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?)

Learning to drive in the snow requires practice and caution

With cold and snow in much of the United States, a car dependent society runs into more difficulties driving. What it does it take to learn how to drive in the snow? Practice and caution. Let me explain.

As a newer driver, I had opportunities to gain valuable practice in driving in snow and bad conditions. I remember one time driving home from work on a school night at about 8 PM after several hours of snowfall. The road was completely covered but the path of the road was discernible amid trees and other markers. Hardly anyone else was out. I made it home by driving slowly.

Around the same time and working at the same place, I found myself leaving for work at 6:30 AM one winter morning. I did not give the car much time to heat up so when I pulled out of our subdivision on to the main road, the rising sun hit my not-clear windshield and made it impossible to see out the front. I stopped, rolled down my window, and slowly drove forward a short distance until I could pull over, let the car warm up, and have a completely clear windshield.

These were potentially risky situations. They were also learning experiences. Pair these experiences – and numerous others – with a few clear rules for driving in snow and icy conditions. First, do not follow anyone closely. Give yourself more space between vehicles. Second, brake slowly in case you start slipping. This means you need to start slowing down earlier. Third, adjust your speed for conditions. Watch how other vehicles are doing and how clear the roadway is.

Wintry conditions are not always possible to handle but are often manageable with practice and caution. These guidelines are less helpful if drivers have fewer opportunities to drive in such conditions. And even following these guidelines is no guarantee; a driver cannot control the actions of other drivers and surprises can arise (such as unseen ice). Even as we ask new drivers to practice certain maneuvers and skills, perhaps we should add snow and ice experience to that mix. Or, maybe it should be a bonus certification required for some parts of the country and recommended elsewhere.

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.

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 eventual plowing of residential streets after snowfall

Once snow starts falling, snowplows emerge and start rumbling down roads. They start with main streets, roadways many drivers travel on and that are often necessary for people hoping to get from one place to another. Depending on the rate of snowfall, the width of primary roads, and the number of main roads, it could be a while until plows make it to residential streets.

This all makes sense and I assume there are studies that confirm starting with the heavier-trafficked roads. (Do snow plows use the same kind of algorithms that guide delivery trucks to the most efficient routes?) At the same time, it could pose a predicament for residents. When you are starting or ending your drive, getting through the residential and side streets can prove quite a problem. It might be hours before people can easily pull in and out of their driveways.

Perhaps this is an argument against sprawl. Having thousands of driveways spread out along hundreds of streets in every suburban community means snowplowing is inefficient. Additionally, residents have to remove snow from their driveways and sidewalks. All this adds up to a lot of snow removal for relatively few people.

Eventually, the plow comes through and makes it easier to pass along residential streets. It may be a while before the side streets look as good as the main roads but they get there eventually. And perhaps the unplowed streets have their own beauty before the whiteness is sullied again by pavement, dirt, and tire tracks.

How a significant snowfall transforms a suburban neighborhood

Snowfalls of 6+ inches do not occur that often in the suburbs of Chicago. After this most recent one, I thought about how it alters a suburban neighborhood:

  1. The first thing I notice when going outside is the quietness as the snow is falling. Yesterday, when I went outside at 6:20 AM, it was dead silent. As the snow continues to fall and with a significant snow cover on the ground, the suburban neighborhood simply becomes quieter: less traffic noise, less likelihood of train (just a few weeks before with no snow on the ground, I’m pretty sure I heard a train horn from 3+ miles away) and airplane noise.
  2. Particularly in the mornings as people try to get to work, the snow can bring people outside. It still may not lead to much social interaction – though one of my neighbors did come by with a snowblower earlier in the week to uncover our sidewalk – but at least you see some people alive in the winter.
  3. With a significant amount of snow, it is a little harder to see the differences in landscaping, architectural features, and even size of different dwellings. Enough snow helps everything kind of blur together. All those things that homeowners do to set themselves apart – from yard statues to flowerbeds to shrubs to flags – are obscured.
  4. A big snowfall can bring kids back outside again – something that can be pretty rare even when the weather is good. Having no school for the day also helps. About a half mile from our house is a sizable retention pond where where lots of kids gather to sled despite the numerous signs saying no activity should take place there. (I have done some searching: this may be the biggest hill in a 1.5 miles radius of our home.)

When all this snow melts, we will be back to the blotchy green/brown lawns and empty and foreboding trees that characterize a typical suburban scene in winter.

Snowproofing the morning commute

Hearing the morning travel times near Chicago this morning, I wondered what it would take to reduce the abnormally high drive times due to the lake effect snow. The short answer is easy: get more people to take mass transit. But, this may not be doable. Here’s why:

  1. Not desirable. Even with the troubles presented by daily commuting via car (high costs, getting stuck in traffic, road maintenance), this is what Americans choose to do, even when they have other options. It is simply too attractive to be able to go and leave when you want and to not have to be close to other people while doing so.
  2. Not practical. Much of the American lifestyle, even in a city like Chicago, is built around the car. We have our own private homes with yards and garages (even in many of Chicago’s neighborhoods), we don’t put much emphasis on promoting street life, and our activities (work, school, recreation) tend to be all spread out. If you wanted to get rid of your car, you would need to live in denser areas – which do exist – but this would be a significant change for many.

Another way to put it is that days like today might be terrible for commuting but they are likely not enough to cause significant lifestyle changes. Americans have a high tolerance for putting up with commutes and having to use mass transit 300+ days a year isn’t worth it to many.

An additional option would be to delay commutes on days like these. Can’t more businesses and institutions provide more leeway to commuters? This might free up some road space if more people could delay their start or work from home.

