Dear PoP – DC Needs to Rethink Its Sidewalk Clearing Laws

Snow Dunes
Photo by PoPville flickr user Suse_dc

The following was written by Josh Glasstetter in American City.

Snow Excuse

Right now, the city is inadvertently letting sidewalk scofflaws off the hook. If a sidewalk isn’t cleared, the city is supposed to clear it and charge the cost to the responsible party—plus a $25 maximum fine. That sounds good in theory, but the city simply doesn’t have a shovel-wielding army to unleash on city sidewalks. The result is that many sidewalks go uncleared, and nobody pays for it—except for the city’s pedestrians.

Washington needs an ordinance that has teeth and can be enforced. If some residents, landlords, and business owners are unwilling to clear their sidewalks, then the city should be able to issue citations akin to parking tickets. The police and public works employees clearly have their hands full during snowstorms, so citations should be issued primarily by other city employees (e.g. parking enforcement staff). And the city could prioritize enforcement by relying largely on tips from 311.

I, for one, would eagerly phone in a report about about a grocery store near me—fully staffed and open for business, but with unshoveled sidewalks—or the gas stations I’ve passed with plowed and salted lots but unshoveled sidewalks. But without a revised law on the books, there’s little any pedestrian can do but trudge on in disgust.

You can read the full story here. Do you agree? Does DC need to change its shoveling laws?

71 Comment

  • 100% agree this is needed. Would like to see the fines increased for sidewalk frontage, so say a house would incur less of a fine than a business taking 1/2 block.

    • I’m pretty sure increasing the number of bullshit things you can be fined for isn’t going to foster a sense of community. But then again, that’s obviously not what you’re after, so on second thought, go for it.

  • I think you need to get over it. It snows, you have to walk through it. That what happens in a snowstorm. If you don’t like the fact that Grocery store is open and hasn’t shoveled their walk, then don’t walk there.

    • That’s all well and good if you’re able-bodied adult. What about people with infants who use strollers? Kids walking to school? The elderly? The disabled? Those in wheelchairs? Yeah, I’m 35 and in great shape and have pretty good balance and reactions, so walking on some ice probably isn’t that big of a deal. Add my 25lb, 10-month-old baby to the mix and I’m not taking any chances on your icy, unshoveled walk. A few days after one of those minor snowfalls about two weeks ago, I saw a woman carrying her toddler in a sling on her back and walking her ~6-year-old daughter to school. She fell badly on a stretch of sidewalk that hadn’t been shoveled and was a sheet of ice. The baby hit his head on the sidewalk. Thankfully they were both ok, but just think for a minute about how bad that could have been. THAT is why everyone needs to shovel.

      • well, what about the single mom at home with an infant who can’t get outside to shovel her snow since she would be leaving her infant alone.

    • Exactly. Pretty soon these people are going to be advocating fining people for not putting on deodorant before you get on the train. People just need to relax a little and try to enjoy your surroundings.

      • lordscarlet

        You really need to get over the fact that we didn’t agree with your crying about the snow emergency route ticket.

        • That’s pretty rich. The whining sense of entitlement on this thread is stifling. As a couple of people have pointed out, people should stop crying and just try being a part of a community, rather than begging the government to teach behavior by way of fines. It’s depressing.

  • I had to go to work today. Lawfirms don’t close. I will clear my damn sidewalk when I get home.

  • Why not permit one’s neighbors to reap the benefits if one does not shovel? Your neighbor is the one that suffers, so if you shovel out your neighbors yard after 8 hours of them not doing anything, the city pays you and charges the neighbor. Obviously there needs some reporting enforcement, but it’s a win win for the city and the neighborhood. If no one is there to pay, add it to the tax bill

    • ah

      Why not go further and simply put a bounty on it? Sort of a qui tam approach. After 8 hours anyone can shovel a sidewalk that’s unshoveled and make a claim per foot shoveled, say $1/linear foot/foot of snow. Photos to verify. But you collect only once the city does. City adds on a $25 fine.

        • Yeah – I like it – especially the ensuing duels over territory! Shovel slams way beat tweety snowball fights!

      • There’s already something of a bounty: if you slip and fall on an illegally unshoveled sidewalk, I expect that a lawyer would be happy to take that case for you on contingency.

