Collective efficacy and the number of sidewalks cleared of snow, Part Three

Given the issues of clearing snow on sidewalks, why not conduct a multi-site investigation of snow clearance and collective efficacy? I could imagine two different kinds of research proposals:

Photo by Vishal Rapartiwar on Pexels.com

-A lot of researchers across the United States commit to walking their neighborhoods for a week after major snow storms in the United States to see if the sidewalks are clear. They do a visual check and take some pictures to document conditions. This is all uploaded to a single site where patterns can be compared, mapped, and discussed.

-Scholars use more indirect observation, whether it is from Google Street View images of places after a snowstorm or camera feeds that are publicly available or even observations from above. Again, they could compare across locations and write up results.

With this data, researchers could look at how different characteristics of neighborhoods affect snow removal including all sorts of demographic data available through the Census, housing type and stock, and local regulations regarding snow removal.

But, perhaps what is most interesting is this question of whether snow removal on sidewalks indicates something about the collective efficacy of neighborhoods and communities. Do people help others clear sidewalks? I think of the example in Chicago of the dibs system where individuals clear out street spaces and then claim them. This system is touted as one where residents overcome the weather odds – and their neighbors – to secure their own parking. This is not a story of communities coming together to help each other. Or, I think of some of the unshoveled sidewalks I have observed around schools in my community. If property owners will not clear snow for kids, when would they?

Across three posts, this is the question that could be answers: what are the kinds of communities that collectively come together to clear snow from the sidewalks?

Collective efficacy and the number of sidewalks cleared of snow, Part Two

Continuing to think of sidewalks cleared of snow (or not), why are sidewalks often viewed as the responsibility of a property owner? Are sidewalks a collective phenomena that benefit all or are there they parts of private property that individual property owners are responsible for? The latter response makes it easier to blame individual property owners for not clearing the snow. But, it is hard to imagine walking only the sidewalk in front of one property; the sidewalks connect to many other sidewalks.

Photo by Karolina Grabowska on Pexels.com

Several factors contribute to less interest in a collective responsibility for sidewalks:

  1. Laws and regulations can differ by municipality regarding sidewalks. Are property owners responsible for repairing and maintaining sidewalks? Are they asked to clear their own sidewalks?
  2. As noted yesterday, fewer people are outside. Some people use sidewalks a lot but many people use them rarely. Snow and cold also reduce use.
  3. The suburbs are individualistic, people may not know their neighbors well, and property values are only partly dependent on the neighborhood. People want to act self sufficient.
  4. There is little interest in or experience of the kind of thriving sidewalk life Jane Jacobs described in The Death and Life of Great American Cities. In the picture Jacobs provides, people are constantly using sidewalks in a variety of ways. There are always people out and about, helping to create social norms and providing numerous opportunities for social interactions. Sidewalks in many suburban neighborhoods are more like empty tableaus where an occasional person and sometimes dog passes by. People would often prefer to live in quiet neighborhoods.
  5. Help is often associated with payment. Yes, a neighbor could clear snow as a favor but kids occasionally look to make money by shoveling, people pay to have their driveways cleared, and HOAs take care of this in many neighborhoods.

Put these all together and a good number of sidewalks contain snow and ice. This could suggest that collective efficacy is low in these neighborhoods; I will explore a possible multi-site research design tomorrow.

Collective efficacy and the number of sidewalks cleared of snow, Part One

Judging by conversations on Nextdoor and my own observations of nearby streets, there are a good number of property owners who do not shovel their sidewalks to remove snow. What levels of shoveling indicate the neighborhood takes collective ownership of the sidewalks? 50%? 67%? Over 75%? What fewer shoveled walkways might mean about a neighborhood and neighborliness:

Photo by Karolina Grabowska on Pexels.com
  1. People do not walk outside much. If so, they would shovel more. Not shoveling makes it more difficult for pedestrians to get by. When the snow starts melting a bit and is trampled down, it becomes icy. I have observed numerous houses where the driveway is clear but not the sidewalks.
  2. There might be several socially acceptable reasons for not shoveling: illness, old age, and being away from home. Even then, it would be possible to arrange with others to have the sidewalks shoveled.
  3. Dog walkers might be the most interested people in shoveling (this could be tested): they are regularly walking and their dogs too could benefit from cleared sidewalks.
  4. Neighbors do not help neighbors shovel. This might require a lot of effort or not. On sidewalks near me, clearing out a one shovel wide width down multiple sidewalks would not take long (if the snow was not too deep). Or, I hear stories of people with snowblowers clearing a long stretch of sidewalks quickly.
  5. The best cleared sidewalks I see are the ones in neighborhoods with homeowners associations. Residents pay for the cleared snow, among other things.

