One of the choice phrases used to describe the level of bicycle and pedestrian friendliness a community has is “built environment.” In other words having a good built environment means there are nice sidewalks for pedestrians, safe bike lanes for cyclists, and good, interesting places within walking and biking distance for most people. Some communities have an excellent built environment for walking and biking, until winter comes and the snow falls. Then all that bicycle and pedestrian friendliness goes away for 6-8 months until the snow melts.
To be a true bicycle and pedestrian friendly community, your community plan must include adequate snow clearance, which was a topic of a conference on winter walking and biking this past December in Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minn.
While it’s sometimes not economically feasible to plow every walkway in a community, the main downtown core, areas near schools, shopping centers, hospitals and other key buildings need to be cleared as a minimum. Some communities say one reason they don’t plow the sidewalks in winter is because people don’t walk, but it’s usually the opposite — people don’t walk because the sidewalks haven’t been cleared. Not clearing at least a bare minimum of key sidewalks is hard on our elders who want to exercise for fitness, it makes things difficult on our children who want to walk to school, and having sidewalks full of snow makes it more dangerous to travel in the winter because sometimes you have to step into the roadways to keep from post-holing through knee- and thigh-deep snow.
Sometimes the sidewalk or bike lane becomes a convenient dumping spot for the snowplows, like what happened with the four-foot-high berm of snow in the photo next to the upper part of this paragraph. Also, these high berms make it more difficult for motorists to see pedestrians during a time when visibility already is low. When the plows dumped all the snow into the sidewalks and roads after a big Thanksgiving snowstorm in Anchorage this winter, Raena Schaerer wrote this opinion piece in the Anchorage Daily News.
In many communities, coming to grips with how much snow clearance is necessary has been a hot topic of debate. The Winter Cities Institute, an international organization of northern communities, has published a paper, linked below as a PDF file, about how some communities deal with winter snow issues. An October 2007 article in Alaska Business Monthly detailed a plan in Anchorage to add heated sidewalks on heavily traveled downtown streets. You can see more details of where heated sidewalks will be placed on Page 104 of the Anchorage Downtown Comprehensive Plan posted below.
Heated sidewalks are an innovative choice for some communities, even though there is some initial cash outlay for them. But sometimes they can pay for themselves because less snow clearing is needed, there are fewer injuries that might result in lawsuits, and heating the sidewalks can be energy efficient if a community routes pipes underneath the sidewalk and the heat from the water in the pipes also is used to heat the sidewalk. But many communities haven’t even considered heated sidewalks.
When it comes to clearing snow in most communities, the method is to rely on the local residents and merchants to clear the snow. Snowy sidewalks could cost homeowners a fine in Anchorage, the Sitka General Code includes a section requiring snow and ice removal by merchants in downtown Sitka. Unfortunately, the code in Sitka is rarely enforced and in recent years there have been more businesses that close for the winter so their sidewalks don’t get cleared. This winter, the City and Borough of Sitka did put a sidewalk snow-clearing contract out for bid, but there was so little snow in Sitka this winter the results weren’t obvious.
The SouthEast Alaska Regional Health Consortium (SEARHC) uses a Kubota tractor, about the size of an ATV, with a blade in the front and a sand-spreader in the back to clear the sidewalks on its Sitka campus that covers about a square mile. A downtown merchant association can use a similar set-up to easily clear downtown sidewalks for shoppers, without the gaps caused by an absentee landlord or a vacant lot.
The Rebuilding Place in Urban Space blog from Washington, D.C., made some interesting observations about snowy sidewalks during this winter’s heavy snows in the D.C. area. The Iowa Law Blog ran an article in December 2008 about its law for clearing sidewalks of snow so it’s easier for walkers to get around.
In extremely harsh climates, the Winter Cities Institute says some communities even link their buildings with skywalks, tunnels and other connections so pedestrians don’t have to stray outside when they shop or take care of other errands. In other communities, such as Anchorage, they build an elaborate system of multi-use trails so people can walk, run, ski or bike where they need to go. Just because it’s winter it doesn’t mean a community has to lose its bicycle and pedestrian friendliness.