        Property owners who don’t shovel within the legally mandated timeframe may be opening themselves up to WAY more risk exposure than they may realize.

        [Disclaimer, in case all this lawsuit talk has given you ideas: I am not a lawyer, this is not legal advice]

  • Sounds like a good idea to me — particularly in major commercial hubs (like 18th St in Adams Morgan). Some store owners could have easily arranged ahead of time with neighboring stores to clear the sidewalk even if they don’t plan on being open for business after the storm, yet they didn’t and now some spots are a trampled-on slippery mess. It appears they need a realistic/enforceable penalty to give them the incentive they need to do it.

  • That’s virtually an unenforceable policy. I think one of two things needs to happen. People need to suck it up and trudge through the snow (it’s one week every ten years that this is an issue). Or, if this is really a concern, the city should invest in some sidewalk plows. I’m from a northern Canadian city, and this has never been an issue, the sidewalks get plowed as quickly as the streets do. This is just symptomatic of a culture that always privileges automobile over pedestrian traffic. Just like all the drivers who don’t stop at the cross-walks at virtually every intersection on Georgia, Sherman, etc., there is an entrenched pedestrians be damned culture, that unenforceable regulations can’t overcome. Before we start directly charging residents to clean up city property, maybe we should address some of the more persistent problems facing pedestrians!

    • Right on, I wonder why cars and dogs get all the city spending and pedestrians have to risk their lives out on the plowed streets. I wonder if the city has cleared the sidewalks on the bridges yet?

      I will clear my walk as soon as possible, but for now I just can’t. It’s gonna have to wait, and if the city wants to fine me, well, what are you gonna do?

      • “cars and dogs” You’re kidding right? That’s about the most ridiculous pairing I’ve ever seen. Prior to December 2007, there wasn’t even a legal avenue to get dog parks created.

        Bonus: your post contradicts itself. You complain that “pedestrians have to risk their lives” and won’t even shovel the 10 ft in front of your own house.

        Quit the hating and hypocrisy and get to work.

  • There are quite a few neighbors – businesses and residents alike – that never shovel – they didn’t shovel in the December snowstorm, the two short snowstorms before the blizzard, this past weekend’s blizzard, or yesterday’s. And they’re all between me and the grocery store and Fragers…Now I want them to be fined.

    But you know who else hasn’t shoveled their properties at all? The DC government. So I just can’t see how the city can be justified in fining people when they themselves won’t shovel.

    So I walk in the streets where people are driving 55 mph in a 25 mph zone in 15 mph conditions…This is why people raid the grocery stores to stock up, because no one will help them move around after the snow.

  • ah

    On the other hand, I agree. I’m all for people doing their civic duty, but there are lots of people who can’t or won’t. Let’s agree they generally suck for being this way, unless they’re old or infirm. Or maybe if they’re a lawyer who has to go to the office (or not). But all the indignation about fines really isn’t practical.

    Do we really want a bunch of DCRA or DPW inspectors going around slapping fines on people? You know how that turns out. First, 25% of the citations are for people who did shovel, but the inspector got the address wrong. Another 25% are people who are diplomats, old, have some other reasonable excuse or exemption. And then within 2 years we find out that 10% of the inspectors are simply asking for cash from homeowners to avoid the citation (\let’s clear this up on the spot\). No thanks.

  • Agreed. The city tried to fine me this summer for letting my grass grow too long (I was out of the country for a month), all I could think is — there are guys dealing crack behind my house, the school system is broken, Columbia Heights’ (and I assume Parkview’s) pipes have unacceptable levels of lead in them, the city’s water supply is causing inter-sex conditions in the Potomac’s fish, and the city has virtually no national representation (among many other issues, of course) — and they bugging me for not cutting my grass for a couple of weeks? Granted that could turn into a more pervasive problem than not clearing a couple days worth of snow… but the principle behind it bothered me.

    Instead, I just hung a sign that said “Lamont Nature Preserve,” promised to remedy the situation, and threatened to call the Post and tell them that in this economy the District was attempting to charge residents $500 for grass a few inches too long… that seemed to solve it!

    A bit tangential, sorry.

    • ah

      Not really tangential–it shows what the city might do if given greater authority.

