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?
This is a truly disgusting problem – one that makes NYC look like a third world country whenever it snows. It is also an extremely dangerous problem, as fire hydrants are often not cleared of snow. This directly hindering the time sensitive work of first responders. According to this .pdf, hydrants are supposed to be cleared by law, and thanks to a twitter tipster @lawhawk, I was able to find the actual law here. As previously mentioned, enforcement of this law is often completely non-existent. The results are dangerous. 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 the day after a storm in 2016, at the scene of a 4 alarm fire in Manhattan. Firefighters are forced to spend time digging out a snowed-in fire hydrant.
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 people we elect to the city council and mayors office.
It looks like the origin of this problem begins with NYC’s lack of a comprehensive snow policy. There is simply nothing in it about clearing crosswalks or catch basins (where the melting run-off would drain into the sewers).
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, catch basins, bus stops, paths to the street AT ALL. Fire Hydrants are covered in a completely separate law. The word ‘gutter’ is mentioned but not defined – and as any NYC resident can tell you, the gutter is usually where snow is piled up, blocking the catch basins and making crosswalks a complete mess.
Also interesting is how Queens and Staten Island are singled out in this law – perhaps this is a sign of when the law was written – which I would imagine was a very long time ago.
The first line could be read to be even more disturbing: “Every owner, lessee, tenant, occupant, or other person” – what does that even mean? It seems to imply if you rent, you are somehow responsible for cleaning the snow. While this might make sense for storefronts (for whom it is good business to clear their sidewalks), does it also imply renters in small homes and apartment buildings? Could our super wealth real estate owner overlords use this against renters who are already paying some of the highest prices in the country for living space? If an apartment building has 20 apartments, which ‘renter’ is responsible for cleaning the sidewalk? All of them? None of them? This is truly worrisome text.
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.
Still worse, 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. A ten dollar fine is no incentive for a building owner to spend $15-20 dollars per hour for maintenance people to show up and clear the sidewalk. Even a $100 fine, which the DSNY pdf claims is the lowest fine, is absolutely nothing for a property owner renting just one apartment or storefront out. The owners of my small apartment building rake in at least $50,000 per month in rents.
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. I had just such a house as a ‘neighbor’ on my old street in Astoria. I filed numerous 311 complains against them one year and the homeowner only received a single ticket, after 4 weeks of frequent snow.
Enforcement: There is none.
This brings us to enforcement, which you may be surprised to learn is extremely limited. The NYC Department of Sanitation (DSNY) is tasked with ticketing property owners who do not shovel. They only have 200 enforcement agents to cover all of NYC. That is a tiny number. Imagine if we had 200 enforcement agents for traffic and parking violations, or only 200 regular police officers for the entire city? We would have would be anarchy because the chances of being penalized would be minimal at best. Today, we have complete anarchy when it comes to shoveling crosswalks and catch basins, because there is no law pertaining to it. Worst, it is easy for property owners to ignore the current weak 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 slap on the wrist for today’s big money NYC real estate developers.
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, catch basins, fire hydrants and bus stops.
My plan is far simpler: we rewrite the law to explicitly include crosswalks, catch basins, fire hydrants and bus stops. There is precedent for this within NYC’s sidewalk cleaning laws, which states that building owners must also keep the sidewalk gutter clear of debris, 18 inches into the street. Snow should be thought of as debris, and cleaning into the street (extended to 24 or even 36 inches) would go a long way in solving this problem.
We should also 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? The current law actually states imprisonment is an option. Since it is a criminal matter, there should be no barrier for utilizing NYPD officers for enforcement.
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 a swift resolution to this vexing issue.
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? Many smart small home owners and absentee landlords already make such arrangements with tenants.
Snowed-in sidewalks, crosswalks, bus stops and hydrants are a 100% solvable problem.
Snowed-in sidewalks, crosswalks, bus stops and hydrants are a 100% solvable problem. All we need is for literally every person who reads and agrees with this article to call or email their local city councilperson about it. Send them a link to it, I’d be happy to advise them.
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 that it is someone else’s fault. Nothing gets solved until someone takes action, and that someone is you, me, your friends and neighbors. The time is now.