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Foss: Cities need to do more to clear sidewalks

Foss: Cities need to do more to clear sidewalks

Foss: Cities need to do more to clear sidewalks
A pedestrian is forced to walk in the street to avoid a snowy sidewalk along State Street in Schenectady in 2017.
Photographer: GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

On one of my recent strolls around town, I found myself crossing the street to avoid an ice-covered sidewalk, then re-crossing it when I encountered another slick stretch of walkway. 

If you live in a Capital Region city, you're probably familiar with what I'm talking about. 

Ice-and-snow covered sidewalks are a significant problem this time of year, forcing pedestrians to seek out safer surfaces or risk breaking their neck.

As long as I've lived here I've heard people complain about the condition of the sidewalks in the winter, and listened to city leaders talk about what might be done to improve the situation. 

But I can't say that I've seen any real improvement in the condition of the sidewalks, and as long as the responsibility for clearing them is left to property owners, I doubt I ever will. 

There's only one way to ensure that city sidewalks are safe for pedestrians to walk on, and that's to make clearing them a government responsibility. 

A crazy idea? 

Well, I grew up in communities where clearing sidewalks was a government responsibility, so it doesn't sound especially crazy to me. 

But these were small, rural towns that lacked the extensive sidewalk systems you find in upstate cities. Is clearing the sidewalks something upstate cities can realistically do? Or is it only viable in smaller communities where there isn't as much to clear? 

A partial answer can be found in a recent post on the website Streetsblog USA, which discusses how to make it easier to walk, bike and use mass transit. 

The post, titled "More Cities Are Taking Responsibility For Clearing Sidewalks of Snow," was music to my ears. 

It suggests that more cities are beginning to regard sidewalk clearing as an important quality-of-life issue, and highlights the strides made in a handful of cities around the country, including Rochester and Syracuse. 

In Rochester, clearing ice and snow from sidewalks is the property owner's responsibility, but the city provides what it describes as a supplemental service: When it snows 4 inches or more, the city will plow sidewalks. 

In January, Syracuse adopted a new sidewalk snow-removal plan that entails clearing snow from heavily trafficked pedestrian routes through the city when there's 3 inches of snow, about 40 miles. 

One of the cities Streetsblog holds up as a model for clearing snow from sidewalks is Burlington, Vermont.

Burlington clears all city sidewalks using city equipment and staff. But it prioritizes clearing roads, so it can take up to 48 hours to clear sidewalks. 

If there's any takeaway, it's that there are a lot of different ways to approach sidewalk clearing, but seeing it as a public good is a good first step to coming up with better policy.  

And better policies are needed. 

I've seen how the Capital Region approaches clearing snow from sidewalks, and I'm not impressed. 

It's time for a new approach -- one focused on making our cities just a little more livable during the cold winter months. 

Reach Gazette columnist Sara Foss at [email protected] Opinions expressed here are her own and not necessarily the newspaper's.

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