Why is the road clear of snow, but not the sidewalk?

What do our snow plowing policies, which lead to roads being cleared faster and better than sidewalks, say about our transportation policies?

Matt Casale

Former Director, Environment Campaigns, PIRG

Every year I’ve lived in Boston, I’m reminded of the fact that yes, it snows in March.

To be fair to Boston, it’s been a relatively mild winter, and we haven’t had a lot of snow. But of course, now that it’s March and everyone’s looking forward to warmer months ahead, Boston is back to its old wintry ways.

On the first Monday of the month (of course it was a Monday), we got our biggest snowfall of the winter so far. Most of Boston got around a foot. (Stick with me here, I didn’t write this only to complain about a foot of snow in New England.)

When it snows, people in my neighborhood get out in the mornings and shovel. City plows come by and clear our streets, but we do the sidewalks. Or, I should say, most of us do. As a result, you end up with a patchwork of clear sidewalks, and not-so-clear sidewalks. (Last year, a group called WalkBoston filmed a woman in wheelchair as she tried to go about her day five days after a snowstorm. It wasn’t pretty.)

On this particular first Monday of March, after shoveling, I set off for work on foot. There was a foot of snow on the ground,, and because of the inconsistent sidewalk shoveling, there were a lot of places where I had to leave the sidewalk and walk on the side of the road. The roads had been plowed, of course. This was not unusual — it’s what I have to do every time it snows.

One of the streets I walk on is South Street in Jamaica Plain. South Street is a busy road with multiple bus routes, bus stops every few blocks, and is the road everyone in my neighborhood uses to get to the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) Orange line subway.

On South Street, there were sections where I was able to hike through the sidewalk snow, but also areas where I had to step into the street. Again, I didn’t think much of it initially, since it was normal. But then, as I continued alternating between snowy sidewalk and road, I thought — why is this normal?

The road was completely clear. Cars were traveling up and down South Street just like every other day. In Boston, like most places in the U.S., the city clears the roads, but property owners are responsible for clearing sidewalks. Many property owners do promptly clear their sidewalks, but many do not. Maybe the owner is sick or has no one to watch the kids. Or maybe the absentee landlord is a little too lax about shoveling. We all accept that as normal. But if the city fails to promptly clear roads, something has gone very wrong, and everyone is up in arms.

In the afternoon, when I was walking back home from the subway, the sidewalk was clearer, but there were still snow patches. There was a man in a motorized wheelchair in front of me, his wheels slipping and fishtailing on a couple of the patches of snow, but he but he managed to get over them. Then, he turned off on to a side street before I did. The sidewalks on the side street still weren’t clear, so he stayed on the road. It was a one-way road, and he was going opposite traffic.

Again, I asked myself — why is this normal? Are we really okay with this?

Across the country, our transportation policies prioritize driving. Over several decades, we designed our transportation network to move cars, often to the exclusion of other modes of transportation. We spend billions of dollars building new roads, while our public transportation systems don’t reach enough people and our streets often aren’t safe enough for walking and biking.

That leaves us with too few options other than driving. Even in our big cities, most people still rely on their cars to get to and from work. In Boston, nearly 67 percent of commuters drive alone to work. That’s because public transportation isn’t reliable enough to be a more convenient option than driving for most people.

It doesn’t have to be this way. We can build a transportation network that gives people more options, and lets people get around easier without needing a car. Doing so would also be less polluting, leading to fewer health problems, and contributing less to climate change.

Here’s an idea: How about instead of a policy that relies on property owners to clear sidewalks of snow, cities and towns take on the responsibility, just like they do for roads? They could prioritize certain sidewalks, just like they prioritize certain roads. Sidewalks on busy bus routes or near transit stations and sidewalks near schools would be good places to start.

Would that solve all of our transportation problems? Of course not. But it would help solve a big one.

Would it make it more likely that sidewalks get cleared? Probably. And then in turn, when it snows, it will be easier to walk to work, take the bus, or take the subway.

Most importantly, it would be a concrete step away from a policy that prioritizes cars above all other modes of transportation. After decades of going the wrong way, it would finally be a step in the right direction. And one unencumbered by snow.

Photo credit: Staff.


Matt Casale

Former Director, Environment Campaigns, PIRG