Disability rights vs. snowy sidewalks: Seattle's annual conversation

Sidewalk accessibility is a year-round problem for people with mobility issues — but snow and ice pose their own slew of difficulties.

A man works on a snowy sidewalk

Jim Lee sprinkles snow and ice melt pellets to de-ice the sidewalk outside his home in Ballard on Tuesday, Dec. 20, 2022. “I’m clearing the sidewalk for the safety of those who walk up and down my street – and for myself,” Lee said. (Amanda Snyder/Crosscut)

A snowstorm last year kept Cecelia Black cooped up for several days in her apartment in Seattle’s Roosevelt neighborhood. Black, who gets around in a manual wheelchair, saw patches of snow-free sidewalks from her window, but the path from her apartment building remained buried.

“Everything was so close, but so far away,” Black said as snow fell Tuesday afternoon. “It was so frustrating to just be stuck here in my apartment, especially seeing the building across the street was so good at plowing their sidewalks.”

She tried a couple of times to get out but ended up just turning around each time. When snow covers the sidewalks, it’s hard for Black to get to a bus stop or down the street to get groceries. 

After wet, slushy snow fell Tuesday afternoon, freezing temperatures overnight left unshoveled sidewalks covered in ice by Wednesday morning. Icy pavement poses a risk to all non-drivers trying to navigate the city by foot or on wheels, especially people with disabilities.

It can be difficult for people with disabilities to navigate Seattle sidewalks even without snow. Some stretches of sidewalk just need to be pruned or swept of vegetation, but many others, cracked and uneven, need a complete replacement or repair.

During snowstorms, the responsibility for clearing sidewalks falls to property owners, which leaves many unshoveled and difficult to maneuver along. There are roughly 2,300 miles of sidewalks crisscrossing the city, and a large proportion – between 80% and 85% – lie adjacent to private property. 

“I feel like it's probably a combination of not knowing that they're legally obligated to do that and also just not caring,” Black said. “Since it's not enforced with tickets, there's not a real incentive to take it seriously.”

Inadequate city funding and leaving sidewalk clearing and repair up to property owners has left 46% of the city’s sidewalks in fair, poor, or very poor condition. A report released in 2020 blamed lax enforcement of sidewalk ownership laws (due to a cumbersome process that includes a vote by the City Council) and inadequate city investment for the quality of the city’s sidewalks.  

The fine for ignoring a warning to shovel sidewalks is $50 for residential properties and $250 for non-residential properties. But citations are rarely given out, according to Mariam Ali, a spokesperson for Seattle’s Department of Transportation. 

“Our primary focus is on educating people and businesses about their responsibilities and encouraging them to clear sidewalks around their property because it’s both the law and the right thing to do,” Ali wrote in an email.

In most cities around the state, snow removal is the responsibility of adjacent property owners. Seattle asks property owners to clear sidewalks in a timely manner to ensure sidewalks remain free of ice and other potential hazards.

While there’s no exact timing when a sidewalk must be cleared after a snowstorm, SDOT advises property owners to shovel every 12 hours before snow turns to ice or accumulates too high. 

The agency also suggests sprinkling rock salt, or another environmentally friendly product, on sidewalks, walkways and curb ramps before temperatures dip below freezing, to prevent ice from forming.

A Ballard resident sweeps the sidewalks near his home on Tuesday, Dec. 20, 2022. Seattle experienced some light snowfall in the morning. (Amanda Snyder/Crosscut)

An unshoveled sidewalk prevented Tanisha Sepulveda, a fellow with the Disability Mobility Initiative at Disability Rights Washington and a power wheelchair-user, from getting home during a snowstorm a few years ago. Too much snow covered a sidewalk along a vacant parking lot on the route to her apartment when she lived at the top of a hill in the Chinatown-International District.

“Fortunately for me, at the bottom of the hill was a fire station. So I had to go ask these firemen to push my wheelchair up the hill through the snow,” she said laughing. “And they did and they were wonderful.”

While snow impacts Sepulveda’s travel plans, ice can be even more of a hazard.

“There's no traction,” said Sepulveda, who now lives in White Center. “In slush maybe you get stuck, but with ice you can just slide and slip.”

While snow and ice rarely stick around the area long, property owners still must keep sidewalks clear and passable until frigid temperatures disappear. 

“Please have the due diligence to keep the sidewalks clear,” Sepulveda said, “Even though I'm a wheelchair user, I would still like to go out and experience the snow and be able to get around. It would be much appreciated if my neighbors could assist in doing that by keeping their sidewalks clear.”

Ballard residents walk by Gemenskap Park on Tuesday, Dec. 20, 2022. Seattle experienced some light snowfall in the morning. (Amanda Snyder/Crosscut)

Sepulveda and Black also want snowplow drivers to be more cautious of where snow is pushed as it’s swept off roads. Sepulveda often sees piles of snow dumped on the sidewalk or left on the shoulder of the road, a space she sometimes uses when no sidewalk is available. 

The ice and snow aren’t expected to last long, as temperatures will rise above freezing this weekend, with predicted highs of 49 degrees Fahrenheit on Saturday and 52 degrees on Sunday. 

The forecast said the area might see an inch or less Thursday night into Friday morning, according to Johnny Burg, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service. But the main concern with the next weather system is freezing rain that could come as temperatures warm slightly on Friday. 

Seattle usually gets very little snow, though this year snow came early, blasting through the area after Thanksgiving. For the rest of the winter, temperatures are expected to remain below normal accompanied by above-normal participation, according to Burg, so the chances of the area seeing more snow is greater than usual.

Mimi Yang pulls her daughter Nola Cox up a small hill at Gemenskap Park on Tuesday, Dec. 20, 2022. Seattle experienced some light snowfall Tuesday morning. (Amanda Snyder/Crosscut)

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About the Authors & Contributors

Lizz Giordano

Lizz Giordano

Lizz Giordano is Cascade PBS's investigative reporter, focused on following working conditions, government oversight procedures and labor organizing efforts across Washington state. She can be followed on Twitter @lizzgior or reached on email at lizz.giordano@cascadepbs.org.