Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The S Word

I haven’t posted in a few weeks because I have been traveling and dealing with record snowfall. Just like in December, the region was blanketed by feet of snow. No sense wasting any more time on the details.

I’ve spent many hours digging snow from around my house and clearing the sidewalk in front of my house. I spent a lot of time digging in front of other peoples’ property too. A few people have thanked me for digging in places where it was blocked and dangerous—as if I were being a good Samaritan. I usually replied that I was doing this for myself and my family, but I’m happy if it helps other people too.

I’ve taken a few photos, but haven’t we all seen far-too-many snow photos already? One or two, but mostly I want to write.

I’ll run down a list of observations I made during the recent recovery from the snow events.

My street is an arterial, so we get plowed immediately. It is my understanding that many neighborhood streets were not plowed for days. Some neighborhoods hire private contractors to plow their streets, or they do it themselves.

Many of these contractors pay no attention to where they deposit the snow removed from county streets or private property. They push piles up onto sidewalks and crosswalks without regard to the impact this has on pedestrian safety. In many cases, they deposit this snow onto sidewalks that have already been shoveled by property owners—rendering their efforts useless, and releasing them from any further obligation to clear the way.

MCDOT works very hard to keep county roads open for emergency vehicles during blizzards. It is understandable that their priority would be keeping the roads open and clear. However, the county spends a lot of money to clear ROW for vehicles, and almost no money clearing the right of way for pedestrians and transit users. At least – not until the recent storms. Many Ride-On and Metro bus stops were shoveled soon after the storm ended (and many were not), but only from the road. No effort was made to cut through to the sidewalk until days later.. This forces riders to walk down the side of the street to get to the bus stop. If you are going to dig out bus stops, you must dig out the sidewalks. If you don’t, you are creating an unsafe situation for people.

A little planning and training could go a long way. Oh, yeah, and how about some enforcement?

Urban District
I’m not very familiar with how the Silver Spring Urban District goes about removing snow from Downtown Silver Spring. I think that a single entity clears snow for everyone and everyone pays a fee for the service. In the Urban District, snow removal seems organized, comprehensive, and speedy. Unfortunately, most of the pedestrian routes to the Urban District remain extremely dangerous for days after the snow stops falling.

Pedestrian Thoroughfares
Living on and arterial ROW as I do, I see the huge numbers of people who walk up and down Sligo Ave when they can’t drive. During inclement weather, pedestrians turn to infrastructure they can count on. The County has a responsibility to understand this behavior and incorporate it into their plans. Places like Fenton St., Wayne Ave., Second Ave., and Colesville Rd. must be made safe and accessible to pedestrians after snowstorms.

This isn’t going to happen by itself, or because the County Council passes a law requiring people to shovel their walkways. In fact, the last time I heard anyone in county government mention that property owners are required to shovel their sidewalks was in 2004. Then, County Executive Duncan and County President Silverman were quoted in the Washington post saying that the shoveling law was only a suggestion, and “… mostly self-enforcement.” Now, I have always thought that the law requiring property owners to shovel their walks was intended to establish a community standard, not to have county government harassing residents. Personally, I would rather dig out a walkway than call HCA to file a complaint on a neighbor.

BUT - I think the county should actively enforce this law when it becomes excessive—more than three or four days after the snow. The county would never allow the ROW to be made inaccessible to drivers after the snow. If they are not “resourced” to fix the problems, then they should enforce the law and compel a property owner to comply.

Neighborhood sidewalks
Walking around my neighborhood and to downtown Silver Spring, I noticed several key problem areas. Most of these are easily avoidable with a little thought, encouragement, and training. I sent an email to Mell Tull at the RSC, and later Monday the problems were all clear except for one. I appreciate the response.

People tend to shovel out their driveways and cars first. During a large snow event, this is a mistake. Shovel the walk while the snow is fresh and un-trampled. You probably won’t be able to drive your car for several hours any way.

Many people dig out their driveways and throw the snow across the sidewalk.

Many places with large parking lots push the snow across the walkways.

Some businesses on Fenton St. never shovel their walks. Bus stops and crosswalks are dug out days later. The south side of Sligo Avemue is still blocked.

Roads are dry, and cars have resumed their normal speeds. Pedestrian Thoroughfares are blocked and the pedestrian transportations system is still questionable. People are still walking in the streets.

If you compare the amount of money the County spends to clear roads to the amount it spends to clear sidewalks- It’s easy to see that pedestrians are still not a priority, even in the “Smart Growth” urban areas of Montgomery County. It’s not going to get any better until we all do more. New laws, policies, and procedures are needed to make areas like Silver Spring truly safe an accessible for everyone. Enforcement needs to be proactive – not reliant on complaints against neighbors. Must I alienate my neighbors to gain equal access to the ROW in front of my home?

The first principal of nonviolent action is that of noncooperation with everything humiliating.

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