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Deconstructing the Intractable Issue of Snowed-In Bus Stops

By Arian Horbovetz (The Urban Phoenix)

It’s a sound only heard on the coldest mornings.  The thunderous crunch with every step in my massive boots was deafening as I stumbled over the freshly plowed sidewalk snow.  Over a foot of newly-fallen snow glistened in the streetlight.  I peered through the steam from my latest breath and saw the bus stop in front of me.  But as I stumbled closer, I discovered that any chance of relief from the biting breeze was going to be a challenge.  The drifting snow, combined with the wall of white stuff created by sidewalk plowing made accessing the bus shelter a difficult proposition, even for a person like myself who is physically capable and adequately protected.

My aforementioned bus stop

Later that day, I watched as an elderly woman stood in the partially-plowed bike lane on East Henrietta Road, where drivers routinely reach 50mph.  The woman was waiting for a bus.  The sidewalk adjacent to the perfectly cleared roadway was not only unplowed, the road plows had slung an additional foot of dirty snow on top, making the sidewalk adjacent to the bus stop literally impassable, even for the most agile pedestrian.  With each car that passed the woman, I winced, knowing that a single distracted driver could mean disaster.

These observations are the norm rather than the exception in snow-stricken cities like Rochester.  Nearly 80 inches of snowfall annually, coupled with the tremendous lack of funding for non-automobile mobility, marginalizes and often endangers residents who rely on the bus.  For the 25% of Rochester residents who do not have access to a car, for the elderly who may not have adequate support, and for our disabled citizens, heavy snowfall means an inability to access essential resources.  

Whose Job Is It Anyway?

It’s important to note that the issue of bus stop snow removal is symbiotic with the issue of sidewalk snow removal.  The City of Rochester code 104-11 clearly places the role of sidewalk snow removal on the adjacent property owner.  But too often, property owners are unwilling, unable or unaware of their responsibility to maintain the adjoining public right of way.  And while infractions are reportable, they are often not addressed in a timely manner.  As in most cities, the snow melts before enforcement leads to a positive outcome.

A Rochester resident scales a snow pile

Additionally, the city provides “supplemental” snow removal of 878 miles of city sidewalk when storms deposit more than 4” of snow.  While this is a welcomed service that most cities do not provide, a lack of continued sidewalk snow maintenance means that private driveway plowing companies and icy walking conditions caused by the packing of snow by pedestrians, still makes for treacherous or impassable on-foot experiences.  

And finally, nowhere in the code is snow removal from bus stops or bus shelters mentioned specifically.  In a recent report by WHEC News 10, RTS Spokesperson Tom Brede “asks” that property owners clear a path to the adjacent bus stops as part of their responsibility to clear the sidewalk.  But with the ambiguity and subsequent lack of accountability, any regular bus rider will attest that this action is rarely taken.

How Does It Work In Other U.S. Cities?

As much as Rochester residents are frustrated by winter sidewalk conditions, a 2019 article by Streetsblog USA called Rochester the “clear leader” when it comes to sidewalk snow removal, citing the city’s aforementioned efforts to plow nearly all of its sidewalks in the wake of a heavy snowfall.  This is not to downplay the fact that far more needs to be done here in the Flower City, it is more to show just how few cities have the funding or the will to accommodate those who rely on sidewalks and access to public transit.

A snowy bus stop in Rochester

In a February 2022 WGRZ Buffalo, NY story, NFTA Spokesperson Helen Tederous stated that Buffalo’s code places the responsibility of bus stop snow removal on abutting property owners.  But a review of Buffalo’s Article VIII 413-50 “Snow and Ice Removal” resulted in no clear reference to this claim.  

While Syracuse has only recently begun taking partial sidewalk snow removal responsibility, The Salt City recently finalized an agreement with a contractor, and will spend up to $650,000 to plow 100 miles of sidewalk.

In Minneapolis Minnesota, if a property owner does not clear their adjacent public sidewalk, the city sends them a warning.  If the owner does not comply, a city crew is dispatched to do the job themselves, and a bill is sent.  If the bill is ignored, the cost is included in the owner’s next property tax bill.  City inspections also commence 24 hours after each snowfall, giving legitimacy to the requirement.  The fact that the city takes at least some responsibility in the process of reporting violators is a rare but welcomed level of sidewalk snow removal enforcement.

Our Neighbors To The Northeast

Montreal, Canada has long been heralded as the undisputed champion of snow removal.  As one of the snowiest large cities in the world, Montreal is faced with the same challenge that many major U.S. cities incur, but the process in removing the snow is just as robust.  A large piece of this process is based on the fact that the city actually removes the snow from streets, sidewalks and bike paths in large trucks and transports it to more than two dozen designated locations around the city.  This monumental task begins with signage and notices prior to the storm, warning residents not to park their cars and bikes in the streets or sidewalks.  Instead, residents are encouraged to use a system of parking lots and garages free of charge.  During and after the snow storm, a fleet of 2,200 snow removal vehicles are dispatched to clear the 10,000 kilometers of roads, sidewalks and bike paths.  Yes, that’s right, over half a million Montreal residents use their bikes for transportation rather than recreation, likely due in part to the fact that year-round bike commuting is made more practical by the Titanic snow removal efforts that Montreal employs.

Montreal Snow Removal, courtesy of Zvi Leve

When sidewalks and bike paths are cleared, this allows residents of all socioeconomic levels to access transit with greater ease, creating a more inclusive urban environment.  While Canada’s tax structure and municipal funding practices are very different from the United States in many ways, it is encouraging to see that effective snow removal is possible, and leads to better access.

