Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Agenda setting: snow clearance in the walking-biking-transit city

Right:  Every year DC's Department of Transportation runs a public service ad campaign imploring people to shovel their sidewalks.  This is from the 2013-2014 campaign.

GGW has an entry ("Joseph Brown died trying to avoid a snow-covered path, and DC blamed him for it") about the death of a person who, unable to walk on the sidewalk because it was full of snow cleared from the roadway, was crossing Sousa Bridge while walking in the roadway, and he was hit and killed by a car.  Technically, he was at fault for walking in the roadway.

This kind of event happens every year during major snows.  People walk in the street because sidewalks, especially those under direct responsiblity of public agencies, aren't cleared.  And some die.

I don't understand why there isn't a greater attention to creating what I call a "maintenance of way" agenda in the walking-biking-transit city that supports winter-time mobility as well as fair-weather mobility.

In response to recent snows, there are some letters in the Post about this ("Area government’s snow hypocrisy") and Montgomery County Councilmember Hans Riemer has proposed better snow clearance practices for the Silver Spring and Wheaton Urban Districts, based on practices in Bethesda ("Riemer wants to look at snow removal in Silver Spring," Gazette).

The concentric circles on this map represent 1/4, 1/2, and 3/4 mile distances from the Metro Station.

This is the agenda I came up with in 2010 (note that #7 has been added with this update, and old points #7 and #8 have been re-ordered):

Proposed agenda for snow removal policies that support walking, transit, and bicycling, in a city where upwards of 40% of households do not have cars, and where as much as 51% of trips to work are captured by walking, bicycling, and transit:

1. The city needs to develop a plan for "maintenance of way" so that citizens can get to schools, libraries, transit stops, transit stations, and local commercial districts, regardless of snow conditions. This is especially necessary for the one mile radius areas around subway and train stations.

2. And the city needs to adopt specific policies and practices with regard to snow removal from the sidewalks of city properties. Too often, snow is inadequately removed from the sidewalks of city properties such as parks, libraries, and schools. The city government itself should set the standard for preferred practices on snow removal.

3. And the city needs to adopt specific policies and practices with regard to snow removal from bus stops as well as from bicycle trails that are also used for transportational purposes.

4. And the City needs to work out an agreement with the National Park Service for snow removal on NPS parcels (park space and other land reservations) that have sidewalks and are integrated into the city's urban fabric.

5. To maintain the economic vitality of the Downtown, which is the primary economic generator within the city in terms of tax revenue generation and maintains the city's place as a key center within the regional economy, the city needs to have a plan to deal with snow removal needs there, and in the other major employment centers in the city.

6. The city needs to prioritize snow removal on bus routes, so that even if the aboveground transit stations are closed, WMATA could still run, safely, bus service on most of the routes. (Some routes, such as the G8, which goes up a big hill on Eastern Ave., likely would have issues.)

7.  The city needs to be sure that alley residential communities are not ignored when it comes to snow removal.  While the city does not normally provide snow clearance service to alleys, this practice should be applied differentially, depending on whether or not there are domiciles.

8. Overall, this means that the city government needs to do a better job in terms of maintaining and provisioning equipment, and addressing the needs as they arise.

9. Furthermore, WMATA needs to develop a better program for maintaining bus service in high snow situations, and providing "snow emergency" bus service connecting closed above-ground transit stations to the working underground system.

Even when it snows, in a transit city, people should not be denied transit.

The City of Fairbanks, Alaska just got a new sidewalk plow, according to the Fairbanks News-Miner newspaper.  

DDOT has a piece of equipment about this size for bike trails.

Alley communities.  Separately I have written about servicing alley housing, which often might require smaller equipment--such as smaller fire trucks and garbage trucks. (DC does have a set of smaller garbage trucks, but I haven't seen alley sized fire trucks.)

Note that it has been reported to me that the city is also remiss in often not doing snow removal in alley communities.  The need to address this has been added to the overall agenda.

Photos:  Gessford Court SE via Facebook.

It's not just a matter of self-organizing I don't think,  because there is still the issue of clearing snow from the section between the alley and the outside streets.

I didn't take photos, but over the weekend in Moorefield, West Virginia, in the small commercial district which is also the county seat, they were shoveling the snow into the street, picking it up with front loaders, depositing it into dump trucks, and removing the snow from the area altogether.

Similarly, while Winchester, Virginia declared a snow emergency, which meant that parking on the street or in parking lots in Downtown was forbidden, according to the Winchester Star the city allowed free parking in parking structures. 

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At 5:55 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

All correct but you seem to think it is possible for there to be flexibility and knowledge on the ground about the precise needs of different neighborhoods. Good luck.

At 5:59 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

I give alley tours, or at least, I used to, and am a strong advocate for alley dwelling units.

The tours have included Gessford Court, and someone who lives there continually "harangues" me about relevant alley issues, which I write about from time to time, including this one.

