Time for a pedestrian revolution: The blizzard has caused a new wave of anti-car activism

The roads are clear but trying to get to the subway? Good luck. Via @RegoParkQueens.
The roads are clear but trying to get to the subway? Good luck. Via @RegoParkQueens.

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.

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.

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.

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:

And to reiterate, in the age of Vision Zero, people are still terrified of being car murdered.

Follow Tim to see if he ever pays that traffic ticket: @timdonnelly.


  1. Leslie

    Well, if there’s a fire or someone has a heart attack, they get help via the roads, so it seems pretty obvious that this is not just about people driving. (Although if you are going to open schools, school buses do need to be able to drive.)

    That said, yes–sidewalk removal is very uneven, and the post office and banks in our neighborhood made very half-assed, late snow removal attempts. We need to enforce this better, and the curbs from street to sidewalk need to be shoveled. They should also allow more than one person to pass at a time, which is ridiculous in places like Midtown.

    • To be clear, no one (or almost no one) is arguing that streets shouldn’t be cleared for emergency access. But the focus remains on roads almost exclusively for an extended period of time, the city takes no responsibility for the large snow piles that get pushed into crosswalks by plows, and enforcement of shoveling is lax if not non-existent. And days later, the emergency access justification is still being tossed around while even pedestrian and bike facilities that the city is responsible for remain completely snow-covered. It’s BS in a town where most people don’t drive.

    • Ollie

      This is a red herring. If it was truly about emergency vehicles they would plow a single lane down the center of the street and ban all non-emergency driving. Or to take it a step further make everyone store their car in a parking garage and completely clear the streets. But that’s not the motivation behind plowing the streets first.

      What’s being discussed here is the prioritisation and investment in snow removal for private automobile use. When de Blasio said that Queens would be good enough to get around he meant for drivers-not for bus passengers not for people walking-for drivers.

      This is not a zero sum game. You can clear sidewalks AND streets. Our mayor texts our DOT commissioner about potholes on the FDR. If he walked more, our city would look very different after a storm.

    • klktrk

      > u might feel different if you could afford a car :)

      * does some calculations *

      I could actually afford three decent midsized cars it turns out (Honda Accord was my test model). This includes insurance and monthly payments and approx 200 per month in gas.

      I make a choice to not have a car because I don’t like to suffocate my neighbors and pollute the air more than I already do simply by virtue of having heat and electricity. Unless you’re disabled, need a car for your business, or similar, and you live in a city with decent public transportation in my book you’re kind of a prick.

  2. Stojef

    I don’t think the people are ready to “take back the streets.” Seems like most people are ready to take to Twitter and demand others take back the streets.

    What do you expect the city to do? Clear the sidewalk and leave the roads unplowed? If you want to take back the streets, take a shovel and start digging.

    • So very sick of this insistence that anyone who’s complaining about unshoveled sidewalks and crosswalks should do it themselves. NO. The person/business/organization/agency responsible for those areas should do it.

      I shoveled for my landlord because she asked me and for the neighboring building who just simply didn’t bother. When I was done with that, I needed to take care of some of my own responsibilities. So don’t tell me to carry a shovel with me wherever I go. It’s not my or anyone else’s “civic responsibility” to cover for all the jerks who aren’t following the law. The city needs to crack down on unshovled walks and it needs to step it up on the areas its responsible for.

  3. Ah, so refreshing to see an instance where those of us who HAVE to drive cars for work (it’s called equipment people, some of us can’t strap it all to a bicycle) in NYC are given a little priority – because outside of snow storms, it very rarely happens!

    • Ollie

      If NYC truly prioritized people in your situation, there would be less private car parking, more metered comercial zones, and thorough enforcement to ensure turnover. There would be congestion pricing to reduce the number of people driving an SUV to work with just a briefcase on the passenger seat.

      Real prioritization commercial drivers goes hand in hand with prioritisation of pedestrians.

  4. @klktrk
    Stop being so f*cking self righteous with that babble about not choosing to have a car so you don’t suffocate your neighbors. I am a regular walker, mass transit user and car user when the situation calls for it. I was born and raised in this city but guess what, sometimes I like to leave it without purchasing an airline ticket, or guess what…. Some people actually need their cars for work. Yes i get fed up with icy sidewalks too but I Just deal as opposed to coming onto a thread and bitching about it.
    Question – what are you actually doing to change the city’s seeming preference for vehicles over pedestrians in terms of snow/ ice removal?
    Alas – my guess is nothing but an errant bitch on these types of threads.

    So before you call car owners , “kind of pricks” I think you should examine why you feel the need to sling insults, which is kind of pricky if you ask me.

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