MassDOT’s Complete Streets Philosophy Got Buried Under Massive Snowbanks This Weekend

A pedestrian walks in the right lane of MassDOT's Route 18/Main Street in Weymouth because the sidewalks are buried in deep snowbanks.
A pedestrian walks in the right lane of MassDOT's Route 18/Main Street in Weymouth. MassDOT plows cleared all four motor vehicle lanes over the weekend, but dumped much of the snow from the roadway on top of the sidewalk. Photo courtesy of Dennis McClain, via Twitter.

Two days have passed since this weekend’s blizzard dumped record-setting volumes of snow across Massachusetts, and while state and local governments are boasting about their success in banishing the snow from the asphalt of the state’s roadways, there’s considerably less to brag about when it comes to the condition and usability of sidewalks and bike lanes.

Here, for instance, is a photograph that MassDOT tweeted on Sunday morning. In an impressive effort, the agency removed all of the snow from multiple lanes of roadway on Route 9 in Framingham – and relocated most of it into a dense pile that’s burying the street’s sidewalks:

This is a roadway that connects residential neighborhoods with the busy Shopper’s World mall complex near the Natick border. According to MassDOT’s own analysis, it’s a street that would have a “high potential for walkable trips,” if the sidewalk infrastructure were usable.

Another reader sent in this example from Route 18 in Weymouth, another roadway under MassDOT’s jurisdiction (Route 18 is also Weymouth’s Main Street, and was recently widened from 2 to 4 lanes):

 

Look closely and you’ll see a pedestrian walking in the roadway because the state’s plow trucks have made the sidewalks impossible to use.

A few blocks away, the same reader’s dashboard camera captured the aftermath of a recent motor vehicle crash – in spite of (or perhaps because of) the appearance of safety that the roadway’s bare pavement suggests.

StreetsblogMASS asked MassDOT about its sidewalk snow removal policies, and an agency spokesperson made it clear that the agency generally doesn’t consider itself responsible for clearing the sidewalks along the roadways it builds and maintains.

“MassDOT, municipalities, and property owners share responsibility for clearing many sidewalks and bicycle lanes along MassDOT roadways depending on municipal agreements and local bylaws,” MassDOT spokesperson Jacquelyn Goddard wrote in an email message to StreetsblogMASS.

StreetsblogMASS also asked Goddard whether MassDOT’s snow removal policies were ever updated after the agency adopted its 2013 “Healthy Transportation Policy Directive,” which promises “access to safe and comfortable healthy transportation options (i.e., walking, biking, and transit) at all MassDOT facilities and in all the services we provide” (emphasis added). 

Goddard declined to answer that question.

Of course, clearing roadways for motor vehicles by rendering the sidewalks unusable is not a behavior that’s unique to MassDOT. Municipalities that otherwise pride themselves on their sustainable transportation policies also do it; the state’s Department of Conservation and Recreation does it, and lots of businesses do it, too. The sidewalk pictured below is on Putnam Avenue in Cambridge; the bare asphalt in the foreground is the entrance to the Whole Foods parking garage:

Luckily, a few local governments are beginning to take more responsibility to clear local sidewalks more promptly.

This weekend in Somerville, city workers took responsibility for plowing sidewalks on School Street and Broadway in Winter Hill and East Somerville in areas where property owners hadn’t yet cleared their sidewalks, as part of a pilot program to “test the feasibility of increasing City snow removal from sidewalks.”

Somerville City Councilor Ben Ewen-Campen, an advocate of the pilot, told StreetsblogMASS that the city’s resources should be focused on actually clearing snow off of sidewalks, instead of writing tickets for property owners who don’t shovel.

“The feedback I have gotten is that the sidewalk clearing went very well, which is especially impressive given the massive amount of snow we received Saturday,” wrote Ewen-Campen in an email on Monday. “My goal in advocating for sidewalk snow removal has always been for the City to play a much bigger role in actively clearing pedestrian routes – not a focus on ticketing.”

A similar pilot is underway in Boston, where the city recently added a fleet of small bulldozers to clear snowbanks from crosswalk curb ramps in areas with heavy foot traffic, like this intersection in Charlestown:

 

On Monday morning, Boston City Councilor Kenzie Bok filed a resolution to investigate the feasibility of expanding that program further.

But the prize for best municipal sidewalk plowing might go to this street in Pittsfield, where the sidewalk actually had less snow than the adjacent roadway:

 

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