During the debate over President Obama’s stimulus bill, one of the most overused buzz terms was “shovel-ready.” Now, after back-to-back blizzards, the nation’s capital is itself shovel-ready. But not enough shovels are in action, and the city’s lax sidewalk clearing ordinance may be to blame.
The city snow removal ordinance requires all tenants, landlords, and business owners to clear the sidewalks in front of their properties “within the first 8 hours of daylight after the ceasing to fall of any snow.” But you certainly wouldn’t know it by looking around.
The snow began falling in earnest late Friday and by Saturday morning Washingtonians had taken to the streets — slipping and sliding alongside snowplows, SUVs, police vehicles, and the occasional stranded car. Ped X-ing was an extreme sport, but with limited subway service and no bus service, people didn’t really have a choice.
The snow ended on Saturday, but broad swathes of city sidewalks were still impassable on Monday (and completely out of the question for the elderly and disabled). By then the typical pedestrian could be seen weaving back and forth between areas of cleared sidewalk and semi-cleared streets. Now, after a day of heavy snow and high winds, people are back to risking their lives in the streets.
It doesn’t have to be this way. A tweak of the city sidewalk clearing ordinance could make all the difference.
Right now, the city is inadvertently letting sidewalk scofflaws off the hook. If a sidewalk isn’t cleared, the city is supposed to clear it and charge the cost to the responsible party — plus a $25 maximum fine. That sounds good in theory, but the city simply doesn’t have a shovel-wielding army to unleash on city sidewalks. The result is that many sidewalks go uncleared, and nobody pays for it — except for the city’s pedestrians.
Washington needs an ordinance that has teeth and can be enforced. If some residents, landlords, and business owners are unwilling to clear their sidewalks, then the city should be able to issue citations akin to parking tickets. The police and public works employees clearly have their hands full during snowstorms, so citations should be issued primarily by other city employees (e.g. parking enforcement staff). And the city could prioritize enforcement by relying largely on tips from 311.
I, for one, would eagerly phone in a report about about a grocery store near me — fully staffed and open for business, but with unshoveled sidewalks — or the gas stations I’ve passed with plowed and salted lots but unshoveled sidewalks. But without a revised law on the books, there’s little any pedestrian can do but trudge on in disgust.