      I got threatened with a $500 fine because my stack of firewood was stacked on the ground, not 4″ off of the ground (or more). City claimed it could “harbor rats” that way.

    • You should have made arrangements; it wasn’t as if you “suddenly” were gone for a month. High grass is a breeding ground for rats and, therefore, a health risk.

  • Melissa — why not pay someone to shovel your sidewalk for you? Like, for example, the DC gov’t or its contractors, which is what it sounds like a revised ordinance would provide for. People sometimes have legitimate reasons for not clearing their own sidewalks, particularly homeowners (on vacation, at work, disabled, etc). So there should be an easy way for residents and owners to solicit paid assistance to make their property safe for the public. Maybe we should rethink “fine” to mean “charge for service” in this case.

    The problem isn’t that one or two people per block didn’t take care of their sidewalks, it’s that the whole city had this contagious, lax attitude about taking responsibility. What’s particularly frustrating is that city business were open, making money, yet still didn’t (often) make their entrances safe for their own customers or passers-by.

    The solution of not going to that grocery store is kind of silly when you’re limited to where you can walk and you need food. And the idea that walking unsafely over packed ice for 3 days is “what happens” when it snows is preposterous — look to cities further north for responsible collective sidewalk clearing action. I lived and walked through many boston snowstorms and never felt as nervous as I did saturday, sunday, and monday, 24-72 hours after the last snow (from the first storm) had fallen. Luckily, I’m able-bodied and industrious and was able to catch myself the dozen times I slipped, but I watched in horror as an elderly man with a cane tried to navigate sidewalks in front of me on Sunday.

    • How am I going to find someone of clear my walk a 7 am when I am getting ready for work? I will clean it when if get home. BTW, I spent most of Sunday helping my neighbors clean up. What did you do on Sunday? Drink beer and watch that silly football game?

      • Melissa — it sounds like you’re doing your civic duty. The ordinance states that snow should be shoveled within 8 hours, not at 7am when you’re getting ready for work. I don’t think people should be fined for clearing their sidewalks within a reasonable timeframe, which it sounds like you would do/will do. The problem was I walked the streets saturday, sunday, and monday and saw little to no improvement (in fact, I think it got more dangerous) because, unlike you, some people never cleared their sidewalks (and the government set the devil-may-care tone by not clearing the streets). That’s the problem. Not that you have to work. FYI, I worked on Sunday, but thanks for the funny assumption that I was watching football!

  • Agreed.

    This is a bit tangential, so I apologize in advance, for airing loosely related grievances.

    The city tried to fine me this summer for letting my grass grow too long (I was out of the country for a month), all I could think is — there are guys dealing crack behind my house, the school system is broken, Columbia Heights’ (and I assume Parkview’s) pipes have unacceptable levels of lead in them, the city’s water supply is causing inter-sex conditions in the Potomac’s fish, and the city has virtually no national representation (among many other issues, of course) — and they bugging me for not cutting my grass for a couple of weeks? Granted that could turn into a more pervasive problem than not clearing a couple days worth of snow… but the principle behind it bothered me.

    Instead, I just hung a sign that said “Lamont Nature Preserve,” promised to remedy the situation, and threatened to call the Post and tell them that in this economy the District was attempting to charge residents $500 for grass a few inches too long… that seemed to solve it!

    • Damn, sorry for the double posting, did think the first had gone through due to my sketchy verizon dsl. Feel free to delete!

  • You should begrudgingly give in and shovel your neighbors sidewalk even if you think they are able bodied. Businesses and apartment buildings are a different story. None of them have a problem clearing a walkway to their front door, but they act like it’s not their responsibility to be a part of the community and shovel the sidewalk. I think a $500 should be issued to them every day that they don’t shovel.

    • This. Individual homeowners… well, folks got issues. Some people are elderly, some people are out of town, some people stupidly forgot to buy snow shovels. I have no problem pitching in and shoveling half my block if my neighbors can’t get to it. That’s being neighborly.

      But businesses, which make money off the people of the city? They should do their civic duty and be responsible for shoveling their entire sidewalk down to the pavement and spreading salt to ensure that it doesn’t freeze up again.