Local governments staring at higher salt prices ahead of winter

The supply of salt is tight, leading to higher prices for local governments:

Replenishing stockpiles is proving challenging, especially for some Midwestern states, after salt supplies were depleted to tame icy roads last winter. And price increases of at least 20 percent have been common in places including Boston and Raleigh, North Carolina…

Some local governments are avoiding the problem thanks to multi-year contracts or secured bids. Chicago, for example, used roughly three times more salt last winter — 436,000 tons — than it did in 2012-2013, but the city has locked-in rates based on a contract negotiated a few years ago.

Other states aren’t so lucky.

In Ohio, where more than 1 million tons of salt was used on state roads last year — a nearly 60 percent increase over the average — last year’s average price was $35 per ton. This year, 15 counties received bids of more than $100 per ton, and 10 counties received no bids from suppliers…

For road officials, that translates into having to conserve and be creative. In many places, brine is added to salt to boost its effectiveness. Officials also are buying trucks that can, among other things, spread salt in the morning and clean streets later in the day.

I’m sure a lot of these governments are hoping for less-than-normal snowfalls. At the same time, it is also a good time for creative solutions to getting snow and ice off roads. I hope the long-term answer isn’t what we often saw in northern Indiana: just don’t completely clear the roads at all during the winter. This may have been due to the higher amounts of snowfall due to lake effect snow on the east side of Lake Michigan and it wasn’t terrible because of a lack of hill. Still, such a general strategy would slow down a lot of road travel.

I haven’t seen this suggested anywhere but is anyone thinking of some sort of special and/or temporary tax to cover road salt? These are public roads and the funds have to come from somewhere. Such ploys wouldn’t be popular with motorists but it could be more desirable than taking your life into your hands anytime driving during the winter.

Suburbanites mad at neighbors who don’t shovel their sidewalks

Readers of the Daily Herald are upset about their suburban neighbors who didn’t both to shovel the sidewalks in front of their houses:

Nothing like hitting a nerve. Last week’s column about pedestrians in peril on unshoveled sidewalks provoked an avalanche of articulate emails. Let’s start with Nancy Johnson who writes, “I live in Elgin where shoveling sidewalks is not required and I struggle to trudge through the snow every winter to walk my three dogs.

“Two winters ago, I fell on an icy sidewalk that resulted from the homeowner never shoveling, and did serious damage to my back. I have tried putting friendly notes in neighbor’s doors reminding them to be good citizens and shovel, but to no avail,” Johnson said…

JR Beck joins three Hanover Park neighbors to clear sidewalk snow near a school and church.

“We all have snowblowers so the work is not as taxing as it once was a few years ago,” he said. “We have managed to keep the walkways clear for the blocks on which we all live.

“But no thanks to the snowplow jockeys who: plow in all the corners where the kids have to cross the streets; and drive so fast that the plows throw snow over the medians and onto the cleared walkways…

“When I replied that I was only talking about commercial properties — dead silence. I have seen people walking in the streets on extremely busy Golf Road and Algonquin Road during rush hour because sidewalks in front of these main commercial strips are impassible.”

A big problem in a really wintry season like the Chicago area just experienced. There are two possible routes of interpretation for this that come to mind:

1. This is another indicator of a lack of suburban community. People can’t be bothered to take care of parts of their property that others use. They put their own self-interest ahead of that of others. Kids may have special status and this makes sense since the suburban life is traditionally about raising children: the argument about kids getting to school or buses seems to be the most effective in motivating people to clear sidewalks.

2. This highlights the importance of roads and driving in suburban communities over the concerns of pedestrians. The suburban life is built around driving from place to place so this gets priority for snow removal. The average suburbanite or business owner may not think there are many pedestrians out there on the sidewalks so they don’t bother to clear them.

Neither reason is particularly positive but this is an ongoing issue in many places. In our residential neighborhood, in which I walk often and also walk out of (to get to the library, several stores, bank), I would estimate only 10-20% of sidewalks were clear, pushing walkers into the street. Even if I cleared my entire sidewalk (which I did throughout the winter), it doesn’t necessarily connect to anyone else who cleared their sidewalks.

Financially troubled Chicago has to pay out more to reimburse drivers for pothole damage

Chicago doesn’t have much money these days but it will have even less after reimbursing drivers for potholes:

Mayor Rahm Emanuel has ordered the Chicago Department of Transportation to assign all 30 of its pothole crews to main streets on Mondays and Fridays to address scores of potholes in blitzkrieg fashion using a grid system.

The Chicago Sun-Times reported last month that the cash-strapped city has been hit with a blizzard of damage to vehicle claims thanks to a relentless barrage of snow, cold and wild temperature swings that has turned city streets into the surface of the moon.

Since the New Year’s Eve storm that buried Chicago in 23 inches of snow before a record-setting cold snap, CDOT crews have filled roughly 240,000 potholes…

At last week’s City Council meeting alone, there were 543 pothole claims introduced, nearly double the 280 claims introduced last month. During the March City Council meeting last year, there were just 61 pothole claims introduced.

Between paying more to patch potholes plus pay out claims, the cold and snowing weather is costing Chicago more money. It’s too bad this story doesn’t have any monetary figures about the pothole claims. Plus, how much is budgeted each year to pay out these claims and what happens if there is an outlier year (like this year)? Mayor Emanuel is quoted in this story saying this is why the city is trying to pave more streets during warmer months – indeed, constructing streets in certain ways in the first place and maintaining them adequately will cut down on pothole problems down the road. In this case, paying more upfront for the infrastructure of good roads in Chicago could save the city money later.

File Chicago pothole claims here.