Put these all together and there is a patchwork of cleared sidewalks mixed with uncleared sidewalks. Tomorrow, I will explore a related question: are the sidewalks a collective responsibility or the responsibility only of individual property owners?

Editorial calling for better maintained sidewalks

The Chicago Tribune on Monday asked residents and municipalities to pay attention to the condition of their sidewalks:

Photo by Aldiyar Seitkassymov on Pexels.com

Today we write instead about the humble sidewalk. It’s prosaic. Unromantic. Mundane.

But to patrons of two-footed transportation – and to wheelchair users, kids on scooters and people consigned to canes or crutches – the humdrum sidewalk is either a safe glide path or a menacing minefield .It’s as crucial to its users as vast roadways are to motor vehicles. The difference is that drivers and passengers in the vehicles are better protected than is the postal carrier who each day risks tumbling onto your concrete.

We’re thinking about cracked sidewalks in part because of Chicagoland’s snowstorms last winter. If you’re the beneficiary of a Snow Samaritan – one of those thoughtful neighbors who helpfully pushes her snowblower down the whole block – imagine how she feels when her machine trips on a sidewalk that’s broken, caved low or heaved up by freeze-thaw cycles. When that happens once too often, she has to cue the costly repair.

So on behalf of all those who encounter your sidewalk, step outside and inspect. And if it’s damaged, call or email whoever oversees public works in your neighborhood – the ward superintendent, the village manager, the city council member, the local street department foreman.

This is the practical argument to make for sidewalks: safety and costs. Cracks and other sidewalk problems make it more difficult to navigate. I know this from my own experience walking, running, and biking. I am able to effectively move around sidewalk issues but not everyone can. These negative sidewalk experiences can then add additional costs, whether from addressing injuries from falls or damaged bicycles and other vehicles.

But, the practical argument may not be convincing or elegant enough. It strikes me as a very Midwestern way to address the problem. An additional way to make this pitch might be to appeal to what sidewalks make possible. The most famous part of The Death and Life of American Cities by Jane Jacobs is the opening section which speaks to all the possibilities available because of thriving sidewalks. Repairing sidewalks is not just about safety or costs; it is about opening space for people to go back and forth and others to utilize. With the right mix of surrounding uses, the sidewalk then becomes a public space that enriches the neighborhood.

Put all of these arguments together and the humble sidewalk is pretty important. In communities dominated by cars, sidewalks offer an alternative path for transportation and sociability.

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?)

The relatively narrow sidewalks in both cities and suburbs

With fewer cars on the roads, Tom Vanderbilt considers the possible size and role of sidewalks:

Even in a place such as New York City, sidewalks, as the architect John Massengale documented, have been shrunk over the years to make more space for cars. In my own neighborhood, many stretches of sidewalk are the bare minimum of five feet wide. This, per long-standing research, accommodates two pedestrians at once, but begins to fall apart at anything beyond that: two pedestrians encountering one walking in the opposite direction; a kid on a scooter; people stopping to chat. Making matters worse are sidewalk-shrinking obstructions such as trees, light poles, or, most egregious, traffic signs. That same street meanwhile, will dedicate more than 10 feet to an active vehicle-travel lane, as well as two additional lanes of parked vehicles—each larger than the sidewalk itself.

The larger question that Vanderbilt and others address is this: are cities made for cars or people? Is the goal of urban planning to move as many cars as efficiently as possible or to encourage a vibrant streetlife and pedestrian activity?

This also applies to the many residential and suburban areas of the United States. In recent weeks, I have thought about this in my residential neighborhood. There is little room for multiple people. The difference is starker when comparing the sidewalk to the nearby roadway, which easily accommodates two cars passing at 30 mph. And with the size of the residential sidewalk, this forces walkers, runners, and bicyclists either into the grass or, more recently with COVID-19, into the street so that everyone has enough space.

