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A modest proposal: Cities should clear snow from sidewalks instead of plowing streets

Posted by Alan Wirzbicki  March 18, 2013 04:28 PM

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If a snowstorm hits New England on Tuesday, as now forecast, cities and towns should try an unorthodox approach when snow starts piling up on the streets: leave it there, and plow the sidewalks instead.
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Winter storms normally prompt a heroic effort to clear streets — after the February blizzard, for instance, Boston deployed 678 plows and diggers to excavate the city from 2 feet of snow.

But this time, why not try a radically historic approach? Let drivers fend for themselves.

The idea is not as alien as it might seem. Plowing was unheard of until the automobile. In the winter, a wheeled carriage was switched out with a sleigh. Likewise, cars can be equipped to deal with snow. Drivers can put chains on their tires. Perhaps in the future every vehicle should also be required to have its own salt sprayer, the way every property owner is now required to shovel their own sidewalk.

More fundamentally, why is it that private citizens are now responsible for digging out sidewalks, while municipalities plow the roads for vehicles at great expense? Mayor Menino has said the car is no longer king in Boston, but you wouldn't know it from the way the city uses its resources on snowy days.

Certainly, treatment of pedestrians has improved in other respects. Drivers have to stop for pedestrians in the crosswalk. Thanks to the Americans with Disabilities Act, curbs increasingly have wheelchair-accessible ramps.

But these rules cease to mean anything when someone with a wheelchair or a walker or a pair of sneakers can't get off the sidewalk and across the street because of snow blocking their way. The problem is that snowplows often "clear" the streets for drivers by pushing snow onto the sidewalk.

Obviously, cities aren’t really going to quit plowing streets anytime soon. But if the idea seems too outlandish, here's a less radical request: If my neighbors and I shovel our sidewalks for each other, the city should at least clear the crosswalks. The weakest link in the chain of pedestrian transit infrastructure shouldn't be the same one taxpaying pedestrians spend millions of dollars to clear: the streets.

Zach Youngerman is a master of city planning student at MIT in the City Design and Development group.

Photo by Zach Youngerman: Snow blocks a crosswalk in Harvard Square after February's blizzard.

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ABOUT THE ANGLE Online commentary and news analysis from the Boston Globe. The Angle is produced by Rob Anderson and Alan Wirzbicki. You can follow Rob on Twitter at @rcand.

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