By Jason Haremza:
In the ten years since I left my hometown, I am increasingly heartened that Buffalo is rediscovering what it means to be urban. True urban living has, until recently, been something of a lost art in Upstate New York. Our relatively small and/or shrinking cities have sadly become mostly car-oriented since World War II.
Urban living is more compact, more walkable, more transit oriented, and less dependent on cars. Urban living is more energy efficient and sustainable. It has been said that Manhattan is one of the most environmentally friendly places in the country. Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, etc. are far from being Manhattan. However, I am convinced that there is a nascent and growing appreciation of the remaining urban-ness in these smaller cities. Rebuilding the option for pedestrian oriented living ought to be nurtured and expanded since there are already many options for car dependent living in Upstate suburbs from Clarence to Chili to Camillus and beyond.
If we, as a community, are truly serious about being more sustainable, then walking must be viewed as a real form of transportation, not merely a recreational activity. It must follow then that the city’s sidewalks are as integral a part of the transportation infrastructure as vehicular travel lanes.
In the climate of Upstate New York, this ought to, but seldom does, include snow removal. There is a gross inequality in the resources that municipalities lavish on vehicular travel lanes compared to sidewalks. Streets are often plowed and salted down to bare pavement within a day or two of a major snowstorm. Sidewalks, however, are often impassible.
Yes, there are laws on the books mandating that property owners clear the sidewalks in front of their house. These laws are seldom enforced. But that is really beside the point. The more important issue is why the public space for cars (streets) get so much more attention than the public space for people (sidewalks).
I’ve read much of the discussion on this topic over the past few days (see petition and BRO post). I’m distressed that so many people perceive this as an issue of laziness or lack of personal responsibility. In my view, that misses the point that sidewalks are a transportation system, and we cannot depend on thousands of private individuals to clear the individual portion of it next to their property. Systems cannot work that way. Imagine that we relied on individual property owners to plow their section of street, or maintain their section of sewer or water pipe. Chaos would ensue. Yet with walking, we seem to be perfectly willing to let the chaos happen, at least during the winter months.
Buffalo ought to be a national or even international leader in ALL forms of snow removal, not just the oft-celebrated airport and roadway snow removal. Yet Buffalo fails miserably at maintaining its walking infrastructure year round.
Rochester, my adopted hometown, has had a public sidewalk plowing system in place for many years. The city hires private contractors to plow over 50 individual routes covering well over 800 miles of city sidewalks, virtually the entire city from commercial avenues to narrow residential streets. Plowing equipment must meet city specifications and is inspected by the city, but is owned by the contractors.
The program is paid for by a special assessment on property tax bills (see below), logically based on the linear feet of frontage your property has. In my case, my property is 70 feet wide and I paid $55.72 in the past year, or about 80 cents per linear foot. In my experience, living on a narrow street off Monroe Avenue that was originally developed in the 1890s, the sidewalk plow has always come within 24 hours of a snow storm, often much sooner.
The sidewalk plowing program is not perfect. It only guarantees plowing if snowfall is four inches or greater.* If the plows cannot remove all the snow, it can get packed down and slippery. However, on balance, I believe it is a great program. The plows remove the bulk of the snow, making remaining clean up much less work. Paying $56 a year for this service is a bargain, as far as I’m concerned. More importantly, it is an acknowledgement by the municipal government that the sidewalks are a YEAR ROUND public responsibility. People who walk for transportation, by necessity or preference, can depend on a basic level of comprehensive sidewalk snow removal.
*When the program started the policy was city plowing after four inches of snow. At some point this was reduced to three inches, then, unfortunately, recently raised back to four inches in a budget cutting move.
Jason Haremza is a former Buffalonian whose family roots go back to 1880s Polonia. He studied Geography, Planning, and Urban Design in Upstate New York and Southern Ontario and has worked as a planner in Buffalo and Rochester for the past 12 years. Since 2004, he has been slowly renovating a Victorian cottage in the Monroe Village section of the Flower City. He is currently the City of Rochester’s Urban Design Specialist, but the views expressed are his own.