SidewalkResidential

I am guessing various actors would throw up some roadblocks regarding wider sidewalks in residential neighborhoods: they would be more costly to put down, they would take away land from yards, a wider sidewalk is less necessary in normal times (and the rate of sidewalk use does seem up in my locale). But, the way to counter this might be to suggest the sidewalk could expand while the street could shrink. Do we really need such wide residential streets? Would we rather make our neighborhoods more pleasant for cars or people? The American suburbs are tied up with cars and driving but this does not have to always require sacrifice from those who want to walk, run, and bike.

What community wants to actually fine residents for not shoveling their sidewalks?

Shoveling sidewalks in front of residences and businesses is important for pedestrians. Many communities have penalties on the books for those who do not clear their sidewalks, including Chicago:

Property owners in the city are legally required to shovel their sidewalks after it snows. And on the South Side, one alderman has been out cracking down on the problem.

Ald. Ray Lopez has been out in his 15th Ward neighborhoods since Tuesday, directing Streets and Sanitation workers to problem spots to hold people accountable.

Department workers were writing tickets to home and business owners who did not comply. Fines range up to $500…

Thirty two businesses got ticketed in the 15th Ward Tuesday, and Lopez said he expects there to be just as many Wednesday.

Even if neighbors get mad at a lack of shoveling, who wants to be the politician or local official who gives tickets to homeowners for this offense? From the information provided in the article above, it looks like the tickets were issued to businesses. It could be argued that businesses have a strong obligation to snow as it would be good for potential customers and they are often located in areas where there are more pedestrians (street corners, commercial areas along busy streets, etc.). But, imagine the optics of giving a ticket to an elderly homeowner or a single mother with multiple small children. Americans may like local government but not when that government appears to be heavy-handed.

A similar comparison might be fines many communities issue regarding long grass. If people do not keep their lawn below a certain height, some communities will come mow that lawn and then send a sizable bill. Neighbors do not like the message tall grass sends (regular lawn maintenance suggests a certain standing). I do not know the recidivism rates after this is done; it would be interesting to know if this helps promote more lawn mowing in the future.

Or, consider traffic tickets. Many drivers speed but few want to be ticketed if they are swept up in efforts to generate revenue for the community, outsiders are targeted, or routine acts are criminalized. Arguments can be made about safety and the good of the community might I would guess few people support getting a ticket.

All of this can put local officials in a tough position. These problems, unshoveled snow, long grass, and bad driving, can create dangers and resentment in a community if not addressed. But, fines may not be the best way to prompt action. Tomorrow, I will consider other options for clearing sidewalks beyond fines.

The sidewalk problems for walking and biking in the suburbs

Using suburban sidewalks is not easy for a variety of reasons. Here is a short list of the problems:

  1. Sidewalks with too many or too big of cracks and/or dips. This is less of an issue for walking but can range from annoying to tire-popping for bicycles.
  2. A lack of curb cuts or good ones in going between sidewalks and roads. It is can be enough work to watch out for vehicles at intersections but then many of the transitions between sidewalks and streets are poor.
  3. A lack of shade on sidewalks. This is particularly pronounced in newer developments where there is a lack of trees near the street or in places where diseases have limited trees.
  4. Too much vegetation along sidewalks so that users of the sidewalk have to dodge low branches or overgrown bushes. This is inconvenient for single users and could be really difficult when people are passing each other.
  5. No sidewalks at all. While this is a pronounced issue in more rural locations or unincorporated areas where sidewalks were never built, it can also pop up in weird in-city locations where a sidewalk will simply end, forcing a user to cross over to the over side or use the street.

All of these issues could reduce sidewalk use in a country where bicycling and walking is already dangerous and more people would benefit from moving around. The lack of sidewalk users might contribute to the poor conditions listed above and more local advocacy could help reverse these conditions.

Jane Jacobs, self-driving cars, and smartphone walking lanes

Fining distracted pedestrians who are paying attention to their smartphones is one option for communities. Here is another: a Chinese shopping center in Xi’an has a clearly marked lane for smartphone-using walkers.

Colorfully painted paths outside the Bairui Plaza shopping mall have been designated for walkers who cannot be bothered to look up from their devices…

Instead, messages painted along the lane cajole walkers to look up and pay attention.

