How a one-two punch of snow and freezing cold created suburban sidewalk debacle
February's storms and arctic temperatures pitched suburban homeowners, particularly those without snowblowers, into a primitive struggle against the elements to clear sidewalks.
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.
Is there a better way to keep sidewalks clean when weather makes it challenging?
That's a tough one, experts said. A focus on plowing streets rather than sidewalks in the suburbs and a patchwork of policies regarding who's responsible for shoveling allow situations like the February sidewalk debacle to occur.
"Most years, the weather cycle takes care of this naturally," Kane County Transportation Director Carl Schoedel said. "We get breaks and warm-ups in between individual snow storms that allow local agencies to catch up with sidewalks."
But this year, "a steady 2 to 4 inches almost every day with the super cold temps meant that unless an agency was right on top of sidewalk clearing, the walks tended to get incrementally worse," Schoedel said.
That "accumulation of snow and ice makes it really hard for people to get around by foot, especially older adults, children and people with disabilities," Active Transportation Alliance Advocacy Manager Maggie Czerwinski said.
"Clear sidewalks are important for everyone."
That also includes Pace riders who walk to bus stops. "Our crews clean out shelters and the area immediately surrounding them, but the sidewalks are the responsibility of the municipality or property owner," Pace spokeswoman Maggie Daly Skogsbakken said.
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.
When 4 inches or more of snow come down, 98 miles of remaining public sidewalk is plowed, but streets come first. Less than 4 inches and it's up to property owners.
Holland, Michigan, is a pioneer in sidewalk plowing, providing the service for as long as longtime Assistant City Manager Matt VanDyken can remember.
"A lot of local children walk to school and we think it's important to plow all the sidewalks," he said.
"There is an expense," VanDyken noted. "You need the right equipment. ... You can't take a regular street plow, and there is staff time. But when it comes to quality of life, it's one thing that's very important."
The excess snow and ice in February meant dispatching Hanover Park public works crews to plow sidewalks along busy streets such as Irving Park and Barrington roads, Mayor Rod Craig said.
"When you get people walking on the street, it's not good," Craig said. There's a cost, but "we budget for a certain amount of overtime."
The Arlington Heights Senior Center provides a snow shoveling referral service for people over age 60 or with disabilities that's staffed by middle and high school students. It was so popular this year, requests for help outnumbered students, officials said.
How can the suburbs keep sidewalks cleared of snow? Drop an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Reader Dwight Bouck of Wheaton agrees with a Feb. 15 column about how the COVID-19 pandemic reduced traffic, which led to more speeding that's considered a factor in higher fatal crash rates. But "where was the data that supports distracted drivers?" Bouck asked. "Distracted, certainly by their illegal 'hands-on' cellphone use. We see that all the time when we drive our roadways! But car manufactures are also putting technology; TikTok, text messaging, Snapchat, Wi-Fi, Google Maps into our vehicles. Those distractions are keeping one 'connected' to the world but NOT the roadway! THAT, in my opinion, KILLS!"
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