Lots of Philly Sidewalks Were a Snow-Covered Mess Last Week

The city could do more to clear sidewalks after blizzards. Here's how.

Photos by @philabikes and Holly Otterbein

Sidewalks around the city were blanketed in snow in the wake of Winter Storm Jonas. | Photos by @philabikes and Holly Otterbein

Not only is it not snowing any longer, it’s almost temperate outside. The weather is in the 50s, and mounds of slush are melting, slowly but surely returning sidewalks to a (relatively) walkable state. 

But questions still linger about Winter Storm Jonas, chief among them: How will the city handle the next blizzard that rolls around? More specifically, how will officials ensure that people actually shovel the snow off of their sidewalks? 

Because here’s the thing: Last week, many sidewalks were bad for pedestrians. And we don’t mean kind of bad — we mean fall-on-your-face bad. People with disabilities or young children were especially at a disadvantage. 

It wasn’t the first time snowfall left sidewalks across the city buried to the point of nearly disappearing. Last year, Philadelphia’s vanishing walkways inspired the creation of a Tumblr account called “Unshoveled Sidewalks of Philly.”

This year, January 24th brought more crowdsourced photos, which quickly appeared on the website — images from West Philly to South Philly, Old City to East Passyunk. We’d explain just how ugly the sidewalks looked, but instead we’ll just let the photos speak for themselves: 

https://twitter.com/philabikes/status/691724328375828485/photo/1

https://twitter.com/EAFiedler/status/691958664765251584/photo/1

Even Congressman Bob Brady’s office in Port Richmond wasn’t safe:

https://twitter.com/superchicken976/status/692094035436113925/photo/1

In Philadelphia, the responsibility of shoveling sidewalks falls on property owners. If a sidewalk isn’t cleared, it’s the owner’s fault, not the city’s. (If City Hall is the property owner, of course, it has to break out a shovel just like the rest of us.) Philly even has a local ordinance requiring that residents “clear a path of not less than 36″ in width on all sidewalks, including curb cuts, abutting the building or premises with six hours after the snow has ceased to fall.”

This may come as a surprise to some residents. While stories of nightmarishly obscured sidewalks abound, when was the last time you heard about someone getting slapped with a fine for post-blizzard property negligence?   

According to city spokesperson Mike Dunn, 95 code violations have been issued so far this winter. (Each violation carries a $50 fine.) Last winter, 2,825 of them were distributed. 

Why the disparity? Dunn said that the 95 notices written this winter represent one storm and less than two months, whereas last year’s number represents several storms and four months (December through March). He added that the Streets Department’s SWEEP officers — who give out the violations — were part of the city’s Winter Snow Jonas plowing operation, so they were on plowing assignments “much longer than normal, slightly delaying the start of enforcement.”

We’re going to go out on a limb here and say that it sure looks like Philly saw more than 95 sidewalk violations post-Jonas. And while we could gab for days about how people should take responsibility for their sidewalks because it’s the right thing to do, the reality is that a) some people refuse to step up unless they’re given a very firm nudge in the right direction (perhaps one stronger than the threat of a barely-visible fine) and b) some folks aren’t physically able to clear their sidewalks. 

Last summer, Baltimore came up with a clever solution to this problem: Officials expanded an already existing summer jobs program to pair young people who wanted wintertime work with seniors who needed help shoveling. Signup is first-come, first-serve, and kids get paid a stipend for their services. Similarly, Philadelphia has deployed the young people at PowerCorps PHL, a workforce development program, to clear sidewalks after snowstorms in the past. Perhaps that effort could be beefed up.

In Boston, a city councilor is pushing for an ordinance that would exempt the elderly from shoveling snow. Ideally, he told the Boston Globe, the city would hire young people to help residents who qualify under the ordinance. 

Farther north, in Portland, Maine, officials have come up with a different fix: As in Philly, tenants are required to clear their sidewalks within a set amount of time (12 hours for commercial property owners, 24 for homeowners), and if the snow isn’t cleared promptly, the city takes action. But in Portland, the city initially delivers a complaint to the property, rather than a ticket. If the complaint is ignored, the city automatically clears the sidewalk in question and bills the tenant for cost of removal (about $100), plus a 10 percent administrative fee. It’s a gentler timeline that guarantees sidewalks are cleared within a reasonable amount of time. (The city also provides a phone number for elderly people to call if they need assistance with shoveling snow.)  

When asked what he thinks could be done to improve Philly’s sidewalk-shoveling process, Dunn replied, “We believe this effort in recent years has led to greater public awareness about the responsibility to clear the sidewalks, and that awareness will only increase over time.”

But the city has options, and perhaps officials could assume a more proactive role in the fight to maintain pedestrian mobility — even after a snowstorm. A larger youth employment program, like the one in Baltimore, paired with a ticketing process with more teeth, like the one in Portland, might be worth a try.