Calming The Storm

While Rochester is considered a leader in sidewalk snow removal, there is still room for a great deal of improvement.  One of the key starting points is a more robust definition of who is responsible for bus stop snow removal, and a greater communication to property owners regarding this expectation.  Like Minneapolis, regular city-wide snow removal inspections coupled with greater enforcement would likely also improve outcomes.  Finally, advocacy is always an important factor in creating change.  Consider joining organizations like Reconnect Rochester in their efforts to make our streets, sidewalks and public transit systems accessible and equitable.  Together, we can make our city a place where mobility for all is accommodated and uplifted.

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Blocking Walking: When Pedestrians are Forced to Find Another Way

Blog by Arian Horbovetz. Arian is a Reconnect board member and the creator of The Urban Phoenix, a blog focused on conversations around the elements that create healthy cities, neighborhoods and communities today. Arian covers walkability, public transit, financial solvency, bike infrastructure, smart development, public space, public pride and ownership of our futures. While he discusses issues of public policy, legislation, statistics and money, The UP specializes in addressing public perceptions and how they affect the way we see our cities.


Your heart sinks when you see that orange symbol of uncertainty. You grip the wheel tighter, curse, and check your watch to see if the impending redirection will inevitably make you late to your destination. We’ve all experienced this frustrating dilemma, brought about by that never-welcomed sign that reads “DETOUR.”

While detours encountered on the road may be frustrating, fear not! The Department of Transportation has outlined the most convenient alternative navigation for you to traverse instead. Abundant signage will guide your new direction, showing you exactly where to go in order to continue along your new route. Your safety on this detour has been considered. The new route will accommodate all vehicles, from small cars to big trucks. While inconvenienced, a tremendous amount of thought has gone into ensuring that your detour will be as impact-free as possible.

But what happens when you’re walking down a city sidewalk and you see a sign like the one below?

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What happens when you’re rolling down an urban bike trail and you encounter a piece of construction equipment blocking your path?

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This piece of machinery was blocking a trail in Buffalo, NY while the operators were on a lunch break. “Oh sorry, I was about to move that” one of the workers said as I snapped a photo…

Or maybe you’re making the trek home from the bar on foot, only to encounter this blocking your path…

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Finally, you and your family are taking a winter evening stroll in your neighborhood. While the street you’re on is perfectly plowed, you can’t help but notice that your children are struggling to stay on their feet while traversing the icy sidewalk.

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Walkability is something we talk about with regard to healthy communities and neighborhoods these days. And for good reason… areas that are more walkable have higher property value, and have shown to be better for business growth and proliferation. But even with all the positives that come from strong pedestrian connectivity, construction projects, infrastructure maintenance and good old fashioned Mother Nature can lead to sidewalk closures and/or unsafe walking environments. Most of these can be remedied with proper planning and foresight, but that foresight is often lacking. Developers and workers don’t always understand the importance of pedestrian prioritization, and this is, to some extent, understandable. It is only just now that we are beginning to realize the importance of giving pedestrians welcoming, connected, comfortable and safe environments to traverse neighborhoods on foot.

When sidewalks are closed due to nearby construction, pedestrians must find a way around. This either means backtracking to the last crosswalk, or worse, venturing out into the a potentially busy street in order to cross, or walk in the road along the blocked sidewalk until they pass the construction area. It is important for everyone to understand that people on foot, like drivers, will often choose the most convenient option, even if it is not the best or safest.

This cement truck was not only parked in a crosswalk leading from Rochester’s Genesee Riverway Trail, it completely blinded pedestrians from being able to see oncoming traffic on South Avenue

Construction companies should do everything in their power to ensure that a pedestrian right-of-way is not impeded by their work. Actions should be taken to ensure that pedestrians don’t have to find an alternate route. Sidewalk sheds and scaffolding, much like the ones we see in larger cities, should be built to keep the sidewalk functional and protect those on foot.

Furthermore, construction site and maintenance workers should be trained to ensure that equipment, machinery and other barriers never block a sidewalk or path. Workers may not realize that blocking a sidewalk, even for a short while, could put pedestrians in an inconvenient, or even dangerous situation.

Even plow companies need to appreciate the negative impact of moving snow out of our streets and into the direct path of our pedestrians.

This sidewalk leading to Rochester’s new Amtrak station is completely blocked by
plowed snow

Failing to mind these amenities is even more detrimental to the safety of persons with disabilities. A closed sidewalk can make for a precarious situation for those in our community with mobility issues, and/or folks in wheelchairs or motorized scooters.

Finally, blocking sidewalks is not just inconvenient and unsafe for pedestrians, it sends a message that this vital piece of infrastructure is not important. When car traffic is moving smoothly while the adjacent sidewalk has been blocked, torn up or interrupted, it clearly signals that those who choose to walk or have to walk are not welcome, and seen as less important.

While Rochester’s Nathaniel Apartments were being constructed, pedestrian access was accommodated on the building’s north side with a pedestrian tunnel. The East side of the building, however, did not effectively accommodate foot traffic during construction.

Meaningful accommodations for pedestrians and cyclists are out there. In our most dense urban areas where walkability is more appreciated, these accommodations are plentiful. But even in our smaller cities, there are excellent examples of developers making every attempt to ensure sidewalk use is unaffected during construction.

This construction project not only accounts for pedestrians and cyclists, the circled signage clearly instructs both on the appropriate path to use while traversing this stretch

Sidewalks are the connective tissue in our urban communities. They are the final link between homes and public transit. They are the needle the weaves the fabric of our neighborhoods together. They are are the highway for those who cannot afford a car, or make the choice not to own one. In our cities, sidewalks have a level of importance that often goes unrealized and under appreciated in our car-centric world.  Accommodating and maintaining their convenience, their appeal and their safety is of paramount importance to creating a healthy, walkable environment for all of our citizens.