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Seattle gets an F on snow shoveling

A pedestrian walks along a snow-blanketed South Edmunds Street in Seattle’s Columbia City neighborhood during arly morning Feb. 4, 2019. (Photo by Matt M. McKnight/Crosscut)

With all of the inconveniences and hardships of a snowstorm, it is still undeniable that for many people in Seattle there is a certain communal joy in a storm’s first days. People are out walking, playing and talking to each other. The city feels more like a collection of villages than an impersonal city. Neighborhoods with street grids, bus lines and local businesses demonstrate a resilience and adaptability not available in more car-centric places. That is something to appreciate and even celebrate.

But there is a darker side. The most recent snowstorm also demonstrated how our culture and our policies exclude too many people. Multiple inches of snow getting compacted, then turning to ice and finally slush, made walking impassable for many, particularly disabled people. Ironically, many disabled people choose to live in cities because they do not have to be car-dependent, but we let them down during snowstorms.

That’s reflected in our snow-clearing priorities. Our Department of Transportation diligently cleared vital arterials for buses, emergency vehicles and traffic. In my neighborhood, Greenwood, most did not clear their sidewalks, whether residential or arterial streets, and judging by social media, that’s true in many neighborhoods.  Unsafe walking conditions are hurting local businesses, causing lost pay, and was a factor in deciding when to open schools.

Given that big storms are infrequent, it’s understandable that the city chooses to prioritize where to clear first. But maybe it’s time to revisit the city’s priorities about how and where it clears snow. Even more important, perhaps it’s time to revisit our culture of just waiting for the rains and warm weather to clear our sidewalks — and time for city government and the able-bodied among us to shoulder a bigger load in making our city accessible to all. 

I dealt with updating and implementing snow removal plans after a pretty bad storm in 2009. We started using salt and, just as important, we prioritized clearing a basic arterial network for buses and emergency vehicles. But this past storm shows we can do better. The following is a modest proposal on how to make the communal joy of a snowstorm available to more people — without breaking the bank — and make a better city in the process.

  1. People from snowy climes know it is possible for the community to rally and promptly clear sidewalks.Most people in those places do it because it is a community expectation. But we all knows that goes only so far. I spent some time last winter in Somerville, Massachusetts, where failure to clear snow within six daylight hours of the end of a storm leads to a $50 fine for a first offense, $100 for a second and $200 for a third. The fine was a powerful incentive to get the walkways shoveled, and people took it seriously. Seattle could start with a public education campaign to give people time to prepare, then enforce the laws already on the books requiring property owners to clear their sidewalks. Just as how we enforce parking rules, we could have city inspectors cite properties that haven’t cleared a safe path. Of course, this will also require a culture shift. Right now, we treat the law requiring us to clear sidewalks the way we treat the rule against fireworks — we ignore it. But I’m suggesting we treat it like the rule against smoking indoors — because it’s the right thing to do for those around us. Finally, for those property owners physically unable to do so, I speak from experience as a youthful entrepreneur in New York to let you know that people will materialize to do it for a reasonable fee, from the kindness of their heart, or because their parents told them no shoveling for money until you take care of the senior citizen next door.

  2. How about the city clearing a basic network for walking and wheelchairs the way we clear a basic arterial network for cars and trucks? It’s not as hard as it sounds if the city completes a basic network of protected bike lanes as found in the Bike Master Plan. Seattle could buy right-sized equipment for clearing, salting and sanding the protected bike lanes, and in snowstorms this would be open to users on foot or in wheelchairs. This would complement the sidewalk-clearing efforts of property owners. It would be far better than the all-too-common occurrence in the past storm of people walking in arterial street lanes because there was no clear sidewalk.

  3. Mobilize more crews to work by hand to clear crosswalks and places with heavy pedestrian use — for example, near bus stops, neighborhood business districts and schools. Because of expense, we are going to buy only so many plows, but there isn't the same capital-spending barrier to the number of hand crews. In this past storm, we had 14 hand crews out working. We could draw from existing city employees who already take care of our city facilities and reprioritize them to snow-clearing duty. In fact, as the scope of the problem has become clear, Mayor Durkan declared Wednesday, Feb. 13, as “Shared Shovel” day, mobilizing new hand crews from the Seattle Parks, Seattle Public Utilities and other departments to open walking routes to school. This could be incorporated into our snow-removal response from the outset.

There is definitely a cost entailed to doing this, but to a great degree this could be done within existing budget authority. For example, the city has gone from 30 plows in 2012 to 36 today.  Moving forward, as we replace older older equipment, we could prioritize equipment that could clear the network of protected bike, wheelchair and walking lanes described above. As for more hand crews, paying people to ensure a more walkable and transit friendly city seems a local version of a Green New Deal. In the context of the Seattle Department of Transportation’s overall budget, my experience dealing with city budgets leads me to believe these initiatives could be handled by reprioritizing within existing expenditures, and wouldn't require new revenues. As operation “Shared Shovel” demonstrates, the city can mobilize more resources; it’s just a question of whose commute we prioritize.

And even if there are some costs, it is well worth doing for the benefits of ensuring the city works for all, including the most vulnerable, during a snowstorm.  None of us likes cabin fever, but imagine the difficulty for those who for whatever reason — age, infirmity, disability — cannot navigate snow filled walkways.

There is further benefit in making a more resilient city. More of us could make it to jobs or local businesses, making the city more economically stable. The city would have even more of an advantage over car-centric suburbs as a place to live and do business. Places built for the efficiency of moving cars turn out to be very fragile in the face of snowstorm disruption. Cities have the potential to be much more resilient for all, particularly if we make it a priority to recognize and leverage the advantages of our compact neighborhoods. 

And if we really want to go all in on being inclusive, we could allow more people to live in the city. That would mean more of us are available to help share the load, physically and financially, in creating a place that works for all, even when the going gets rough.

It would be pretty easy for us to watch the rains wash away the snow and wait complacently for the next series of snow, ice and slush to grind the city to a halt. We made tremendous progress over the past decade in making our arterials work better for cars, and in mobilizing the first hand crews. The next step is to make the city work better for all of us, regardless of our abilities. How about it City Hall?

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Seattle gets an F on snow shoveling

About the Authors & Contributors

Michael McGinn

Mike McGinn served as Mayor of Seattle from 2010 to 2013. He is also a former lawyer, Sierra Club state chair, neighborhood activist, and founder of sustainability non-profit Great City.