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Boston Plans for More Sidewalk Plows, Expanded Sidewalk Snow-Clearing Program

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

The City of Boston will make last year's sidewalk snow clearing pilot program into a permanent part of its winter operations, and plans to have more plow equipment out clearing curb ramps, crosswalks, and sidewalks this winter.

Last winter, the City of Boston tested a pilot program that asked contractors to bring additional skid-steer plows (also known as "Bobcat" plows) to clear snow out of crosswalks and sidewalk ramps from the city's busiest street corners.

Councilor Kenzie Bok, one of the Boston City Council's most vocal advocates for city-run sidewalk snow clearance, offered an update on that pilot program at last Wednesday's City Council meeting.

"It has a big impact especially on folks with mobility challenges, our older folks, anybody with a stroller, anybody with a wheelchair... We want our city streets to be accessible to everyone. And that means the sidewalks have to be accessible," said Councilor Bok.

"The (Public Works) Department came to us yesterday and said it's not a pilot anymore, it's a part of our operations, and we're also expecting this winter to be able to increase the number of pieces of equipment, up from 60 to 80, so they think they'll see some significantly more capacity," she continued.

Bok also noted that, as part of its pandemic relief spending package, the City Council also funded a program to expand city-run sidewalk snow clearance into the city's Main Street districts. However, that program won't begin until next winter.

Even with more equipment on the streets, the city will still be very limited in how much snow it will be able to clear from sidewalks – and how quickly. Much like the MBTA, the city and private contractors are struggling to find qualified drivers with a commercial driver's license (CDL).

Bok encouraged her colleagues on the City Council and their constituents to weigh in and help the Public Works Department prioritize where plows will operate.

"If there are particular areas in your district with heavy pedestrian foot traffic that would seem, after the first storm, that they're not getting enough attention, you can flag that for (the Public Works Department)," said Councilor Bok. "They're still trying to figure out where to direct (resources) and we and the constituents are some of the folks who can help them figure that out."

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.

Even a moderate snowfall can generate hundreds of complaints in the city’s code enforcement database.

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