      If another snowstorm happens, we should start collecting the names of businesses and apartment complexes that don’t shovel their sidewalks, and make sure we don’t patronize them until they’ve pledged to do better. It isn’t acceptable to me that these businesses put our fellow citizens in danger (on several occasions over the weekend I needed to help elderly or infirm people across particularly icy patches) and then ask us for our money.

  • This is by far the least of the issues that need to be addressed in DC. yes lets rework laws for once a decade snow storms…. ignorant.

    • I think that’s part of the problem; it’s not as if people need to get out and shovel 20 times a year. It’s just a handful, so they should get off theor lazy asses and do it.

  • You know, I walked to school or the school bus throughout many Chicago-area winters — in the snow! Sometimes on the street! And I managed to somehow make it all the way to adulthood. (We also, gasp!, sledded on sidewalks and front stoops. If we’d cleared them, we’d never have been able to do that.)

    The insistence on clearing sidewalks of snow is indicative of a culture of residents that just would rather the snow not be there at all. And frankly just can’t deal with thought of anything winter-like. It’s not about walking. Will someone think of the children arguments — are never about the children.

    (Good boots on backed snow is far preferable to a slushy, possibly icy sidewalk.)

    • Or, just take the time and shovel the ten feet of snow in front of your house. It’s not a big deal. People that don’t are just lazy POS.

  • Completely agreed. Especially for people like Melissa.

  • Melissa, I feel for you, but you’re at work and have time to post and respond on the blog (probably using the company computer). If I were paying you to be at work, today, I’d have an issue (but our company computer policy is a bit Draconian). I’m just saying… 🙂

  • Forgive me Melissa, I’m an old fart. You’re probably using your phone — my bad!

    • I don’t have any restrictions on my work computer use. In fact, I’m watching porn at this very moment. Darn, where did I put my lube.

  • Clearly, some people would rather pay more taxes to have the city shovel their walk. Fine. So on every property tax bill there should be a box to check off so you can pay an extra $50-200.00 a year – depending on lot size – to exempt your property from shoveling.

    Then some web-entrepreneur maps the addresses and has shoveling people (like high school kids on snow days) on standby to clear these addresses when needed.

    I just lost $675.00 in rental income, local restaurants lost $4-500.00 worth of business and the city lost at least $200.00 in taxes because of unshoveled sidewalks because the family who had reserved my vacation apt. for 5 days had to cancel because they have a handicapped child who needs a wheelchair.

  • The churches are the worst offenders. There are two on my block and their hundreds of congregants have not bothered to deal with their sidewalks. Bad neighbors.

  • This is the exact opposite of what DC needs to do. What DC needs to do is chill the fuck out and invest resources in things that matter, not wiping the asses of its recent yuppie immigrants.

  • Stop bitching about cleaning the side walks, just help your neighbours clean their side walks. You guys are always complaining about the city. Just move out to the burbs, we have just had the most snow in a 100 years be thankful to PoP for covering the news. Does anybody have some left over milk and bread, I am hungry from helping my lazy friend on S street.

  • Jefferson on Lamont. How often have you called MPD about the crack dealers. I called and emailed MPD, including the chief about my freindly neighborhood dealer. Needless to say he is not a problem any more.

    With respect to your issue of being busted for long grass…it was because one of your neighbors turned you in.

    In a simialr vein, there are a few reprebate on our street who don’t shovel. My neighbor’s and I would gladly bust these douchebags. Generally the snow experience has been positive with neighbor helping neighbor. We have all noted those that don’t fulfill thier civic responsibiltity and we wished there was something that could be done.

    • I’m glad I don’t live on a block with unbearably self-important people like yourself.

    • Steve — Actually, I have called on several occasions. Unfortunately, I pretty certain it’s a systemic problem that isn’t solved so simply. And, even further, I have actually written a letter to the city engineer about the lead pipes, and how in any other industrialized country in the world this would no longer be an issue.

      My point wasn’t to bitch about having to shovel my walk, or even cut my grass (although like I said that’s tangential), it was that there are more persistent problems that the city should be focused on. The thread began with people being worried that as pedestrians the snow was annoying or even hazardous; and I wanted to make two simple points. First, that, as pedestrians, we have much larger more persistent issues that need addressing than a couple of days of snow once a decade. And second, that if this is such a problem, then we should demand appropriate services from our city. I don’t think the solution is implementing a negative incentive policy that is virtually unenforceable, and would be selectively enforcement at best. And having disgruntled neighbors inform on each other to the authorities about something so petty, seems about as selective as it can get.