The snow before this one, he complained about lack of service. I said, get me some photos and I'll write about it...

2. But as a planner, while I agree that it's difficult to have hyper granular practices, because the average DPW or DGS employee isn't capable of providing a differentiated level of service (and this is why BIDs exist too), I do believe that it is possible to do, with a special crew tasked for "maintenance of way" issues as they relate to walking, biking, transit, and alley dwelling.

If they can do it in Annapolis, Baltimore, Fairbanks, Moorefield, WV, etc., we probably have the capacity to do it here.

Besides which, again, my frequent harping on the sustainability plan... it's ludicrous for the city to say it will be the most sustainable city in the US, when current practices are so far behind world class practice, and when newly introduced practices (like the new waste and recycling cans that are coming) are nowhere near best practice even now.

One becomes the best by exceeding, going far beyond expectations, not by doing less than the best.

2. Another example of how it is very difficult to expect regular employees and practices to deal with "special needs" situations, see:


about the demolition of a modernist garden in Tampa by Dan Kiley that exceeded the capabilities of the building owner and then the city to maintain. So it was demolished.

At 9:29 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

glad to see that all of my harranguing worked !! thanks for doing what you do- Richard

At 2:05 PM, Anonymous charlie said...

The core issue is DC (and the region) treats the snow as someting the temperature will melt.

It is pretty rare for extended bouts of sub-freezing weather keeping large snow (and ice) piles around.

So yes, you've to be a bit more granular and also prioritize.

I feel the BIDs fell down on this one. There were plenty of opportuniteis to cut a channel in piles downtown to open up crosswalks, etc. Not being done. Maybe they were too busy hashtaging sneckdowns.

Really, like parking, we have to learn to treat snow as a revenue source.

At 3:01 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

not sure what you mean by "treating snow as a revenue source"?

I didn't get down into the core much during the snows.

In 2010, I "caught" the NoMA BID guys shoveling snow into the traffic lanes, which is against the law.

Since I was biking down 1st St. to get to MARC trains when I worked in Baltimore County, I was pretty concerned.

I didn't blog about it out of "professional courtesy" but I complained to the BID director and the dir. of operations and they made sure they changed their policies.

At 3:03 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

Oh, but excellent point about "it will just melt" which I guess is a very "sustainable" attitude in keeping with the Sustainability Plan. That way we don't have to expend energy and generate GHG to remove it!

At 3:07 PM, Anonymous charlie said...

snow = tickets for not clearing sidewalks.

At 3:08 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I noticed that most of the property owners around Lincoln Park had removed snow during the last dumping- and it made cycling easy and safer- but when I got to the park proper- it was a real mess- whcih goes to show that the NPS does not take good enough care of its city properties and ignores them unless something is critically dangerous- however- to me- this is personally dangerous and if the regular Joe Schmoe property house owners have to shovel snow and get fined if we don't- then why is the NPS let off of the hook? Another reason to take back their properties and give them to the city who at least we can complain to.

At 4:19 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

ahh. I am not too focused on that.

Mostly I think of the idea of "Safe Routes to School" expanded to the of "Safe Routes within Neighborhoods" and a prioritization of sidewalk-bike lane clearing in winter months -- as needed, yes, some melts -- involving extraordinary intervention (some small tractors with blades or brushes etc.)

So the comment that mentions Lincoln Park, well that's would be a priority to my way of thinking, based on this idea.

It's all about the walking-transit (and biking) city.

At 8:10 PM, Blogger Betty Barcode said...

This is a matter of equal access and equal protection. If sidewalks are public property just as streets are, then sidewalks should be cleared of snow the same way that streets are--by the municipality.

Rochester, NY has had municipal sidewalk plowing for over a century without bankrupting the city. The city writes specs and bids out the plowing routes to qualified contractors, who then provide the proper equipment and labor. Property owners are assessed by the width of their frontage. An average middle-class home owner might pay $55 per year. In return, the entire city is plowed and she can walk anywhere.

A court in Indianapolis has just ruled that property owners cannot be required to clear sidewalks.

Nowhere else in municipal administration do we fine individual citizens for failing to maintain public property.

At 1:18 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

DC is "weird" in that we don't do separate assessments for trash pick up and the like. It's rolled into the property taxes.

while I don't think it's unreasonable to expect citizens to maintain sidewalks in front of their homes, it probably is simpler to do what Rochester does, given that it continues to be a problem.

I'll look into it for a post as winter comes next year...

Thanks for these references.

At 6:55 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

Betty, this report, which isn't that great, except for links to some articles and web resources, has a link to the Rochester webpage explaining their program.

The reason the report isn't that great is that it was a study of state DOTs, when it needed to examine best practice cities.

The Rochester program kicks in for snows 3 inches or more. Otherwise people shovel themselves.

Interesting. I have filed this away for exploring later in the year.

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