This is the time of year when we gather together to complain about the slipshod way snow is removed from sidewalks in these parts. I only know about this problem in the Village of New Paltz, but I’m sure it’s much the same everywhere in the county. Some sidewalks get cleared quickly and thoroughly, but others do not. There are walks just a few hundred feet from my home that still haven’t been shoveled since the big storm at the beginning of the month. Then, there are the blurry areas by intersections and near property lines; if no one nearby puts in the extra effort, the result is an icy morass for which no one will take responsibility.
Village trustees have thought about different solutions to improving compliance in recent years. Getting the small number of building inspectors out to find all the problem areas seems like it would be a logistical nightmare. That’s a lot of time and attention that they might instead have to devote to other safety issues. Trustees considered shortening the window to just 12 hours after a storm is over. They have looked at hiring people to shovel at least the dangerous parts in the village core and charging property owners for their time. I’ve heard talk of organizing a community volunteer effort, allowing people who are struggling to get it done to find help.
I found data from 1990 to 2006 showing that about 100 people die of shoveling snow each year; to me it seems remarkable that a town of 14,000 has had two such deaths in a span of 14 months: Tom Nyquist in December of 2019 and Dan Guenther in February of 2021. Some medical experts recommend that no one over 55 do it at all. It’s a nice thought to organize a volunteer effort to choose between possible death for oneself or possible injury to a pedestrian, but this is a problem that isn’t going to be fixed by private citizens and it shouldn’t be.
There is a Complete Streets law in New York, which sets standards for what kind of road-construction projects can receive state funding. According to those standards, a street that is deemed complete “is a roadway planned and designed to consider the safe, convenient access and mobility of all roadway users of all ages and abilities. This includes pedestrians, bicyclists, public transportation riders and motorists; it includes children, the elderly and persons with disabilities.” A study done in New York City found “convincing evidence that improved accessibility and a more welcoming street environment…generated increases in retail sales in the project areas.”
Sidewalks are part of a complete street, and most of any public road is cleared of snow using plows, from which it gets piled on the narrow ribbon of public roadway that is called the “sidewalk.” To expect private citizens to clear any part of a public road is bizarre; to pile at least triple the amount of compacted snow on top of what the private citizen must remove is downright abusive. In shifting the responsibility of snow-removal for this small portion of the street, the spirit of “complete streets” is abandoned during the winter months. Access to the roads is only guaranteed to this in motorized vehicles.
It’s time to stop considering how better to get property-owners to comply with shoveling laws, which could be costing them money they cannot afford, or perhaps even their lives. This is a tradition which carries no moral value to those who might die, or to those who have to walk alongside moving cars or slog through ice and slush to walk anywhere. It’s a tradition that poses unreasonable demands on the members of our Building Department, and it’s a tradition that has a shoddy logical foundation. (Imagine having to shovel everything up to the center line of the road. Of course not; that’s ridiculous.) It’s a tradition that violates the spirit of the complete-streets movement.
Rather than looking for ways to enforce a nearly unenforceable law, it’s time to treat sidewalks as part of the complete streets that they are. New Paltz mayor Tim Rogers once looked into the cost of hiring contractors to shovel the sidewalks in the village core and found it to be far too expensive, but the real power of government is simply to get the job done. The walking paths on campus are always quickly and efficiently cleared because state workers take care of them using the appropriate equipment. There are several stretches of sidewalk in the village that are shoveled by village employees; these are nearly always the first ones shoveled. With the right equipment, the same people who plow the middle part of the road can also plow the edge parts called sidewalks. The sidewalk in front of my house benefits the entire community and that’s the only thing I want to pay for in my taxes. When compared to the cost of hiring someone to move the snow or buying and maintaining a snowblower, I think property-owners will actually save money. If I compare it to the cost of having a heart attack, I am definitely sure most of us will be ahead of the game.
It’s really pretty simple: If we treat sidewalks like the roads they are and make snow removal a government responsibility, we will have a safer community and fewer people dead in the snow, which would probably be worth it if it did cost some of us a little bit more. However, I think all that will also prove cost-effective if the job is done by the DPW workers who are already fastidious professionals, even considering the cost of new equipment to make that possible. Until we see a thorough analysis, we can’t compare the numbers, but those numbers would have to be pretty high to offset the potential savings in human life.