Let’s fix NYC’s snow-filled crosswalk problem

Published on: January 26th, 2016 | Last updated: February 24, 2016 Written by:

Slush1

Every time NYC is hit with a blizzard, the government does two things: 1) they plow all of the streets as quickly as they can and 2) they reopen mass transit as soon as possible. The third piece of the puzzle, clearing sidewalks and crosswalks, is seen as “not our problem” by our elected officials.

This missing puzzle piece is beyond important. What good is having the buses and subway run if you practically have to pole vault over the slush lagoons at every crosswalk to get to it??

Everyone in NYC knows this is a huge problem. Why on earth are we still ignoring it?

Slush2

This is a truly disgusting problem – one that makes NYC look like a third world country whenever it snows. It’s also an extremely dangerous problem. There is no law stating anyone at all needs to clear fire hydrants, or even a path into the street. Check out this video and skip to 9:39 to see explicitly why this is an entirely avoidable, potentially life threatening problem. This video was shot just the other day at the scene of a 4 alarm fire in Manhattan.

FDNYShoveling
Firefighters shovel a path to a burning building

This is a truly disgusting problem – one that makes NYC look like a third world country whenever it snows.

So who’s at fault for this mess?

You and Me, and the idiots we elect.

I’m no lawyer, but it looks like the origin of this problem begins with NYC’s lack of a comprehensive snow policy. The current law covering snow removal (Section 16-123 of the New York City Administrative Code) reads as follows: “Every owner, lessee, tenant, occupant, or other person, having charge of any building or lot of ground in the city, abutting upon any street where the sidewalk is paved, shall, within four hours after the snow ceases to fall, or after the deposit of any dirt or other material upon such sidewalk, remove the snow or ice, dirt, or other material from the sidewalk and gutter, the time between nine post meridian and seven ante meridian not being included in the above period of four hours. Such removal shall be made before the removal of snow or ice from the roadway by the commissioner or subject to the regulations of such commissioner. In the boroughs of Queens and Staten Island, any owner, lessee, tenant or occupant or other person who has charge of any ground abutting upon any paved street or public place, for a linear distance of five hundred feet or more, shall be considered to have complied with this section, if such person shall have begun to remove the snow or ice from the sidewalk and gutter before the expiration of such four hours and shall continue and complete such removal within a reasonable time.”
(Source: http://pospislaw.com/2014/01/03/new-york-city-law-regarding-removal-of-snow-and-ice/ )

The law is amazingly specific about the timeline for snow removal, but doesn’t mention crosswalks, bus stops, paths to the street or fire hydrants AT ALL.

The law is amazingly specific about the timeline for snow removal, but doesn’t mention crosswalks, bus stops, paths to the street or fire hydrants AT ALL.

The penalty for violation of this law is mediocre at best. First time offenders are ticketed for between 10 and 150 dollars. Think about that: TEN DOLLARS. A second violation can get a ticket between 150 and 250 dollars. A third offense is worth from 250-350 dollars.

There are no higher penalties for chronic offenders. We have all witnessed that one house or one construction site or storefront that refuses to shovel their sidewalks, year after year. It can snow 10 times in a season and such property owners may never receive a single fine.

Enforcement: There is none.
This brings us to enforcement, which you won’t be surprised to learn is extremely limited. The NYC Department of Sanitation (DSNY) is tasked with ticketing property owners who do not shovel. They have only 200 enforcement agents to cover all of NYC. Now imagine if we had 200 enforcement agents for traffic enforcement agents or 200 regular police officers? The entire city would be anarchy because the chances of being penalized would be minimal at best. It is easy for property owners to ignore the current shoveling law because there is almost no enforcement, and when there is, the fines are laughable.

Even when tickets are written, a fine from between 10 to 150 dollars is absolutely nothing. The average small home in NYC is worth nearly a million dollars. Larger buildings are worth in the tens of millions. A $150 fine is barely a hand slap for today’s big money NYC real estate developers.

