Advocates Push for City of Chicago Pilot Program to Clear Sidewalks of Snow and Ice

As October turns to November, residents will soon make the switch from raking leaves to plowing snow.

But what if homeowners didn’t have to plow sidewalks and city workers took up that function instead?

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There is a growing movement to do just that — and it’s driven by the inconsistency and lack of accessibility of Chicago’s sidewalks after a big snow event.

Alex Nelson, an organizer with Better Streets Chicago, which advocates for better walking, biking and transit infrastructure, says the campaign was born after two Better Streets members – founder Kyle Lucas and organizer Michael Podgers – went out to shovel some bus stops after a snow storm in February 2021.

“While shoveling, they were like, ‘this is unsustainable. This cannot be left up to individual good citizens and do-gooders, there needs to be a citywide program,’” said Nelson.

Cherlnell Lane is a writer, advocate and host of the podcast Words, from a Black Women’s Experience. Lane navigates the city using an electric wheelchair, the Pace paratransit service and rideshare apps like Uber.

“I’m a very active person. So I’m always going to events, to plays, poetry sets, and concerts and events. I also teach classes,” said Lane. “So there’s lots of things that I miss out on by not being able to get around in the winter. I even tell people that once the snow falls I’m not going to be able to really come to things like I would usually do.”

Lane says that after a snowfall, it can be difficult for her to even get off her block. She says that ultimately the issue is accessibility and allowing people with disabilities – and others who may be vulnerable – to live active lives throughout the year.

People with disabilities are already isolated by accessibility issues, says Lane.

“So to be further isolated by the fact that we can’t get through snow …. If someone who is able-bodied who can walk normally with no problem. It’s like if they were just halted at their corner for some reason and they couldn’t get past – that would be an issue for everybody,” said Lane.

But Lane says this is not just about helping people with disabilities, noting that relying on the goodwill of residents to clear streets is not working.

“There may be senior citizens, maybe people with different abilities, they can’t do it. And not everyone has the funds to hire someone else,” said Lane. “This is a safety issue for the residents of the city. Therefore it should be handled by the city.”

While the ultimate goal of the Plow the Streets campaign is a citywide sidewalk snow clearance and de-icing program, the immediate goal is to get a line item added to the city’s 2023 budget to fund a $750,000 pilot program.

Nelson says the campaign has the vocal support of 10 City Council members.

“The intention being that a pilot program can help us figure out the costs and logistics of an overall, universal service,” said Nelson. “The No. 1 question we get is how much is it going to cost. There’s a lot of variables that make that question very hard to answer. We think a smaller pilot program at a fixed cost will help us determine some of those things.”

Nelson notes that cities such as Toronto and Montreal in Canada, and Syracuse and Rochester in New York already have sidewalk clearance programs, as well as suburbs like Forest Park.

And while a citywide program may require a lot of manpower for short periods of time, seasonal work is already part of the city’s economy.

“Seasonal work does exist through the city already,” said Nelson. “If they can find the manpower and machinery to clear the streets, then there’s no reason they shouldn’t be able to clear the sidewalks.”

Note: This article will be updated with video. 

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