A blizzard is the great equalizer in the city. It covers all and makes surfaces equal, swallowing trash piles and parked cars in the same anonymous white mounds. It shuts down traffic and turns the streets back over to pedestrians who can walk down the middle of side roads and main avenues. What’s not equal, however, is the snow removal process. While plows worked the streets all day Saturday and into Sunday, some of the sidewalks still aren’t cleared, and a lot of those that are cleared are cleared with only a one-shall-pass narrow alley. More sidewalks are bordered by huge snow banks that make crossing the street impossible or are met at the end by the dreaded NYC slush pile, threatening to replace the Gowanus as the city’s most infamous body of water.
After this latest blizzard, New Yorkers have clearly become fed up with it. Why does the city prioritize snow removal for cars in a city where most people don’t drive? New York lives and dies by the sidewalk, yet a lot of the walkways are still hard to navigate, while cars are whooshing past my window as I type this. There are lots of reasons behind it, but calls for a pedestrian revolution are stirring. Yesterday, Gothamist’s Nathan Tempey tackled this issue in an in-depth post asking the question: Why aren’t the crosswalks cleared as quickly as the streets?
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.”
New York Magazine’s Justin Davidson sought answers to that problem of the post-snow crosswalks: Whose fault is the enormous pile of slush at the curb? It falls in the grey zone between private and civic responsibility, but it highlights the disparity between clearing the roads for drivers and leaving pedestrians to fend for themselves:
In between, though, you’re in no-man’s-land. Pedestrians who step off a curb are crossing between spheres of private and public responsibility: Keeping your left foot dry might be up to the corner deli; your right foot is on the Department of Sanitation’s turf. City plows push snow up against the curb (or into bike lanes), and private snow blowers toss it back, in a game of jurisdictional cold potato. The result is protracted pedestrian misery.
I'm not a teacher nor a student. The fact that NYC schools are open tomorrow yet the sidewalks of said schools are covered in snow #wtfmayor
— Rach de Rossi♛ (@rachderossi) January 25, 2016
There is of course a simple answer about why the roads get cleared and sidewalks do not: roads are the city’s responsibility, ostensibly to make sure emergency vehicles, MTA buses and school buses can get moving again; the sidewalks are the responsibility of the property owner, business owner or building super. It’s not possible for the city to dispatch workers to clear all sidewalks and crosswalks in this gigantic city, so there’s an it-takes-a-village team spirit involved (though the city is hiring temporary workers to help dig out some of the streets). That’s all well and good in theory, but it breaks down in practice. People who don’t shovel face a modest fine of $100-$350 (though it’s not clear how much that is actually enforced). Absentee landlords, empty buildings or construction sites are often left unshoveled.
NYC favors cars over walkers: Plows streets, leaves sidewalks to landlords & doesn't collect fines for nonshovelers https://t.co/XS8UWCg1MJ
— Carl Bialik (@CarlBialik) January 23, 2016
The battle between plow and pedestrian is a never ending struggle, as Tempey writes for Gothamist:
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.
This pedestrians vs. cars battle a bigger issue than just snow, and it boggles the mind that in a city defined by vibrant street life, where so many people shun cars, that it’s basically legal to murder someone with your vehicle if you can pass it off as an “accident.” We must also wonder why we let an SUV with a single person inside block an entire walkway that two dozen people are trying to cross on their way to work, or why we must listen to a cacophony of honking horns every time a driver stops to wait for a pedestrian to legally cross the street, as if the cars behind them were driving through the packed NYC streets for the first time.
Would hate to be a senior or someone with a stroller having to cross 5th Ave at 8th St. today pic.twitter.com/RaN3a9An6H
— Danielle Tcholakian (@danielleiat) January 25, 2016
It’s also time to ask why the fine for running a red light on your bike is the exact same as running it on your car, when dinging someone with your bike is dramatically different than mowing them down with a ton of death metal. (This happened to me recently on Third Avenue in Gowanus. After handing over the ticket, the cop said, “the good thing is you don’t get any points on your license.” To which I responded, “I don’t drive, that’s why I’m on the bike, so there is no good thing here.”
There are no quick fixes to this, but people are clearly ready to stop prioritizing cars and take back the streets:
— Stephen Scheide (@ScheideSteve) January 26, 2016
We must clear streets so that emergency vehicles can respond to all of the emergencies created by not clearing sidewalks.
— Brooklyn Spoke (@BrooklynSpoke) January 26, 2016
We regret to inform you that Vision Zero only applies when the weather is good. https://t.co/3V0fwU0USG
— Brooklyn Spoke (@BrooklynSpoke) January 25, 2016
— Brooklyn Spoke (@BrooklynSpoke) January 26, 2016
Attention New York City motorists: In the interest of keeping streets and sidewalks clear, please store snow inside your car.
— Bicycle Lobby (@BicycleLobby) January 25, 2016
NYC to cars: we cleared a nice clean path for you! 🌞 NYC to pedestrians: have fun crossing that slush lake on the corner, you fucks 🖕
— Damian Chadwick (@damianchadwick) January 25, 2016
And to reiterate, in the age of Vision Zero, people are still terrified of being car murdered.
I feel like one of the only ways to get away with murder in NYC is to be behind the wheel of a car. You legit get a slap on the wrist.
— Ashley Reese (@offbeatorbit) January 11, 2016
Follow Tim to see if he ever pays that traffic ticket: @timdonnelly.