How harsh has this winter been? Enough that “polar vortex,” formerly an obscure scientific term, is now recognized by most people. Michiganders have battled the elements, from record snowfall to record cold. For many, no other segment of daily life has been affected as much as transportation.
While much has been made in the media about driving conditions and the recent pothole epidemic threatening our state’s roads, what about non-motorized travel, and public transportation accessibility in the winter? Uncleared sidewalks present challenges for pedestrians using sidewalks and non-motorized paths. Travelling snow-covered walks means added risks of slipping and falling, and avoiding uncleared sidewalks by travelling in the road can be just as dangerous. Public transit use becomes more difficult for riders who negotiate uncleared bus stops. While uncleared sidewalks and bus stops are a minor inconvenience for some, for others this is a significant hurdle. Snowplows often cover bike lanes in snow and fail to plow the entire road, restricting riding options for bicyclists.
In light of Michigan’s heavy and often constant snowfall, several communities have taken the initiative to provide better pedestrian access on sidewalks. East Lansing is looking at rewriting its ordinance because constant snowfall made it hard to enforce. The current ordinance requires snow to be removed by midnight on days where the snow stops by noon, and by midnight the following day if snowfall continues past noon. When snow falls for multiple days in a row, the clearing requirements keep getting pushed back. The new ordinance would allow residents and businesses 48 hours from the first snowfall to clear their sidewalk. Increased enforcement would be included in the update. Lansing has an ordinance that requires sidewalks to be cleared within 24 hours of a snowfall, and has initiated enhanced enforcement of uncleared sidewalks. Charlotte has reworked its ordinance so that residents would be required to clear sidewalks within 48 hours of the first snowfall, or face fines.
Even with ordinance revisions, many connectivity problems remain. With the heavy snowfall this winter, snowplows have been busy clearing roads for vehicle traffic. All too often, pedestrian and bicycle access is hindered by this excess snow. Snowbanks created by plows can block sidewalk access where pedestrians to cross the street. We have seen several of these banks ranging from 12-18 inches high, a serious impediment for users that need a level, unencumbered travelling surface. Similar problems arise with bus stops, where approaching the bus and getting on it is difficult due to poor winter maintenance.
A Trans4M Core Member, Disability Advocates of Kent County (DAKC) has taken a creative approach to removing snow at bus stops with their bus stop clearing contest. The contest invites local organizations and residents to dig out a bus stop and take a before and after pictures. Members of the groups who clear the most bus stops win a prize from DAKC. This creative and fun contest promotes both advocacy and awareness for accessibility barriers during the winter months.
Bike lanes get plowed-in during episodes of heavy weather, and often do not become usable until a melt. This can discourage bicyclists from riding and lead to dangerous conditions where bicyclists have dodge snow and ice. Roads not plowed back to the curb restrict riding space for bicyclists. But it’s not just roads that need clearing. “In the winter time, trails become a primary transportation corridor for bicyclists,” Rich Moeller, Executive Director of the League of Michigan Bicyclists told us. Poor trail upkeep severely limits a rider’s options. Bicyclists can do their part by being prepared for winter weather, but if biking infrastructure is not properly maintained, riders may not participate. Because a bicyclists’ route may include roads, paths, and trails, it is important for the agencies responsible for snow-clearing to communicate and coordinate snow-removal efforts.
To fix these connectivity problems, municipalities need to adjust snow-clearing policies and improve coordination to provide pedestrians and bicyclists unencumbered travel paths. For bicyclists, this could be the difference between riding or choosing a different mode of transportation. For pedestrians, even if sidewalks are cleared, snowbanks blocking access to bus stops or street crossings can be a major accessibility problem. An example of a city with a pedestrian and bicyclist-friendly snow-clearing policy is Boulder, Colorado. As soon as snow starts to fall, crews start clearing roads, on-street bike lanes, and pedestrian paths at the same time. This helps promote year-round pedestrian and bicycle travel and reduces dangers associated with winter travel.
This kind of service requires a change in policy, but also an increase in funding for local agencies, and public education. Communities are already struggling to maintain current service levels. Whether funding comes from state or local sources, we need to provide snow-clearing agencies the funds to create a more accessible winter-weather transportation system for pedestrians and bicyclists. In addition, we must shape our ordinances and public outreach efforts to highlight the importance of clearing sidewalks to property owners.
Written by: Jeff Prygoski, Fellow, Trans4M