      If not clearing your walk for a day or cutting your grass for a couple weeks makes one a douchebag, then count me in. Fortunately, I have more important things going in life (responding to blog posts aside).

      • So you’re justifying yourself by saying your too busy to take the half hour a week (or shell out the $20 bucks) for someone to mow your lawn or the 2 hours TOTAL a year to shovel your sidewalk? And no, I don’t think the city should be held responsible. I think homewoners should have the initiative themselves. That’s why condo buildings have HOA charges; snow removal is included. Home owners don’t. They are responsible to do it.

  • you’re right about able-bodied adults and youth being able to get around on the lumpy, bumpy, icy sidewalks, but us old folks can’t. we especially can’t climb over the piles of slush left by plows when we’re trying to reach some pavement to walk on.

    there are plenty of able-bodied teenagers and jailbirds in this area who have no school and no jobs. give them shovels and send them out to clear the crosswalks, bus stops, and at least a single path down every block so people can walk. pay them for it, but don’t just let it slide. it’s soooo insulting to our fellow residents to not care about clearing the walks.

  • if we all just walked around with flamethrowers, well… things would be different i tell you.

    • Flamethrowers yeah! I’m all over that! But what about all those little hand-held government ray beam machines? They stab through my brain well enough, they ought to be able to melt snow. . .

  • It’s the businesses that drive me crazy – seriously, the Georgia Ave Safeway plowed their lot but did not shovel their sidewalk, same for the crappy Wendy’s.

    I don’t think you can fine individual homeowners because people have all kinds of reasons for not being able to shovel – I’m not sure how you could police that. However, I don’t see why some blocks are shoveled from end to end, and others there isn’t a single house who cleared their sidewalk.

    3900 Block of New Hampshire Ave, you SUCK. There were multiple houses who shoveled from their front door to their car and didn’t touch the sidewalk. As far as I’m concerned you have a special duty to clear your block since so many people depend on walking this way to the metro.

  • does anyone have any sympathy for the little old grannies who can’t really get out and shovel snow for themselves? I want everyone’s streets cleared, but there are some people who are not “with it” enough to do it or arrange to do it.

    That said, wherever you guys live, I want to see some crack dealers shoveling out their sidewalks.

    • saf

      Of course we do. And on my block, and on blocks that I am familiar with, the neighbors know who those folks are, and take care of the shoveling for them.

    • The dealers on my street were the first ones to shovel on our block. In fact, after the first snowfall, they did an entire half-block. Imagine that. Thanks, dealer dudes.

  • It pains me like you wouldn’t believe to make a NYC comparison, but apparently in NYC, you’ve got four hours to clear your sidewalk and if you don’t the garbage men can write you a $250 fine. I could support that, especially for the businesses that don’t shovel.

  • Tommy Wells has legislation before the Council:

  • The fine for businesses who don’t clear their sidewalks should be large enough to actually persuade them to do something about it. I’m thinking $5,000/day.

    A bigger problem seems to be sidewalks in public areas. How can the District be held accountable?

  • I definitely think businesses should be given a hefty fine. Interestingly, in my neighborhood, almost everyone shoveled. Other than the curbs, my walk to the Metro this morning was fairly easy. Walking from the Metro to work on Q street in Dupont Circle, OTOH, was a total pill because of a couple of lazy-a*** offices that didn’t shovel their sidewalks.

    Our neighbor was away on a business trip for the weekend snow, so my husband shoveled his sidewalk and we paid a couple of enterprising teenage girls to shovel his walkway because, you know, that’s what neighbors do.

  • My question is simply why are streets a priority and clearing of them paid for with tax dollars, while sidewalks are not a priority and the responsibility of the properties abutting them? I am coming from the perspective of a person who relies completely upon public transit. While being neighborly, community oriented etc are all wonderful – I through out my back pushing a car out of the snow – sidewalk clearing really should be a city service. And yes I believe that the roads needed to ensure public should be taken care of first.

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