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Sidewalk off Mt. Hope [Photo: Brenda Massie]
Posted by: board member Renee Stetzer, pedestrian safety advocate and blogger at RocVille.com

It’s been a tough winter for anyone having to be outside in Rochester. Transit riders have to hike over ice encrusted snow drifts and stand in streets, because their stops are buried. Pedestrians have to wear crampons to trudge across the uneven icy places where sidewalks once were. Those who are less steady, have things to carry or have to walk with assistance, have been forced to use the plowed streets. Cyclists hold on as they brave traffic, since the bike lanes are no longer there. And drivers cautiously turn corners blocked by snowbanks higher than their cars, taking turns on residential streets with only enough room for one car at a time. But the people walking out in the elements have clearly been given the lowest priority of attention.

Bus stop on East Ave, 3/9/15 [Photo: Renee Stetzer]The sidewalks in the city have been a hot mess. And they were even before these big huge winter storms and record low temperatures hit. The city provides sidewalk plowing as a “supplemental service external link to help property owners clear their sidewalks during a substantial winter storm.” There has to be 4″ of accumulation from one snowfall before those plows are sent out. Yet many residents assume the plows will come around as a regular routine in winter.

What is the responsibility of Rochester residents?

Property owners are responsible for clearing sidewalks adjacent to their properties. According to city code, if the snow has fallen after 8PM, the sidewalks are to be clear by 9AM. If it falls after 9AM, you have until 8PM. It’s also the duty of residents to clear anything leftover from city plows (and city contracted plows). The width of the path should be 4 feet. (Read the City Code here external link.)

We can look around the city and see that most people aren’t clearing their sidewalks. And the City of Rochester does not currently enforce its snow clearing code. If warnings and tickets were issued like in many other cities external link (including those that have been hit with record snowfall this year), would residents take better care of the sidewalks? Or is it a matter of residents simply not knowing their responsibility?

Minneapolis, one of the most year-round walkable cities, has a whole division devoted to caring for sidewalks external link. Property owners have 24 hours after a snowfall to clear sidewalks (4 hours for commercial property). If the city sees a sidewalk that needs clearing or receives a complaint external link, a warning will be issued and then a citation. The language of its snow plowing rules external link are all about chipping in, doing this as a community, helping out those who can’t shovel and making sidewalks safe from snow and ice.

Should Rochester place more emphasis on educating and convincing the public that taking care of sidewalks in winter is a priority?

For many, car-free commutes and errand running are a choice. For others, it is not. Many of the young, elderly and those with disabilities have to utilize sidewalks and mass transportation. And plenty of people simply can’t afford a car. So it isn’t just about making a choice to drive or not. And the current priorities of our city plowing and sidewalk clearing system make it extremely difficult to get around without a car in winter.

Bus stop at East and Merriman, 3/9/15 [Photo: Renee Stetzer]How do surrounding towns in our area handle sidewalks in winter?

In the Town of Brighton external link, property owners are responsible for their sidewalks, but they can form a snow removal district external link and pay the town to plow sidewalks. Right now, there are 17 districts. The amount each homeowner has to chip in annually? About $25 external link. Brighton handles plowing of sidewalks on major roads like Monroe and Elmwood.

Sidewalk clearing is provided by the Villages of Pittsford external link, Fairport external link and Webster external link. In Greece external link, sidewalks on main roads are cleared on both sides; on residential streets, one side is cleared (they alternate years). Similarly, the Town of Irondequoit external linkplows its sidewalks once there is accumulation of 3″, but only on one side external link on secondary streets.

The City of Rochester has a lot of streets. It currently spends about $1.1M annually external link to provide supplemental plowing on 878 miles of sidewalks. It is funded through an embellishment fee on property taxes. The average fee is $40.92 annually external link. Is one solution to simply increase the frequency of snow plowing service provided by the city? It would likely mean an increase in the embellishment fee. Should the city just enforce its already existing sidewalk clearing code? Or is the answer a combination of both?

I think we can agree that what we are currently doing as a community is not working for anyone but those driving cars. Something needs to change if we hope to create and maintain a more walkable, bikable and transit-friendly city year-round for all people.

Let us know your thoughts. How can we improve the care of our city sidewalks in winter to assure that Rochester is a more walkable and accessible community for all, regardless of their mode of transportation?

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— 5 Comments —

  1. IMO the best solution would be to simply increase the embellishment fee and have sidewalks regularly plowed. It would probably be less than the $25 that Brightonians pay, because we have a higher density (less sidewalk per property). But I’d be more than happy to pay $25 in exchange for having sidewalks plowed/salted.

  2. Thanks for your comment, Adrian. I do think that increasing city plowing (even if it means an increase in the embellishment fee) is a good idea. From my informal polling, it appears that people aren’t clear about when the plows deploy either. If the plows just serviced the sidewalks regularly (especially the major streets where there are bus stops) in winter, it would help a lot. Then the snow wouldn’t pile up making sidewalks impassable when we have a deep freeze like we did this year.

    Even if the plows deploy regularly, though, residents will have to chip in to uncover places where the plows came by, hydrants, etc.

  3. The prospect of shoveling out a hydrant every few days is much more manageable than shoveling the whole sidewalk (including the mountains dumped by plows). I can easily put my kid in his car seat and idle the car next to the hydrant so he watch me shovel for 90 seconds, but I can’t do that if I have to shovel the whole sidewalk.

  4. Excellent article. Pedestrians are a vital part of a vibrant downtown and livable city neighborhoods, both of which city government purports to support. The sidewalks all around the city were impassable for more than a month. This is just unacceptable, particularly as population in the city is increasing and new businesses are opening. I don’t believe depending on businesses and citizens to clear sidewalks is a realistic or viable approach. The city needs to find the money to provide this service and if that means increasing the embellishment fee so be it.

  5. The code as I read it is not make residents responsible for cleaning the sidewalks it is makeing property owners. The last time I saw a property breakdown in Rochester 66% or the housing was income property. In meny cases (including mine) the owner does not live at the property. I am sure there will be a problem with me starting my snowblower at 4:30 in the morning to clean the sidewalks before I go to work. Also who is going to shovel the hundreds of city owned houses and the abandoned homes?

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