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How to Keep Walking In a Winter Wonderland

For years, urban public policy has promoted the elimination of highway fatalities known as “Vision Zero.” And in the midst of growing concern around climate change, transportation policy in American cities is curiously schizophrenic. For nine months of the year, when temperatures are decent and precipitation is limited to rain, most cities encourage people to use alternatives to cars and reduce carbon footprints.

But come winter in many parts of the country, it all goes out the window.

Winter often reveals a preference for cars over other forms of transportation on the part of policymakers, or at least an assumption that everyone will have access to a vehicle when the weather gets cold. One interesting phenomenon is called a “sneckdown [1],” which appears where roads have been overbuilt; some snow remains after some roads are plowed and driven on. Transportation activists record the storms, and they are remarkably consistent from storm to storm and year to year.

Many cities informally allow residents to claim parking spots they dig out after snow storms. The main result of this seems to be escalating violence [2] as people argue over who dug out which spot, or slash each other’s tires for parking in one. Many cities promote cycling with protected bike lanes in the warmer months, but during winter they use bike lanes to store plowed snow.

Another way is revealed by what types of pathways are cleared. Where snow is common, American cities clear the roadways for cars, but often rely on property owners to clear sidewalks, crossings, and, as mentioned, bus stops. The result is that, in heavy or frequent snow, pedestrian and transit infrastructure can become completely unusable since property owners spend all their effort digging out their cars and shoveling their driveways. It is especially common for ramps installed under the Americans With Disabilities Act to be unusable into spring because the snow plows keep piling snow and slush in them, creating great troughs of icy water no one in a wheelchair or walker can travel through.

According to Grist, enforcement of fines for failing to clear sidewalks in New York City is “between spotty and non-existent. [3]

That seems to be the case in other American cities, as well. In Boston and Cambridge, enforcement is left to the pedestrians themselves by taking pictures of problem areas and sending them to the city. This is, of course, problematic because it assumes that people will be able to walk to the problem areas, but it also doesn’t take into account the scale of the problem—a walking trip of a mile could involve crossing the street multiple times and passing in front of hundreds of properties. A body camera to video it all would be more useful.

Even better is the radical idea that, as Grist says, cities started thinking that “Sidewalks are as much of a public good as roads and pedestrians should be as entitled to safe, ice free surfaces as cars.”


Another factor is that the average age of homeowners, especially in large cities, is rising. Boston’s West Roxbury neighborhood, for example, is an example of a naturally occurring retirement community because an increasing percentage residents are older people aging in place. The elderly are less able to safely shovel large amounts of snow. According to the BBC, around 100 people die every winter in the United States as a result of heart attacks sustained while shoveling [4]. One doctor interviewed even said that no one over the age of 55 should shovel snow.

With a better approach to snow removal, cities could substantially change their approaches to the winter season. Instead of seeing snow as an inconvenience, with parking and slush, walking, biking, and transit could become much easier than dealing with private vehicles—and cities should offer similarly attractive activities in the summer. For example, some European cities are famous for the Christmas markets that are temporarily erected in major squares, while Canadian Quebec City has had a winter carnival since 1894. Until the early 19th century, London had “frost fairs” whenever the River Thames was frozen enough.

There is no excuse for why we can’t enjoy cities in winter as much as we do in more temperate seasons—and many good reasons for not prioritizing cars when it’s cold out.

Matthew M. Robare is a freelance journalist based in Boston.

Follow @MattRobare [5] Follow @NewUrbs [6]

11 Comments (Open | Close)

11 Comments To "How to Keep Walking In a Winter Wonderland"

#1 Comment By Mike S On February 1, 2019 @ 9:26 am

As a homeowner responsible for a moderately busy sidewalk, I’d love to be able to go away for a winter weekend and not worry about whether it snows or not, but it’s not a priority

#2 Comment By mrscracker On February 1, 2019 @ 9:52 am

“There is no excuse for why we can’t enjoy cities in winter as much as we do in more temperate seasons…”

Well, a good friend of mine near DC recently slipped on snow & ice which had accumulated on her home’s deck. She’s recovering from surgery for a broken hip.

