councilmembers have made clear that they don't really care to do anything about those problems.
The bill wouldn't have even taken effect until next winter. Now, we're likely to have to wait until yet another winter. If we get a real snow this year, will the councilmembers who voted to table this bill today try walking their neighborhoods and getting to work on foot or by transit? If they did, they'd very likely look at this issue very differently.
Winter is getting closer and closer, which means sooner or later DC will likely see some snow. DDOT is pondering how to ensure they can plow the Pennsylvania Avenue bike lanes when snow does come.
DDOT uses large plows to clear Pennsylvania Avenue and other major roads quickly after a snowstorm. The large plow, however, can't fit in the Pennsylvania Avenue bike lanes, at least not as long as the white pylons remain near intersections.
DDOT added those pylons to make sure drivers realize they're not supposed to drive in the lanes when making turns. Occasionally, some do anyway, and police cars periodically park in them, but most of the time the pylons effectively guide drivers and protect cyclists at the corners, where there are more conflicting turning movements.
A smaller plow could come back later to clear the snow from the lanes, but depending on the size of a snowstorm, this would likely not happen until 24 to 48 hours later, meaning the lanes could remain impassable for up to 2 days while the regular roadway is clear.
The other option DDOT is considering is to remove the pylons for the winter. This would allow the plows to clear the lanes. On the other hand, it could mean drivers again getting confused and driving in the lanes, and cyclists feeling less safe at corners.
It doesn't snow very often, so if they do remove the pylons, the lanes would be a little bit worse every day in the winter, but keeping them means they'd be a lot worse for a few days. What's better: keeping them always passable to cyclists, or keeping them in their optimal condition at the cost of losing them temporarily when it snows?
The bicycle team would like your input. What do you prefer?
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.
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.
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The commute on Wednesday for drivers and bus riders was terrible, but once plowing got going, DDOT cleared roads quite efficiently. I was disappointed, however, to still see sidewalks on bridges not among DDOT's snow clearing priorities.
By morning, my small residential road was completely clear, as were all roads along the walk to the Metro. Most property owners, too, got snow and ice out of the sidewalks, though one commercial building on a corner annoyingly cleared their front sidewalk but not the side.
Metro seemed to have cleared all sidewalks right around the Q Street entrance to Dupont Circle station, but I was disappointed to find the sidewalks where Q crosses the Connecticut Avenue underpass to be a tightly-packed sheet of ice. As of this morning, it was still not cleared.
Since the abutting property is a road, this sidewalk is
DDOT's DPW's responsibility. After the last snow, we heard talk about how DDOT was going to make sure sidewalks on bridges were part of its snow-clearing plan, but perhaps that part of the plan isn't entirely worked out yet.
Update: DDOT officials point out that DDOT and DPW split up the bridge responsibilities, and this one is on DPW. I'm trying to get a list of who is responsible for which bridges.
Many corners also still had piled-up snow. DDOT officials previously said they were planning to train plow drivers to avoid pushing snow into the corners and blocking the curb ramps.
Speaking of snow removal, the DC Council is having a hearing on the bill to fix the fines for property owners who don't clear snow. How well did building owners do at shoveling, especially large commercial ones like apartment buildings and parking lots? What about the National Park Service and other federal properties?
DDOT tweeted that they just plowed the 15th Street bike lane this morning. Many cyclists have started to depend on this lane, so it would be nice to see it also a priority, though cyclists can also use the regular roads and fewer ride in the cold weather. Pedestrians, however, have to walk to the Metro and bus stops, and having safe and passable sidewalks is absolutely critical.
I once asked a retired school superintendent who had worked all over the Northeast what was the hardest part of his job? Knowing all the challenges of running large urban school systems, I was surprised when he said it was the wrenching decision of whether to close schools for weather-related reasons.
Closing schools means lost critical learning time and parents having to provide impromptu child care, often missing work. Keeping schools open can be dangerous for children and staff trying to get to school or resulting in them getting stuck at school. (The superintendent I spoke with recounted horror stories of a school full of people huddling in a gym with limited food and no electricity).
Suburban school systems are more vulnerable than DC. The city tends to get slightly higher temperatures and less precipitation, but more importantly, a densely settled city should require fewer and shorter motor vehicle trips to transport kids to school.
This is where people in walkable neighborhoods can get their gloat on. (I happily dragged a sled around the corner to pick up fresh groceries during the snowpocalypse of February 2010, while suburbanites survived on canned goods).
But even DC schools have teachers who live in the suburbs and students exercising choice who attend schools outside their neighborhoods.
As a New England native, I would say as long as cars and buses can move (albeit slowly), they can get to school. (The only hazard for kids who walk to school was the strong temptation to stop and play in the snow). That usually meant anything less than one foot of snow was fine. Black ice, the worst non-snow impediment, slows down vehicles but doesn't stop them.
There will be car crashes, but there are crashes every day on the roads. Just drive carefully. Be flexible on arrival times. Fear of power outage or actual power outage or loss of water is reason to close a school. Anything less, however, is just wimping out. If we can't find our way to school during messy but passable winter weather, we should re-evaluate our school density and planning.
What is your cutoff? When is it too cold or too messy on the roads to keep schools open?
Automated trail counters have given Arlington an accurate count of the numbers of pedestrians and cyclists on various trails by time of day.
Below is the aggregated data from a counter located at the Custis Trail's 3.5 mile marker, at the top of the hill, just west of Rosslyn:
There are three interesting things this chart shows.
The winter effect: Winter does cause a sizable drop off in cycling. It's around 70%, as I eyeball it. It's impossible to say if these are evenly dispersed among commuters and recreational cyclists or if the people left in the winter are dedicated commuters, but regardless, there is less biking in the winter.
The period of reduced cycling seems to be the 4 months from about mid-November to mid-March. That happens to correspond pretty closely with Daylight Saving Time, so it may be that people just don't want to bike home in the dark.
The summer effect: There isn't one. Next time you hear someone say that it gets too hot in the summer to bike in DC, show them this.
Snow plowing matters. The big drop off in trail use in February is during Snowmaggeddon and the resulting lack of snow clearing. Snow was done falling on 2/11/10 but it wasn't until the first week in March that things got back to normal.
Some of the drop off would have occurred even if the trail had been cleared by the 12th because so many offices were closed, but clearly the lack of snow clearing on the trail made it almost unusable for about three weeks. During that time there were maybe 15,000-20,000 fewer trips on the trail than there might have been had it been cleared.
Some of those trips probably moved elsewhere, but not all of them. It's worth asking how much those trips were worth and how much it would have cost to make them possible.
As Mark Blacknell points out, there isn't enough manpower now to clear them, but that's because of who is assigned to do it. Arlington's Department of Environmental Services has 150 employees to clear roads. But trail clearing is assigned to the Department of Parks, Recreation & Cultural Resources, which has a single crew who has to clear routes to schools, paths to Metro stations and trails, in that order. By the time they get to trails, Mother Nature has done the work for them.
It appears that in the winter, they can count on about 5,000 bike and pedestrian trips per week Cyclists and pedestrians make up more than 0% of commuters. They deserve more than 0% of the plowing resources.
Cross-posted at TheWashcycle.
Cyclists and pedestrians make up more than 0% of commuters. They deserve more than 0% of the plowing resources.
Cross-posted at TheWashcycle.
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