As Sanitation Department plows began to clear snow from the last remaining side streets in the city this morning, many non-driving New Yorkers navigated thigh-high mounds of snow on street corners. Some cursed silently as they slipped on the underlying slush and imagined the black snow, ribbed ice, and slush lagoons to come. Others took out their phones to shame the property owners, for failing to shovel, and the city, for prioritizing clear passage for cars over clear paths for pedestrians.
For some background, the city requires property owners to clear adjacent sidewalks of snow to 18 inches beyond the curb or face fines of $100-$350. Sanitation Department enforcement agents are tasked with inspecting reports of violations and eyeballing streets twice daily, and can write the tickets. The enormity of this task following the second biggest snowstorm in New York City history aside, this system falls short where the sidewalk meets the crosswalk, even on blocks where all homeowners and landlords do their civic duty, because snowplows shoving mounds of snow out of the way for drivers throw it directly in the paths of pedestrians.
On Sunday, all public transit but the Long Island Rail Road shuddered back to life as Mayor de Blasio toured the city inspecting plow work and telling residents and reporters that the city would be "good enough for people to get around" by today. In a weekend packed with email announcements, press conferences, and photo ops, however, de Blasio only mentioned the problem of clearing crosswalks once, when announcing Sanitation's hiring of temporary workers to shovel them (a Sanitation Department spokeswoman could not immediately say how much money is allotted to the project versus plowing, or how intersections are prioritized for shoveling). Sidewalks only came up once, too, in a set of Mayor's Office Travel Safety Tips that recommended, "If you’re walking outdoors, be careful as sidewalks may be snowy and icy."
Park Slope resident and road-safety activist Doug Gordon said the blizzard response shows the transportation policy of a city—where by the way fewer than half of households own cars—writ large.
"You see the mayor out there jumping through all these hoops to explain to drivers how hard the city is working," he said, adding, "but you don’t see him having to jump through the same hoops to explain to pedestrians why the medians on Fourth Avenue where I live, for example, are iced over and likely to remain that way for weeks. Or what the city is doing to make it so there aren’t lines of people trudging through slush at every corner."
Gordon said that more interagency coordination is needed to ensure that pedestrian paths stay clear, Sanitation should be more aggressive in ticketing scofflaw business owners, and maintenance of crosswalks at corners should not fall through the cracks. He pointed out that the Department of Transportation is responsible for installing Americans with Disabilities Act-compliant ramps on street corners, and said that responsibility should extend to keeping them clear.
The ADA specifies that public entities should maintain accessible facilities and allow only "isolated or temporary interruptions in service." New York is no shining example of disabled-person accessibility, though. Just ask Edith Prentiss, head of the group Disabled in Action, who relies on an electric wheelchair to navigate the city. She has been stuck in her Washington Heights apartment since Friday.
"[To the city], we’re expendable," she said. "The attitude is that none of us have jobs and we all just sit at home eating and watching TV. There are people who have real jobs and need to get there just like everyone else, and who can’t."
Prentiss said there is plenty of blame to go around. She believes sidewalk removal enforcement is disproportionately focused on affluent areas such as the Upper East Side, and would like to see more aggressive inspecting across the city. She also noted that government agencies such as the MTA, the Department of Education, and the Parks Department are delinquent in maintaining clear sidewalks around their facilities, and said they should do more to lead by example.
"if you see that city entities are not doing their fair share and you’re a small mom and pop shop, are you going to do it?" she said.
The problem recurs every time it snows. Last winter, Prentiss says there was a period so bad that she was stuck inside for 10 days. In the winter of 2014, there was a week where she couldn't leave her block, stymied at each crosswalk by impassable snow. Today's forecasted melt and subsequent possible rain and snow during the week will likely create ice and make getting around, even getting from the front door to the Access-A-Ride van, more hazardous, she said.
People with disabilities have grown used to preparing for this kind of thing, Prentiss explained, but that doesn't mean the city and building owners are anywhere near compliance with federal law.
"We have to be prepared for sheltering in place, which is what this is," she said. "And I get to eat all my mandarin oranges and all my cans of tuna fish."
Prentiss said that she has so far staved off cabin fever by drawing up meeting minutes for a political group she is active with. The club had to cancel a candidate-vetting meeting it had planned for the weekend. Other than a Wednesday doctor's appointment, she plans to stay inside this week.
She said a meeting she convened with the Mayor's Office for People with Disabilities in 2014 about snow-related problems for peoples with disabilities produced few answers on this one beyond being "told we had to be patient."
Mayor's Office spokeswoman Rosemary Boeglin said in a statement:
"MOPD understands that persons with disabilities may be particularly vulnerable during episodes of extreme weather, and have staff on hand to serve as a direct resource for New Yorkers with disabilities to triage their concerns and make sure needs are met."
She said further that a fact sheet on snow removal issues for disabled people (PDF) came out of the office's meeting with activists, and noted a pilot program to dispatch volunteers to shovel snow in Queens and Staten Island.
At a press conference this afternoon, Mayor de Blasio said that building owners should be sure to clear 3-4 feet of sidewalk, and avoid shoveling it into the street. A Mayor's Office rep later clarified that the width should be 4 feet to accommodate wheelchairs, and said curb ramps fall under owners' sidewalk responsibilities.
The city is not yet fining homeowners, de Blasio said, but is focusing instead on businesses such as parking lots and gas stations that are shoveling large amounts of snow into the street.
"Everyone has a role to play," he said, gently admonishing property owners to get their acts together before the citation books come out.
Sanitation Commissioner Kathryn Garcia told reporters that there are 920 snow laborers working today.
"I do believe we are making strong headway," she said. "We still have more [work] to do."
The workers are digging out crosswalks, fire hydrants, and storm drains.
By comparison, the Sanitation Department is using 2,000 pieces of snow removal machinery today and 2,300 Sanitation staffers at a time are pulling 12-hour shifts as the agency temporarily shifts its function from trash pickup to blizzard cleanup.
In parts of Queens, Garcia says that the snow is so deep and roads so narrow that plows are "not effective." Instead, workers are "literally going in and dragging it out" with front-end loaders and dump trucks, for melting off-site. After clearing closed streets, the department's focus is on clearing bus stops and crosswalks, she said.
For Prentiss and Gordon, paths can't get cleared fast enough.
"I think the mayor actually did a really good job overall," Gordon said. "It’s just that we seem to be every year caught off guard that this stuff causes major problems for pedestrians. By now we should probably expect that it snows in winter and we need to figure out what to do about it."