Opinion

NYC should clear crosswalks after snowstorms. Here’s how.

By Paul Steely White |  

January 10, 2018 |  

(Nick Starichenko/Shutterstock)

It’s been five days since New York City was covered with nearly a foot of snow and the so-called “bomb cyclone” that hit the city also uncovered some unpleasant facts. Mayor Bill de Blasio’s safety priorities, and the city’s misguided and outdated deference to cars, were starkly apparent in the days following the storm.

Last Thursday, when it became clear that New York was to see more than just a light dusting, the mayor implemented certain protocols designed to keep the city running smoothly while the Department of Sanitation worked to clear the streets. He closed public schools, suspended alternate side parking restrictions and issued a hazardous travel advisory, which urged commuters to stay off the roads unless it was absolutely critical. Steering commuters to public transit and away from their cars allows a city with limited resources to maximize safety and transit efficiency, reduce the risk of crashes and quickly clear roads for emergency vehicles.

But that strategy only works when residents can walk to their bus and train stops. The city must prioritize not just mobility, but also access. Plowed streets make way for emergency vehicles, public buses and private cars. But in a city where the majority of households don’t own vehicles, cars are not the only thing that need to move on the city’s streets: so do people. And people can’t cross the street when the crosswalks are blocked by gigantic mounds of snow.

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New Yorkers without cars struggled to get to work on Friday, when snow was pushed or dumped onto bicycle lanes or on top of a Citi Bike stand, or when the elderly couldn’t get on a bus because a mountain of snow blocked them from reaching the curb. The simple act of crossing the street was impossible for wheelchair users and others with mobility issues, while it was merely dangerous for the rest of us.

Nearly a week after it stopped snowing, the roads are largely plowed and salted. But sidewalks, bicycle lanes and bus stops across the city remain unplowed. Pedestrians are too often forced to choose between walking in the street and risking a broken ankle on a sidewalk that looks like a mogul skiing course. While building owners are responsible for shoveling the sidewalks in front of their properties, enforcement against those who neglect their duty is haphazard. And no one takes responsibility for the curbs and crosswalks where snow gets piled up from the street plowing on one side and the sidewalk shoveling on the other. Steps and platforms in subway stations, particularly in the outer boroughs, are icy, wet and slippery.

De Blasio’s plan for the safety and convenience of the overwhelming majority of New Yorkers – the millions who walk, ride and rely on public transit every day – seems to be, “wait until it warms up.”

The city needlessly endangers millions, particularly thousands of disabled and elderly New Yorkers, by failing to see snow removal as a job that must clear the way for all modes of travel, not just cars and trucks. But disparate clearing after a snowstorm is simply a visual representation of City Hall’s longtime political and policy fealty to drivers, at the expense of other New Yorkers.

De Blasio’s widely-hailed Vision Zero plan to eliminate traffic fatalities notwithstanding, 101 New Yorkers were killed by vehicles while walking and 23 were killed while riding bicycles last year. This is what happens when the mayor’s office prioritizes the needs of the small minority of New Yorkers who commute every day by car, and not the millions of daily public transit riders, pedestrians and bicyclists who also need to get around. It’s critical to the long-term safety and sustainability of New York that the mayor stop treating these regular New Yorkers like second-class citizens.

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He can start by investing in the right tools. The city owns thousands of street plows, but very few sidewalk plows. Canadian cities that typically see a lot more snow than New York does, such as Toronto and Montreal, have purchased nimble sidewalk plows that make pedestrian access a priority throughout the winter. Their streets are safer and more equitable when inclement weather strikes.

We can also redesign the streetscape in ways that give equal footing to pedestrians and bicyclists. Snowstorms themselves offer a lot of data on how we can effectively do this: “sneckdowns,” a natural form of traffic calming, appear following storms when drivers and plows are forced to take the safest and most efficient route down the street. The tracks they leave clearly show where street space is needlessly ceded to cars, and where we should look first to reform. The big mounds of snow around and in front of parked cars, especially in crosswalks, show where sidewalks could be expanded. Sneckdowns prove that we can calm vehicle traffic, shorten pedestrian crossing time and return unused public space to people, without inconveniencing drivers.

The city should still plow the streets, of course, and the sanitation department deserves credit for working around the clock to return the city to normal. Their efforts have been commendable. But it’s critical that the city take responsibility for the safety and convenience of all commuters, not just drivers. From bomb cyclones to beautiful summer days, we can make our streets safer, our public transit networks less burdened and our businesses less paralyzed.

Paul Steely White is executive director of Transportation Alternatives, a nonprofit advocacy group that works on behalf of pedestrians, bicyclists and transit riders in New York City.

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