One way or another, suburban sidewalks will be cleared of snow

Because of different regulations and community guidelines, sidewalks in the suburbs could be cleared quickly of snow – or not. Of course, they all will be clear eventually as the weather warms up.

The continued onslaught of heavy, back-straining snow was hard enough to tackle. When a deep freeze solidified it, many people surrendered their shovels in defeat.

The result left sidewalks covered with snowdrifts in neighborhoods and along busy streets. Some pedestrians could be seen walking on busy roads rather than wading through sidewalk snow, a risky strategy at best…

Across the suburbs, “there’s no uniform code” for sidewalk snow removal, Czerwinski explained. “Some communities have an ordinance, which sets in place whose responsibility it is, and it’s usually the property owner, and it’s a requirement. Other municipalities only encourage residents to shovel snow. Some municipalities say nothing.

“It’s not the norm in the metro region, but some cities such as Highland Park do plow sidewalks, taking a tiered approach. The city plows 32 miles of sidewalks near schools, Metra stations, public buildings and shopping districts — no matter how much snow falls, according to Highland Park’s website.

Given the unique snowfall in the last month or so in the Chicago area, there were several keys to keeping sidewalks and driveways clear:

-Keep up with the various snowfalls. If you let multiple snows happen or do not clear the snow completely each time, it piles up, melts in layers and then freezes, and takes longer to clear.

-Use a shovel with a steel edge. This helps scrape the surface clear rather than just gliding over the top.

-Snowblowers cut down on the physical effort needed but they do not always get to the bottom of the snow. They instead can leave an inch or two at the bottom that becomes tramped down and stays on the surface longer.

More broadly, I wonder if the sociologists who study collective efficacy would see snow removal as a reliable marker. Do people go out of their way to help each other? Is the block or community more important than just clearing individual driveways and sidewalks? The Chicago system of “dibs” where people physically mark off their cleared parking spaces for their own use is interesting to consider in this light. But, so might be the suburbanites who leave their own property immaculate but nearby paths are not cleared. In this case, does the snow clearing become more of a status symbol like a dandelion-free lawn or yard free of leaves rather than an interest in public welfare?

(With all the snow that fell and is now melting, it is also time to consider drainage issues present in many suburban areas. Where can all the water go?)

Better methods than fines for encouraging the shoveling of sidewalks

Yesterday, I discussed how few local officials likely want to fine people for not shoveling their sidewalks. I’m not sure the answer to solving this problem involves regulations and fines. Instead, the best solution may involve encouraging community action and neighborliness. I wonder if shoveling sidewalks in neighborhoods and communities is a good proxy for communities working together and helping each other. In recent decades, social scientists have looked for ways to measure community spirit and activity. For example, Stanley Milgram’s lost letter experiment provided inspiration for Robert Sampson and his team to look at mailing rates across Chicago neighborhoods to understand collective efficacy. Are neighborhoods with more community spirit more likely to have more of the sidewalks shoveled? In contrast, neighborhoods where people know fewer of their neighbors, with fewer community organizations, and less collective activity might be less likely to clear their sidewalks. Instead of fines, neighbors could help each other out and/or take responsibility for their blocks or neighborhoods. This might mean that a few people end up tackling a lot of the problem but a web of relationships and a sense of doing good can go a long ways. Some residents may not be able to clear snow (health or mobility issues, out of town, etc.) and others step into the gap.

Two other options are possible. First, anger and public shaming is a possibility. Imagine a block where just one or two people do not clear the snow and everyone else does. Even without glances or words exchanged, this puts pressure on the people who do not participate. With conversation, gossip in local social networks, social media posts, and more, people who do not shovel may be motivated to act (or it could poison relationships). If people in many neighborhoods want to avoid direct confrontation or do not have deep relationships with each other, this may be the route taken.

Second, millions of Americans choose to pay people to remove their snow or live in communities where snow removal is taken care of. Want a third party to take care of the sidewalks rather than own a single-family home and have to take responsibility for all of your own exterior work? People now have a range of choices.

Fines are likely present because the three options above do not always work or are not possible. But, if fines are not terribly effective or popular, it is time to get at the deeper issue of building community bonds to consistently keep sideealks clear.