This essay originally appeared as a My View column in The Buffalo News on Feb. 5, 2013 and has since been edited, updated, and expanded. Image shows elderly couple walking in street due to unplowed sidewalks. One of them is pushing the other in a wheelchair. Photo taken by author on Elmwood Avenue, Buffalo, NY, January 2020, all rights reserved.
When I moved to Buffalo 30 years ago, I was shocked to discover that the city does not plow sidewalks. How could that be, in a place that gets so much snow?
I grew up in Rochester, where sidewalks were and still are plowed at public expense. Rochester has 37 square miles; Buffalo has 42. Its population is 210,855; ours is 261,025 (as per 2010 census). Rochester’s population and economy have declined as much as Buffalo’s, yet its government continues to provide sidewalk plowing while ours pleads poverty.
In Buffalo, property owners are required by law to clear sidewalks in front of their homes and businesses. We are expected get out and shovel to show the world that we are truly the City of Good Neighbors. If we don’t, it must be because we are antisocial lazybones who deserve their annual scolding from The Buffalo News. This popular sentiment reflects idealism about who we wish we were more than realism about how to maintain essential public infrastructure. This law is a failure.
When I walk my 1.5 mile route to work, let us say for the sake of argument that I pass 250 houses and businesses. For me to have a fully cleared path, all 250 must shovel, sweep, snowblow and/or salt to the same standard after each and every snowfall. What level of compliance constitutes success? Eighty percent? Meaning that for every five addresses, four are shoveled, so I have to detour into the street for only 20 percent of my route? How about frequency of shoveling? If owners shovel their sidewalk after four out of five fresh snowfalls, is that satisfactory?
Let’s say that Buffalo’s 15 percent vacancy rate, the highest in the state, is reflected in my route and 15 percent of the addresses I pass are vacant or demolished. Who shall we ticket for impassable sidewalks in front of abandoned lots and buildings? Who is responsible for clearing the sidewalks fronting city-owned parking lots? These are purposely situated near commercial corridors that depend on foot traffic. The city, which is now our single largest land owner, does not obey its own shoveling laws.
Next, let us factor in everything that interferes with adjacent-owner sidewalk clearance: physical limitations, out-of-town travel, lack of awareness, absentee landlords, too many other responsibilities and, most egregiously, snowplow operators who clear streets, parking lots, and driveways by dumping snow onto sidewalks.
Nevertheless, since we’ve decided that owner shoveling is the ideal way to clear sidewalks, then why don’t we sell our street plows and lay off snowplow drivers to save on taxes, and require car owners to shovel out their own streets, with a hefty dose of editorial page shaming if they do not?
We do not burden individuals in this way because one household failing to shovel would impede all drivers and all vehicles. We plow our streets at public expense to provide safe, consistent, and equitable access. We also recognize that streets are public, not private property, and must be maintained at public expense.
Here’s the kicker: so are sidewalks. “My” sidewalk does not belong to me at all. Pedestrians deserve the same safe, consistent, and equitable access to public right-of-ways as vehicles. Automobiles spend over 90% of the time parked, meaning that 90% of the time, we are pedestrians instead of drivers. Thirty percent of Buffalo households do not own cars. Street budgets should reflect these realities.
The present situation is an equal protection violation: Buffalo taxpayers inside of motor vehicles are entitled to right-of-ways cleared at public expense, while Buffalo taxpayers outside of motor vehicles are not. Even worse, they are subject to penalties if they fail to maintain public property.
So tax me. Please! Then tax me some more to pay for sidewalk plowing in low-income neighborhoods.