Snowy road

Snow on the sidewalk

One of the perennial chores of city dwellers in northern climates is the shoveling of snow from the sidewalk. The common practice for most cities is to require residents to remove snow and ice from the sidewalk adjacent to their property within a few hours of snowfall. Residents who fail to remove the snow face fines and citations for causing a hazardous condition on the sidewalk.

House on a snowy street
House on a snowy street with a shoveled sidewalk

In contrast, city and county highway crews are responsible for clearing snow from roadways. This makes sense considering the scale and efficiency gained by using heavy duty plow trucks. The costs of plowing roads are generally borne by all taxpayers within the municipality.

Ordinances requiring residents to remove snow from sidewalks have come under scrutiny of late by pedestrian advocates. These rules place a serious burden on elderly people and people with disabilities who may not be able to easily shovel their sidewalks. Residents incapable of taking care of their own sidewalk are forced to choose between relying on the goodwill of an able-bodied neighbor, paying for someone’s labor, or risking a citation.

Unevenly plowed sidewalks also make it substantially more difficult get anywhere on foot during the winter. Many trips in urban areas are short and could be completed by walking as long as sidewalks are safe to use. A requirement on residents to clear their sidewalks is a recipe for inconsistency as there will always be some people who are unable or unwilling to comply with the ordinance.

Thankfully, some snowy cities have taken steps to help pedestrians get through the winter safely and efficiently.

For instance, Rochester, NY provides supplemental snow shoveling for sidewalks when at least four inches of new snow falls. (Residents are still required to clear their own sidewalk for lower accumulation amounts.) According to the Democrat and Chronicle, the annual cost for this service for the city’s 878 miles of sidewalk is about $1.1 million, or roughly $1,250 per mile of sidewalk.

I was curious how a public service like this might look in Ithaca. Thanks to the city’s Community Data Portal and other GIS data available from Tompkins County’s Open Data Portal, I was able to plot out a couple options.

It should be noted that Rochester is slightly snowier than Ithaca. Historic weather data shows that Ithaca tends to experience fewer winter snow storms than Rochester. Over the past twenty years, Rochester had an average of 6 days with snowfall over 4″ while Ithaca has averaged only 4 days. Here are PDFs of the monthly summarized data from NOAA for Rochester and Ithaca in case you’re skeptical.

I wanted to know how much it might cost for Ithaca to remove snow from all the sidewalks versus just those sidewalks near public schools. I used a radius of a half mile from every school as an approximation of the distance people may be willing to walk. With QGIS I was able to generate a map of the city sidewalks within a half mile of a school. The total length of these sidewalks is 106 km, or 66 miles.

Assuming that the costs for snow removal are roughly equal to Rochester, the annual price tag for clearing these sidewalks would be about $82,000.

In total, Ithaca has 156 km (97 miles) of sidewalk. This appears to include the Cayuga Waterfront Trail and substantial segments on the Cornell University campus. Still, if the city were to take on the responsibility of clearing these sidewalks the annual bill would come to roughly $122,000 or about $4 per resident.

Snow on Ithaca Commons
Snow on Ithaca Commons

Even though municipal budgets have been decimated due to the pandemic, there is no time like the present for cities to start taking responsibility for clearing snow from sidewalks. With many indoor activities still restricted due to Covid, city dwellers will need ways to get around outdoors without walking in traffic.

Snow free sidewalks help all residents to consistently access jobs, schools, shops, and parks on foot throughout the winter.