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Chicago Activists Push for Universal Municipal Sidewalk Shoveling Service

Griffin Krueger | The PhoenixChicago activists are pushing for a city-wide program to clear snow and ice from sidewalks.

When it snows, the city quickly acts to plow and salt the roads, but activists said more effort is needed when it comes to pedestrian infrastructure as those who don’t drive are left out to dry with slushy and icy sidewalks. 

Chicago homeowners and landlords are responsible for shoveling the sidewalk adjacent to their property themselves and those who don’t risk receiving a $50 to $500 fine under the city’s policy. However, often this is difficult for older residents and for those who have disabilities. 

When property owners don’t shovel or walkways aren’t shoveled completely it creates dangerous walking conditions for those with mobility constraints. 

“In my neighborhood because of the impassable conditions of the sidewalks, after it snows, I cannot walk to a bus stop or the grocery store,” Jackie Tajiri, a west Rogers Park resident, said. “So I have to rely on grocery delivery, via Amazon.” 

“What I’d like to see is the city clearing off sections where the buses drop us off and the snow is piled high, it’s dangerous since I’m a senior with difficulty walking,” said resident Steven Martin.

Transit advocacy group Better Streets Chicago has partnered with Access Living, an advocacy group for people with disabilities, to push the Plow The Sidewalks campaign. Better Streets Chicago circulated a petition which asks the city to establish a sidewalk snow and ice removal program by next winter. The petition has received over 4,700 signatures. 

“Piles of snow and ice effectively trap people who use wheelchairs or other mobility supportive devices,” the petition reads. “It impedes parents with strollers. It makes accessing the bus difficult to impossible, especially for those with limited mobility. It leaves every user at risk of slipping and falling.”

The Better Streets petition calls for the city to study how sidewalks could be cleared and implement a more robust plan. The organization wants to see a guaranteed source of funding for a municipal sidewalk clearing program in the city’s 2023 budget according to Michael Podgers at  Better Streets Chicago.

Podgers said if the city goes ahead with the program there will most likely have to be a pilot study which looks at how it can best be implemented in Chicago.

Maria Hadden, the alderwoman of the 49th ward which encompases Rogers Park, supports the Better Streets plan and has been working with the group, according to Hadden’s chief of staff Leslie Perkins.

Hadden met with Better Streets and the other organizers to discuss the initiative and how it can be moved forward. Perkins said the office is looking to meet with the Department of Streets and Sanitation and other departments to further discuss the proposal.

Podgers said the city can afford to establish a municipal sidewalk plowing program, pointing to its robust street clearing service.

“This is kind of ridiculous because we can marshall tens of dollars every year to clear road ways, and then somebody who’s driving an expensive vehicle can get around easily,” Podgers said. “But you can’t use the most basic piece of mobility which is the sidewalk. Everybody, whether you’re a driver or a transit user or a pedestrian or a cyclist, we all use sidewalks at some point in our trips in the city.”

Other cities including Rochester, New York and Montreal, Canada run similar programs which clear fallen snow from sidewalks. 

In Rochester, through the employment of private contractors the city plows sidewalks when four or more inches of snow has fallen. The city plows over 850 miles of sidewalk and finances the program through property taxes, according to the city’s website. 

Montreal’s snow clearing programs are even more robust, plowing sidewalks when there is more than an inch of snow. These cities see far greater annual snowfall levels than Chicago however, with Rochester averaging nearly 100 inches of snow each winter compared with Chicago’s average of just 38 inches, according to the National Weather Service.

Regarding how they would like to see a potential program in Chicago run, Podgers said activists are open to any system as long as the sidewalks are cleared.

“At this point we want to work with the city to make sure the best system for Chicago is implemented so long as the service is provided universally and effectively,” he said. “We’re currently proposing several options to the city for how it could pursue this idea and it does include both contractors and having it be municipal employees who do it.”

Oak Park, a Chicago suburb, has installed heated sidewalks which melt the snow and ice on their own, an idea which some have pointed to as a potential solution for Chicago’s sidewalk woes. 

Podgers said although the idea is good in theory, in practice it would be difficult and expensive to implement across the entire city. He did say there are ways in which the technology could be implemented without it encompassing the entire city, however.

“I think it would make more sense to focus on heating just the area under bus stops, or under train and L platforms and things like that,” he said. “Those are areas where you already have the space and also usually already have infrastructure in place that provide a source of electricity.”

Some disagreed with the proposed programs, including Carrie Vinidich who said “the sidewalks are not the responsibility of the city.”

However, even though unplowed sidewalks can be reported to the city and fines are placed on building owners who don’t shovel, some residents say this isn’t enough and large swaths of sidewalks go uncleared. 

“Too many property owners here refuse to make any effort to pick up a shovel, and clear their sidewalks,” Tajiri said.

The city tries to combat building owners failing to clear sidewalks adjacent to their property through fines. Residents can report unplowed sidewalks to the city by calling 311l. Podgers said the current accountability system is not effective enough in preventing uncleared walkways. 

“The city gets thousands of 311 requests a year about snow and ice, it raises the question is the city actually going out and checking on this, and then they have to issue a fine and then the city has to get someone to come out and clear it off,” he said. “It’s hard to implement a public service when almost 2 million individuals or entities are responsible for making that public service happen.”

According to the city, there are an average of 3.9 million 311 calls every year, although it is not specified how many of them pertain to unshoveled sidewalks. In 2014, there were 226 fines issued as a result of uncleared walkways, according to the city’s website.

Podgers explained Better Streets has received support from other aldermen throughout the city besides just Hadden and the organization continues to speak with municipal departments and work in tandem with other organizations to see their propositions put in place. 

“There is recognition that if you want a universally accessible transportation system then sidewalks have to be taken care of as well,” Podgers said. “That means clearing them of snow and ice in the winter and not leaving them up to the peacemeal individualized system we have.”

Griffin Krueger | The Phoenix Chicago homeowners and landlords are responsible for shoveling the sidewalk adjacent to their property themselves and those who don’t risk receiving a $50 to $500 fine under the city’s policy.
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