“Please don’t look down for the rest of your life,” one message reads. “Path for the special use of the heads-down tribe,” another says…

Xi’an is not the first city to experiment with special areas for mobile phone use. In 2014, a street in the southwestern city of Chongqing was divided into two sections. On one side, phone use was prohibited, and on the other walkers were allowed to use their phones “at your own risk.”

The German city of Augsburg in 2016 embedded traffic lights on the surface of the street to prevent texting pedestrians from walking into traffic.

This will be a difficult issue to tackle for many communities. Here are two more additional ideas that may (or may not) help address these concerns:

  1. In reading multiple stories about distracted pedestrians on sidewalks, I am reminded of Jane Jacobs’ thoughts on lively sidewalk life. She argued that a lively street scene full of mixed uses will promote a thriving social scene. Could it be that sidewalks need to be more lively to keep the attention of pedestrians? If someone is walking down a bland block or through a shopping mall that does not really look any different than other shopping malls, it can be easier to pull out a smartphone. Of course, users might be so familiar with the walking area or their thoughts are elsewhere such that no level of liveliness would keep them from their smartphone.
  2. Perhaps some of the technology already being rolled out in cars and destined for significant use in driverless cars that helps cars sense other objects and respond accordingly could be implemented in cell phones. Imagine using your smartphone while walking and all of the sudden a radar screen pops up that indicates you are about to run into something. Or, perhaps it could have lights on different edges that could provide indications that objects are on that side. This is where Google Glass could be very useful: a display of nearby objects could always be within a user’s vision. Maybe technology will soon advance to a point where we have “bubbles” around us displaying information and nearby pedestrians or other objects could trigger some sort of alarm.

Separate walking lanes as well as punishments may not be enough. Given our reliance on technology to solve problems, I would not be surprised if new technology ends up as a substantial part of the solution proposed for problems posed by earlier technology. At the same time, this may be less about technology and more about the changing nature of public life.

When sidewalks and paths are in bad shape

I was reminded by seeing Blair Kamin’s complaints about a path at Northerly Island in Chicago that the condition of sidewalks and paths can matter a lot for those who want to use them. A few thoughts about my experiences with local sidewalks and paths:

  1. On one hand, I grew up near and am still located near a tremendous bike path system: the Prairie Path. Originally an electric interurban line that closed for good in the late 1950s, local residents and officials started converting it into a recreational asset in the 1960s. The path is generally wide, covers dozens of miles with connections of other trails, and offers access to a number of communities and parks. On the other hand, riding a bike on the path can be frustrating at times, particularly in sections with more roads and tracks that need to be crossed (and there are other parts where one can ride much longer without interruption) as well as more pedestrians who are less speedy and often take up more of the path. Additionally, the path offers access between communities but one can often be stuck with limited options with roadways and sidewalks as soon as they leave the path.
  2. Nearly all suburban roads are built for cars. People like to drive fast. Not all roads, particularly in older parts of town, offer adequate space for pedestrians or bikes. Many drivers do not look for bikes or pedestrians.
  3. Sidewalks are sometimes present and sometimes not. I know this is often dependent on the regulations when the road was built but it can be confusing how sidewalks suddenly appear and disappear.
  4. Sidewalks that do exist are often in various states of repair. Some are really narrow. Cracks are common as are different angles and difficult ramps on and off streets. This may be something I am more aware of because I have a road bike that can be harmed by these imperfections as well as young children who can more easily trip on uneven surfaces. Hence, I would almost always rather ride in the road because the condition of the street is usually much better than the sidewalk.

In other words, life for non-vehicles in the suburbs can be difficult, particularly when the infrastructure provided for them is less than ideal. I get it; the suburbs are about cars. At the same time, without adequate opportunities for walking and biking, people will likely simply not try them as much. And this likely continues to fuel a car-driving, suburban society.

(If one wanted to go further, the New Urbanists place a lot of emphasis on street life and allowing residents to get to important places within a reasonable walk. They are usually referring to mixed-use neighborhoods where people are consistently on the sidewalks. Some newer subdivisions are full of walking and bike paths, though these may have few connections to anything outside the neighborhood. In other words, there are some people arguing sidewalks and paths are important – particularly those interested in vibrant street life or interested in boosting property values – but this has not trickled down to all suburban places.)