Familiar fight resumes with first snowfall
While driving around in the snow last week, I began drafting an open letter to the pedestrians of the Capital Region.
This is a letter I write every year, in my head.
“Dear pedestrians,” it usually begins. “Please do not walk in the middle of the road during snowstorms! Or after snowstorms. Or in spring, summer or fall. But especially during the winter, when the roads are slippery. Because I do not want to kill you.”
Of course, whenever I put on my pedestrian hat, I begin to understand why many of these people are walking in the road: Unshoveled sidewalks have forced many of them into the streets. This realization often inspires me to draft an open letter to the property owners of the Capital Region, imploring them to do a better job of clearing sidewalks.
When I moved to the Capital Region, I was amazed by the poor condition of the sidewalks during winter.
Cities are supposed to be walkable. If your community is transformed into a slippery obstacle course every time it snows and residents struggle to do the most basic of things, like go to the post office, your local government is not doing its job. This is true even if it’s technically the property owner’s responsibility to clear sidewalks, as it is in Schenectady, Albany and other localities. When property owners fail to clear the sidewalks, they need to be held accountable.
I find the sidewalk issue frustrating because it comes up every year.
I’ve lived in the Capital Region for more than a decade, and I can count on two things every winter: uncleared sidewalks and hand-wringing over how to get people to clear them. Possible solutions, such as increasing fines or simply enforcing existing laws, are proposed. Listening to these earnest conversations, you’d think snow was some baffling new phenomenon, rather than a perennial nuisance.
The city of Schenectady has acquired hundreds of houses through foreclosure and is thus responsible for keeping the sidewalks in front of them clear. In the aftermath of a big storm, it can take city workers a little time to get to these properties. But many of the unshoveled properties are not owned by the city, and they are not in foreclosure. They are owned by irresponsible people who should be fined if they can’t shovel the sidewalks within a reasonable amount of time.
We can debate what a reasonable amount of time is, but I was pretty surprised to see Schenectady Mayor Gary McCarthy say, two days after last weekend’s storm, that the city wasn’t planning to ticket people who hadn’t shoveled their sidewalks.
“We’re trying to approach things with a common-sense approach,” he told the Gazette, adding, “It’s been a long time since we’ve had a foot or more of snow.”
Now, I’m generally in favor of leniency after a snowstorm. Digging out can be hard. I’ll never forget the time the city of Albany ticketed me for being parked on the wrong street after I spent 45 minutes shoveling out my car and ran inside for a few minutes. “How about a little leniency?” I remember asking. “We just got a foot of snow!”
However, leniency should have limits.
People who fail to clear their sidewalks within 24 hours of a storm are scofflaws, and they should be fined, because the entire community suffers when the sidewalks are impassable. If we’re serious about addressing this problem, we need to start looking at it from the perspective of people who walk, which is basically everybody. I’m an able-bodied adult in pretty good shape, and it isn’t easy for me to navigate snow-covered sidewalks. How do elderly and disabled people do it?
That said, I don’t want to let the pedestrians of the Capital Region off the hook.
I’ve never lived in a place where people are so cavalier about jaywalking and wandering into the road whenever they feel like it. This behavior is quite common, and it occurs even when the sidewalks are clear. I don’t know what to attribute it to — perhaps people just get sick of hopping off the sidewalk whenever they encounter a patch that isn’t clear and opt to walk in the street. But it’s dangerous, and it should stop.
I’m not a property owner, so I’m not obligated to clear the sidewalk when it snows.
But here are some things I know: It snows in the Northeast. It will snow again this winter, and next winter, too. Snow needs to be shoveled.
Nobody should be surprised by these facts.