Plow the sidewalks
It's long past time for Spokane to clear the city's sidewalks and bike lanes
Today, given this new snow, I’m republishing a piece I wrote last February for Spokane-Coeur d’Alene Living magazine. It remains relevant; the City of Spokane still doesn’t plow sidewalks and bike lanes to keep the city accessible to all.
Late in December, after the temperatures moderated from their Antarctic lows, I took a walk during my lunch to grab coffee a few blocks down the street. While it had snowed about a week ago, and our local street hadn’t yet been plowed, I wasn’t too worried.
Then I got out to the arterial street.
I hadn’t remembered that when the plows go by on the street, they often push a messy pile of snow chunks onto the sidewalk. The chunks had melted slightly, refrozen, and were a complete pain to walk through. Fortunately, I only had a few hundred feet of trudging through the berm to the next property, where the resident had (mercifully) plowed the berm out. I got my coffee and was on my way.
Unfortunately, despite our region’s winter weather, this situation is quite common. According to City code, clearing of sidewalks is the responsibility of the adjacent property owner, and typically a 36-inch path must be cleared by 9 a.m. on the day after a snowfall. Nearby ADA ramps (typically at intersections) must also be cleared, and interestingly, a pedestrian path must even be cleared if no sidewalk exists.
Predictably, this practice has inequitable and unjust effects.
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First, many residents, like seniors and those with disabilities, can’t maintain their own sidewalks. The city––conveniently––directs them to volunteer and even (!) paid snow removal services.
Second, the practice prioritizes drivers over pedestrians, transit users, and bicyclists. Particularly in the winter, these street users are often lower-income, likelier to be people of color, and likelier not to have access to a car. What does this say about who our community chooses to serve?
Third and finally, by passing sidewalk snow removal off onto property owners, the city privatizes a shared city asset. Sidewalks are part of the public right-of-way, which means that they should be the city’s responsibility to clear. This would also eliminate the problem of inconsistent snow clearing which makes the wintertime pedestrian experience so miserable.
Many cities already do this.
Bloomington, Minnesota (population: 86,000) and Toronto, Ontario (population: 3 million) are among the most notable examples, since they attempt to clear not just all of their streets, but also all of their sidewalks, crosswalks, and multi-use trails, plus most of their bike lanes. These two cities also receive the same amount of snow each year as Spokane—about 50 inches.
Other cities don’t go quite as far as Bloomington or Toronto, but still make much more of an effort than Spokane. Duluth, Minnesota clears about 100 miles of “priority sidewalks”—usually routes to schools and public transit stops. Syracuse, New York started a pilot a few years ago to clear 20 miles, and now plows 120 miles with a focus on safe routes to schools. Even here in Spokane, we have experience clearing pedestrian routes. Many routes are plowed through Riverfront Park, including the Centennial Trail from Gonzaga to Kendall Yards. And the Downtown Spokane Partnership clears common areas and crosswalks downtown.
A four-season city demands four-season services to serve all street users.
We can start with a pilot project on limited routes. We can start with sidewalks located on bus routes, or sidewalks on routes to schools. Hell, we could just start adjacent to city parks where the City is already clearing multi-use trails and pathways on-property. But we have to start somewhere.
For the health of our city and to prioritize equity, it’s long past time to start plowing our sidewalks and bike lanes.