Last weekend’s record storm laid a thick blanket of snow over Boston and revived the debate over who should be responsible for clearing city sidewalks.

Property owners in Boston are responsible for clearing snow from adjacent sidewalks and curb ramps within hours after the snow stops falling. But advocates, and at least one city councilor, are pushing for the city to reconsider that policy, saying it creates a dangerous patchwork of access and non-access for everyone, particularly those using wheelchairs or pushing strollers.

Crystal Evans is a board member of the Massachusetts advocacy group the Disability Policy Consortium. She uses a wheelchair and said the policy of making property owners responsible for snow removal makes getting around dangerous for people like her. A patchwork of uncleared sidewalks and ramps often forces wheelchair users into the street. She knows wheelchair users who have been hit by cars sliding on icy roads after a storm.

“When curb cuts aren’t done at corners or sidewalks, we still don't have access to the sidewalks,” Evans said. “When only certain businesses or certain homeowners shovel the sidewalk, it forces people with mobility devices in and out from the sidewalk, back down into the street.”

City data shows that such a patchwork of access and non-access exists. Nearly $60,000 in fines were levied against property owners between Sunday and early Wednesday morning for 638 code violations for failing to clear snow.

According to Boston Mayor Michelle Wu, the city’s 311 system fielded 1,200 complaints before 1 p.m. on Sunday. And into Wednesday, more than three days after sidewalks were supposed to be cleared, a review of 311 complaints by GBH News showed that complaints continued to flood the system.

“Please ticket,” one person wrote in over a Charlestown street. “Cant get through to get kids to school.”

An impassable sidewalk is covered with snow with a narrow, slightly tamped down path over to the right close to the building.
A user submitted a photo of a Charlestown street on Tuesday, more than two full days after sidewalks were supposed to be cleared.
311 records

Jascha Franklin-Hodge, Boston’s Chief of Streets, said the three-and-a-half-foot wide path of travel that all business and property owners are required to clear is specifically to accommodate wheelchairs. Property owners are supposed to clear curb ramps, too, he said, even if that takes multiple efforts after plows block them.

“That’s the official city policy on this,” Franklin-Hodge said. “I'll be very honest and say, you know, it doesn’t always happen. In fact, it frequently doesn’t happen, it’s especially true after a really big storm... but even in smaller events, it can be inconsistent.”

City Councilor Kenzie Bok, who represents Beacon Hill, Back Bay and several other neighborhoods, points to models in other cities that could work in Boston. In an order filed Monday to hold a hearing over sidewalk clearing, Bok cited that Rochester, New York, plows hundreds of miles of sidewalk when more than four inches of snow accumulates, while still largely putting the responsibility on property owners.

WalkBoston, an organization that advocates for making cities and towns more pedestrian friendly, would like to see clearing sidewalks get the same priority as clearing roadways. Executive director Stacey Beuttell says Massachusetts has a varied and limited set of regulations and resources when it comes to snow removal, but that cities and towns that do a better job tend to be affluent, like Newton, Lexington and Wellesley.

“The reason those [communities] work well is they prioritize those places that you anticipate people needing to walk,” Buettell said. “So for children to walk to school, they'll plow [sidewalks]. Those will be priority routes. Any kind of health care centers, downtown districts, they'll prioritize what equipment they have and staff that they have to look at those places.”

But Franklin-Hodge said, with regard to the city taking full responsibility for clearing sidewalks, “The cost and complexity of that for Boston would be enormous. And so it’s not something that we are ready to promise.”

In last weekend’s blizzard, the city sent out specialized smaller equipment that’s part of a pilot program to clear a limited number of pedestrian curb cuts, crosswalks and medians, Franklin-Hodge said. Those are places, he added, that often get overlooked or accumulate snow because of plowing.

He said the city is using this year’s experience, and the pilot program, to learn what’s possible logistically and financially.

And he emphasized that accessibility benefits a much larger number of residents.

“If there’s one lesson that we've learned in the decades since the Americans with Disabilities Act passed, is that accessible design is good for everyone,” said Franklin-Hodge. “A sidewalk that a wheelchair can get through, is also a sidewalk that a stroller can pass on, it's also a sidewalk that a kid walking to school can safely travel along, or an older resident can walk on without fear of falling into a snowbank or so. Having things that work for everyone has to be the goal.”