Boston City Council Considers Expanded Municipal Sidewalk Snow Removal

City of Boston Public Works Department workers clear snowbanks from a crosswalk outside of Symphony Hall in the aftermath of the blizzard of January 30, 2022.
City of Boston Public Works Department workers clear snowbanks from a crosswalk outside of Symphony Hall in the aftermath of the blizzard of January 30, 2022. Courtesy of the City of Boston

While crews from the city’s Public Works Department continued to work clearing snow from the city’s streets, the Boston City Council requested a public hearing on the possibility of expanding municipal responsibility for sidewalk snow removal during its weekly meeting on Wednesday afternoon.

“On a trial basis this winter, the City of Boston has taken the important step of adding additional skid-steer loaders to clear crosswalks and ramps in areas with heavy pedestrian traffic, and is testing how much area each piece of such equipment can reasonably clear in the period immediately after a storm,” according to the text of Councilor Kenzie Bok’s resolution, which was filed on January 28. “The City of Boston should use the information gathered from this exciting pilot this snow season to continue to make progress towards providing a supplemental snow removal service on City sidewalks during winter snow storms above a certain level of severity and snow accumulation.”

At Wednesday’s City Council meeting, Bok praised that pilot program, but urged her colleagues to reimagine the city’s snow clearance program in a more comprehensive way.

“We need to take the next step towards pedestrian equity in snow clearance in the City of Boston,” said Bok at Wednesday’s virtual City Council meeting. “As a city that prioritizes and is proud of the fact that a lot of our people move around on foot, or on public transit, and on bicycles, we have to have a snow clearance program that takes that into account, and it’s something that has been done in other cities.”

Current city laws delegate most responsibilities for sidewalk snow clearance to abutting property owners, with enforcement by the city’s code enforcement officers.

Under these rules, the city itself is already responsible for the many sidewalks abutting its parks, schools, and other facilities; the city also takes responsibility to clear sidewalks on city-controlled bridges.

But because the current system disperses snow-clearing responsibilities among thousands of different people, even some of the city’s busiest sidewalks can be effectively impassable for days following large storms.

Between Saturday’s storm and Wednesday morning, 656 citations for sidewalk snow violations had been recorded on the City of Boston’s code enforcement database.

Bok also sponsored a similar public hearing last March, where officials from Syracuse, NY discussed their own municipal sidewalk snow clearing programs.

During that hearing, Corey Driscoll Dunham, the Chief Operating Officer of Syracuse, said that while clearing sidewalks requires city resources, it’s comparable to (and more useful than) the work required to write tickets.

“We considered enhanced enforcement with more ticketing (for sidewalk snow clearance),” said Driscoll Dunham, “But it’s very staff intensive to have someone take a call, send out an inspector, do the inspection, issue a ticket, follow up… it’s just very resource-heavy.”

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