So, I don’t know. Down where I live, we get picked on all the time for living in a hot, steamy environment prone to tropical storms. Maybe it’s not ideal here either, but the good news is you don’t have to shovel heat or face slipping on frozen precipitation.

If I lived Up North & it snowed I’d stay inside.

#3 Comment By Yolande On February 1, 2019 @ 11:50 am

I read Daughter of a Samurai many years ago in which the author describes walking through town in tunnels dug through the snow. It sounded wonderful.

#4 Comment By DRZ On February 1, 2019 @ 11:52 am

“Even better is the radical idea that, as Grist says, cities started thinking that ‘Sidewalks are as much of a public good as roads and pedestrians should be as entitled to safe, ice free surfaces as cars.'”

I walk 2.5 miles to work every day, including this week through snow on and, later, sub zero temps. It’s doable. But there are almost a dozen places where plows have piled snow from parking lots or even streets at crosswalks. Not on sidewalks (bad enough) but at the crosswalks. The ones downtown were made “handicap accessible” a few years ago, but not with five feet of crusty, dirty snow piled on them.

The city trucks do it every bit as often as the free-lance snow removal people do, so it’s not going to be easy to get this to stop. I think it will take someone (with more social capital than I have) being injured or killed.

#5 Comment By mrscracker On February 1, 2019 @ 12:53 pm

It’s funny, just after I read the comments here my brother in the UK sent me a photo of his road completely buried in snow. No plowing, no shoveling of sidewalks. Folks are just walking along in the tracks vehicles have made in the middle of the road.
I guess Britain doesn’t have it all figured out either.

#6 Comment By Llygod yn y to On February 1, 2019 @ 3:40 pm

I take your point that city authorities could do more to keep pavements (sidewalks) clear of snow. But I also like the way a snowfall brings my street together, because we all know that the street is too small to be cleared by the city council, so we get together to clear the road and the pavement ourselves with shovels.

#7 Comment By polistra On February 2, 2019 @ 6:28 am

It’s not getting any better. Most city governments are now owned by Michael Bloomberg, which means they have no motivation to serve ordinary people and small businesses.

Spokane’s government used to do a pretty good job, but now they spend their time and money suing Trump for causing “global warming” instead of plowing the streets.

#8 Comment By Tim On February 2, 2019 @ 10:19 am

As I am a pedestrian I was rather disgusted by the lack of sidewalk clearing in a neighborhood through which I walk to get to the market. It is a neighborhood almost exclusively of recent South American immigrants, displaying not very much civic duty.

#9 Comment By Anna On February 3, 2019 @ 8:16 pm

It’s not just that sidewalks aren’t plowed or cleared – even more significantly, both public and private plows frequently use the sidewalk as a dumping area for the snow they remove.

I also wish drivers were aware that pedestrians have every right to use the common roadway when no walkable pathway is cleared, as is often the case. In Wisconsin, where we had insane weather last week, everybody – drivers or otherwise – should be grateful to everyone who chooses not to put another car on the road!

#10 Comment By Peter on the prairies On February 4, 2019 @ 2:09 pm

I live in city on the Canadian prairies and it gets very cold. Winter usually last 5 months and I refuse to stay inside for such a significant portion of the year.

Here homeowners are pretty faithful in clearing the sidewalks but the cit is painfully slow in clearing the ones it is responsible for.

When walks get icy I put traction aids on my boots and get out there. Skating, skiing, tobogganning (sledding) – what’s not to love?

#11 Comment By Jacques René Giguère On February 10, 2019 @ 4:41 pm

In Québec , cities are responsible for snow clearing and use specialized equipment. Québec City, About the size of Staten Island has 1600 snow plows, including small ones for sidewalks. It is always done efficiently except for Montréal which suffers from an extremely variable weather, varying by 30 degrees Celsius and from snow to rain to sleet to ice within hours