IMG_6365
NYC is often stuck in the snow…

So how do we fix this?
Some say cleaning sidewalks, crosswalks, and bus stops should be the city government’s responsibility. In my opinion that is a huge task and equal to saying the city should come and bag your garbage for you. This is completely unrealistic. It would cost tens of millions of dollars. Taxes would have to go up. Hiring for a job that is seasonal and not on any sort of schedule would be a nightmare. Can we say No? (Of course we can, we’re New Yorkers. We’re smarter than that).

My plan is far simpler: we rewrite the law to include crosswalks, bus stops and hydrants.

My plan is far simpler: we rewrite the law to include crosswalks, bus stops, hydrants, and a path to the street. We jack up the fines to something more realistic and something that will render it more economic to clear the snow than face a fine. Maybe fines should start at $5000? or $10,000? How about $100k for repeat offenders? Would prison sentences for ‘reckless endangerment’ be going too far? (Yes? Tell that to the girl trying to get to work pole vaulting the slush lagoon in heeled boots!)

Enforcement on steroids
Any change to the law will be rendered entirely pointless if we continue ignoring enforcement. 200 DSNY inspectors cannot handle the workload. This has been proven, year after year.

Instead, let’s also task the NYPD’s 3000 traffic enforcement agents (TEAs, as for short) with this workload.

A significant portion of traffic enforcement agents normal workload – ticketing drivers who improperly park (usually in violation of alternate side parking rules), is removed during snow storms. Alternate siding parking is usually suspended whenever there is significant snowfall. Instead of having these traffic agents sitting around drinking coffee at dunkin donuts (or whatever it is they’re doing when their job is effectively canceled due to snow), let’s put them to work fining property owners who simply do not care about pedestrians. TEAs aren’t paid a whole lot, and would happily take overtime to go after these sidewalk scofflaws.

Lets put 3000 traffic agents to work fining property owners who simply do not care about pedestrians.

This one-two punch would basically guarantee cleaner sidewalks, crosswalks, and bus stops.


But what about people who own homes and are too old or disabled to shovel snow?

They can register with the city (providing explicit proof of age/disability), and the city will hire laborers to help clean snow. The city could contract this work out to a non-profit such as The Doe Fund. Revenue generated from enhanced enforcement can be used to pay for this simple program.

If building owners can’t find competent staff to shovel, they can tuck a snow blower in the building and provide a tenant with a lease stipulating that they have to shovel, and in return they get a 10-20% reduction in rent for that month. Who wouldn’t take that offer?

This isn’t rocket science. This is how we should do. (do do, do do).

Snowed-in sidewalks, crosswalks, bus stops and hydrants are a 100% solvable problem.


Conclusion

Snowed-in sidewalks, crosswalks, bus stops and hydrants are a 100% solvable problem. There really is no reason we can’t fix this situation, other than political apathy and will.

Unfortunately though, this is a seasonal issue, and in years where there is no significant snow, no one thinks about this problem at all. If this problem is to be solved, action must be taken right now, and sustained throughout the process of amending the laws, work rules, etc. It could take a year to get all these pieces in place – wouldn’t it be great if we solved this problem before next winter? Maybe then all those politicians flailing in the wind while their constituents throw virtual rotten tomatoes at them can actually get to claim they did something. And wouldn’t that be refreshing for a change? I’m basically handing the city council and mayor an outline for an amazing, easy win. Right here, for free!

If my idea is a bad idea, by all means come up with something better. The point is that in order to solve this problem, we need to do something about it and stop pretending it isn’t an issue, or it’s someone elses fault.

Will anyone take this ball and run with it?

Go ahead. Claim credit for it. Say everything in this article was your idea. Expand on if you want. I don’t give a damn, I’m open sourcing the fuck out of this idea – right here and now before your very eyes. Just make sure my *&(^*&^%*&^% crosswalk, bus stop, and hydrant are cleared, and I’ll be a happy man.

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  • About The Author

    Joseph Anastasio

    Design & History nerd, open space & infrastructure advocate. 
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