Staff and volunteers with My Block, My Hood, My City clear out snow in colaboration with R.A.G.E. (Resident Association of Greater Englewood) in Chicago's Englewood neighborhood on Feb. 17, 2021. Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

CHICAGO — The City Council has approved an effort to create a working group that will craft recommendations for a pilot program to publicly fund plowing sidewalks across the city.

The ordinance, dubbed “Plow The Sidewalks” by supporters, has gotten support from a range of disability and transit advocates and alderpeople. The Council approved the measure at its meeting Wednesday.

Currently, landlords can be fined up to $500 per day for not shoveling or plowing the sidewalk in front of their buildings. But sporadic reporting and enforcement often leads to stretches of sidewalk covered in snow and ice for days or even weeks in the winter, advocates have said.

A city-run program that clears snow from sidewalks would make it safer for pedestrians to get around, especially for Chicagoans with disabilities or neighbors in areas with a high number of vacant buildings, proponents said.

“This is important … for our seniors. For people with different abilities. Young parents. For everyone. Because regardless of how you got here today, if you drove, if you scootered, if you cycled, you all took some steps to get here. It is the one thing that everyone experiences in Chicago. Everyone deserves to be safe,” sponsor Ald. Daniel La Spata (1st) said at a pre-Council press conference.

Alderpeople and supporters speak in support of a measure to ultimately create a pilot program for the city to plow sidewalks Credit: Quinn Myers/Block Club Chicago

The working group will include members of various city departments. It must meet at least three times before May 31, 2024 to determine the size, location and funding sources of the pilot, according to the ordinance. The actual pilot program will then still need to be approved by the full City Council.

The group will consider the concentration of neighbors over the age of 65, public transit access, areas of “historical disinvestment” and other factors when deciding where to locate the pilot area or areas.

Supporters hope the program will be in place for the winter of 2024-25, said Ald. Gilbert Villegas (36th), an early supporter of the initiative.

“What we’re seeing is that the plowing [of sidewalks] often doesn’t occur,” Villegas told Block Club earlier this year. “We hand out $500 fines, but the snow’s still there and people still can’t pass by. Instead of trying to nickel-and-dime people, I think it’s best the city takes over this service and finds a way to implement it so that people can move throughout the city.” 

Liz Nagy shovels the sidewalk along Halsted Street in Englewood after a winter storm in 2021. Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

Can Chicago Support A Citywide Shoveling Program?

The most recent attempt at a citywide shoveling program in Chicago was launched in 2012. Then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel backed a citywide shoveling initiative that included a program called Snow Corps, pairing volunteers with older residents and people with disabilities who need shoveling help.

That program was scrapped in 2017 due to a lack of volunteers, sources told Block Club in 2021.

Disability and transit advocates implored alderpeople to support ‘Plow The Sidewalks’ as a vital city service that is today going undone.

“Because we have a transportation system that does not allow for full participation by the community, there are many year-round jobs you can’t keep if you can’t get there in the winter,” said Laura Saltzman, a transportation policy analyst with disability advocacy group Access Living. “It’s harder to stay employed, it’s harder to maintain relationships, when snow and ice-covered sidewalks have blocked off wide swaths of the city.”

Jose Almanza, director of advocacy for transit group Equiticity, said the program is sorely needed in West Side neighborhoods, where a high concentration of vacant buildings often lead many sidewalks to go unshoveled.

“I’m sure if you talk to anybody in North Lawndale, they’ll tell you stories of seeing people going onto the road because the sidewalk isn’t cleared, or people falling,” Almanza said. “That’s unacceptable, especially living in 2023 in one of the biggest cities in the country. This is something that’s doable, and I’m glad that we’re finally doing this.”

Several alderpeople spoke out against the pilot at Wednesday’s Council meeting.

Ald. Anthony Beale (9th) talks about the Plow the Sidewalks initiative at a City Council meeting on July 19, 2023. Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

Ald. Ray Lopez (15th) ultimately voted for the measure, but said he was “conflicted” about creating another obligation for the city while it struggles to maintain its current ones.

“We’re talking about creating an opportunity to expand our reach in neighborhoods when we can already barely meet the reach we have now,” he said. “All I have to do is look at any neighborhood on the South and West Side and see how we still struggle to maintain vacant lots.”

Ald. Anthony Beale (9th) said the pilot idea fell into “the bad category,” and would ultimately disappoint neighbors if the city promises — and then fails — to plow their sidewalks.

“I don’t want to get those phone calls from my residents saying, ‘When is the city going to plow the sidewalks?’ because that’s what’s going to happen,” Beale said. “So when you open up this can of worms, understand this can is going to be enormous and it’s going to cost the taxpayers a few hundred million dollars.”

During heavy snowfall in recent years, South Siders have frequently complained about their streets going unplowed.

Funding totals or sources for the pilot has not yet been determined. The working group will assess costs and revenue sources and present ideas to the City Council next year, Villegas said.

Other alderpeople also said they had reservations about the pilot’s feasibility, but that the working group was a way to determine what the city could reasonably accomplish.

“If the threshold for not doing something is because it’s challenging, then we should give up on potholes and tree trimming and lead service replacement and everything else that happens to be a challenge in the city,” Ald Andre Vasquez (40th) said. “Last time I checked, though, the reason we’re elected is to solve the problem, not to say we can’t solve it.”

Block Club’s Kayleigh Padar contributed.

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