CHICAGO — When it snows in Chicago, the city deploys a fleet of salt spreaders and plows to clear streets for drivers.
But slushy, slippery sidewalks have some residents wondering: What about pedestrians?
Chicagoans and landlords are on their own when it comes to shoveling sidewalks after it snows. That’s particularly difficult after storms like that seen this weekend and Monday morning, which dropped more than 4 inches of snow on the city — with more coming.
Now, Better Streets Chicago, a transit advocacy group, has teamed up with Access Living on a petition that asks the city to create a sidewalk snow and ice removal service by next winter.
A previous citywide show shoveling initiative was discontinued because of a lack of volunteers. The petition would have the city study how the snow can be cleared and implement a plan for it.
“This is not a problem of snow or a problem of funding,” according to the petition. “The city has found the money to clear roadways for car users. It is a problem of priorities and policy.”
The petition has collected more than 2,700 signatures.
Michael Podgers, of Better Streets Chicago, said the heart of the issue relates directly to disparities in the way the city handles public infrastructure.
“Walking and being able to use sidewalks is an essential form of mobility for everybody,” Podgers said. “Could you imagine if to drive on the road you had to go out and shovel it yourself? Or if at the intersection the road wasn’t clear, but the entire street leading up to it was? That’s what we’re trying to get at. This is public infrastructure, and it shouldn’t be an adjacent property owner’s responsibility to do it.”
Pedestrians Left ‘High And Dry’
The city’s Department of Streets and Sanitation is tasked with clearing the streets, not sidewalks or other walkways. The city also doesn’t plow alleys.
When it comes to the sidewalks, residents have to pick up their shovels.
City policy requires business and property owners to clear a 5-foot-wide path on the sidewalk in front of their property. They cannot push snow into right-of-ways, like bike racks, parking spaces and transit stops, said Michael Claffey, a spokesperson for the Department of Transportation.
But the most common complaint Access Living gets during the winter is that sidewalks are impassable because of snow or ice. The group provides services for and advocates for people with disabilities.
Impassable sidewalks can double the length of an otherwise easy trip or force people to stay inside altogether if they are older or have disabilities.
Ashley Eisenmenger, Access Living’s public relations coordinator, has visual impairments. Making a detour on a walking route is more challenging for people who are blind or visually impaired, she said.
To get to a recent appointment, Eisenmenger needed to walk a half-mile route that would usually take her 10 minutes. But with the added obstacle of navigating ice- and snow-covered sidewalks, the “exact same route” that she’s “familiar” with took closer to 25 minutes.
“If there’s snow and ice on the ground, my white cane doesn’t make the same sound when I tap the ground, and the ground doesn’t feel the same, so it’s harder to feel inconsistencies,” Eisenmenger said. “These simple things that are really inconvenient for some folks make it almost impossible at times for me to get where I need to go.”
Uncleared sidewalks are also a challenge for parents with stroller-age kids.
Jeremy Frisch, of Lakeview, said he and his wife must often lift their stroller up “over the intersections or over the various houses or businesses that had chosen to not clear their sidewalks” when taking walks with their toddler.
Earlier this month, Frisch documented 30 impassable sidewalks he came across during an hour-long stroll through Lakeview with his son.
Some Better Streets organizers have helped people who use wheelchairs get out of snow drifts, as well.
Podgers said the worst part of the city’s policy is it “leaves the most vulnerable members of our community high and dry when it comes to the most basic form of mobility.”
“It seems a little backwards that we’re jumping head over heels to clear the public way for the types of vehicles that can probably get through a little bit of snow easily, and yet we can’t do it for pedestrians,” Podgers said. “We all know from experience as a pedestrian in Chicago in the winter, it can be quite treacherous when ice and snow isn’t cleared.”
In the absence of a city program, residents and community groups have taken matters into their own hands.
Numerous aldermanic offices and community groups like the Neighborhood Network Alliance and My Block, My Hood, My City have services to help residents who are older or who have disabilities clear their sidewalks.
Logan Square resident Lindsay Saewitz created a snow-shoveling services map after seeing people ask for help on neighborhood Facebook groups. The map lists shoveling services residents or business owners can hire to keep the snow, ice and fines away.
But if someone can’t shovel a sidewalk, can’t afford to pay someone to do it or doesn’t have a network to help, they have no choice but to risk being fined, said Laura Saltzman, Access Living’s transportation policy analyst.
Fines for non-compliance can be up to $500 for individuals and $1,000 for businesses. In 2021, the city issued 667 snow citations.
And there are other issues with the city’s policy: Though property owners are not supposed to block other areas when shoveling, it still happens. That was a problem for Lisa Soverino, who lives in Ukrainian Village and uses a bus stop near a gas station off the Damen Brown Line.
“The gas station made sure to plow their driveway. It was clear and salted,” Soverino said. “But they pushed all the snow into the bus stop.”
The stop doesn’t have much standing room, so with piles of compacted snow, “there’s nowhere to stand except for in the gas station driveway, which cars fly into while speeding,” Soverino said.
Residents can request an uncleared sidewalk be shoveled through 311, Claffey said.
More than 2,500 “snow – uncleared sidewalk” 311 requests have been submitted to the city this year, according to city data. About 46 percent of those requests have been marked “complete,” which can mean the pathway was cleared, the city contacted an owner or left a door hanger explaining the city’s rules.
CDOT did not immediately respond to a request for clarification on how the specific response to a 311 request is determined.
Soverino said she’s filed 311 requests about snow or ice on sidewalks. After a recent complaint, the city notified her that someone had left a flyer about the city’s policy at the location Soverino flagged — but the sidewalk still was never cleared, Soverino said.
The city received more than 6,500 service requests for snow-blocked sidewalks November 2020-March 2021, according to city data.
“They’re not going to follow up with all of these property owners,” Soverino said. “It just seems unthinkable that they could actually have the capacity to do that.”
Frisch grew up in suburban Wilmette, where crews use Bobcat snow removal machinery to clear their sidewalks. He said a system that puts the onus on individual residents won’t be successful, even if property owners are otherwise responsible about clearing paths.
When it snowed on New Year’s Eve, “there were a bunch of houses in my neighborhood where clearly people were out of town,” and “that meant that their entire block became impassable,” Frisch said.
“Even if we had perfect enforcement where we were giving people tickets, we’d still end up in a situation where some blocks would be impassable and that’s just not acceptable,” he said.
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