FOR PEDS’ SAKE: City Must Take Over Sidewalk and Curb Clearance, Pols Say

Four days after the end of the weekend snowfall, many curb cuts remain uncleared. Photo: Gersh Kuntzman
Four days after the end of the weekend snowfall, many curb cuts remain uncleared. Photo: Gersh Kuntzman

It’s snow problem — unless it’s the city’s problem!

A growing chorus of local electeds is demanding that rules be changed to require the city, presumably the Department of Sanitation, to remove snow from sidewalks and pedestrian curb zones, a responsibility that now belongs to property owners who do an inconsistent job.

On Tuesday, City Council Member Tiffany Cabán (D-Queens) posted about the issue, and Manhattan Borough President Mark Levine sent a letter to Sanitation Commissioner Ed Grayson and his Department of Transportation counterpart Ydanis Rodriguez about the urgent need for “new plan for snow removal at intersections, pedestrian ramps and bus stops following snowstorms.”

The current plan of requiring property owners to clear the snow “tends to leave borderline areas between the sidewalk and the street unattended to, particularly at intersections and the curb in front of bus stops,” Levine said. “This is a serious challenge for disabled and elderly New Yorkers, as well as their caregivers.”

Levine anticipated the agencies’ likely complaint of limited budget resources for such a massive undertaking of clearing thousands of miles of city sidewalk, saying only that such challenges “are surmountable” and that he would work with the City Council to secure appropriate funding.

He’ll likely have a partner in Cabán, whose tweet specially endorsed a city takeover.

“We should have public snow removal from sidewalks,” she posted on Tuesday, independent of Levine’s effort. “Currently, we are placing undue burdens on pedestrians, especially those who use wheelchairs, canes, or walkers, or who push strollers. The city’s job is to hire a work force to meet the needs of everyday people!”

For its part, the Sanitation Department said it’s ready to do whatever is asked of it … with a little help.

“DSNY agrees that clearing pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure is a critical part of getting the City back on its feet following winter weather,” said agency spokesman Joshua Goodman. “Taking on public clearing of every sidewalk in New York City would require substantial additional headcount, equipment and facilities. The Department will never shy away from additional responsibility; however, this is a case where we can only do more with more.”

The political winds have been blowing for years, but have stepped up this year after the Department of Sanitation finally responded to years of complaints from the cycling community to deploy narrow snow plows to properly clean protected bike lanes rather than reverting to the agency’s longstanding practice of clearing bike lanes only after all car lanes have been fully cleaned — a practice that sometimes left cyclists unable to get to, or do, their jobs for days after storms.

“DSNY acquired approximately 30 pieces of equipment to clear snow from all protected bike lanes,” Manhattan Community Board 4 wrote in a letter to Grayson last month seeking better treatment of pedestrians. “Our goal is to ensure equitable delivery of sanitation services to the residents of our district and beyond.”

In short, that progressive Hells Kitchen community board, which includes pedestrian activist Christine Berthet among its members, is asking DSNY to do a better job for the most vulnerable road users, including pedestrians and transit users.

“There is an acute need for parity in transportation services during snowstorms, when the most vulnerable users, including persons with disabilities, have the most challenges,” the board’s letter said.

Last year, the board surveyed residents and found shockingly low approval ratings for how DSNY construed its snow-removal mission: 64 percent of all respondents said bus stop access was narrow or impassable during or after a snowstorm,  and 74 percent said the same about ramps at corners, all of which are the Sanitation Department’s responsibility.

“The continued complaints from our residents related to bus stops, corners and bike lanes indicate that we have a long way to go to achieve this goal” of safety and mobility for pedestrians, the letter stated.

The agency said it will respond to CB4’s letter, and offered general comments about the job it currently does. For instance, scores of workers are hired by the agency after snowstorms to start shoveling out intersections, though it is clearly not a sufficient workforce, given the tens of thousands of intersections in question, many of which look like this days and days after the last flakes have fallen:

This is prison for many city residents. Photo: Gersh Kuntzman
This is prison for many city residents. Photo: Gersh Kuntzman

Any efforts to change the way things are done in this city will, of course, not only require reallocation of budget funds but also a change in city law, specifically 16-123 of the administrative code, which requires “every owner, lessee, tenant, occupant, or other person having charge of any building or lot of ground in the city” to remove the snow within four hours after the end of a storm (between 7 a.m. and 9 p.m.). Failure to do so subjects the property owner to a fine of up to $150 or “imprisonment for not more than 10 days, or both.”

Goodman said the agency’s team of 169 enforcement agents, plus an unknown number of supervisors, wrote 5,268 such tickets last year, up from only 2,427 in the pandemic year. It did not appear that anyone went to jail.

Social media has exploded since the weekend storm with updates from New Yorkers who directly experienced or witnessed the danger and death toll inflicted by poor snow removal. In one one-minute video, a woman in a mechanized wheelchair is dismissed by a traffic enforcement officer, forced to ford a slushy intersection, and then is forced to mix with fast-moving cars:

And here’s what all too many bus stops looked like for people trying to get on or off a bus:

Or this snow-filled bus stop:

Photo: Caroline Spitzer
Photo: Caroline Spitzer

Or this one in Hells Kitchen:

Community Board 4’s letter suggested that Sanitation Department snow plows should be turned away from bus stops, which are typically on the right side of streets, to avoid filling those curbside spaces with snow.

“On all bus routes, therefore, the plows should be switched to the left side,” the letter stated.

And Streetsblog reported on Tuesday of a pedestrian who was struck and killed on a Brooklyn street that had not been properly cleared by Tuesday morning (though it was later cleared by Sanitation workers).

It’s obviously not the first time politicians have called on the city to take over sidewalk clearance. In 2014, then-Council Member David Greenfield said the city should do the job — but then bill the homeowner $250 for the service. That’s currently how the city handles cracked sidewalks.

Lincoln Road, three days after the first storm of 2022.
Lincoln Road, three days after the first storm of 2022.

One question that remains unanswered in all the coverage this week is what to do about public entities that fail to properly clean their sidewalks. This week, Streetsblog noticed that an MTA station on Lincoln Road in Prospect Lefferts Gardens was not properly shoveled (see picture, right).

A resident showed Streetsblog his complaints to the MTA and 311 about the unplowed snow. The MTA said the sidewalk is the responsibility of the city. The city Department of Sanitation said it was not its responsibility.

The standoff is not likely to amuse residents of the neighborhood.

One other advantage of having city workers do the job of shoving out sidewalks and curbs is that they won’t do the job in a way that pisses off other city workers, as residents currently do, judging by this Sanitation Department tweet: