A Street Isn’t Complete If It’s Covered in Snow

Traveling during the winter months is a chore, but for those who choose to walk, bicycle, or use transit during the winter, it’s less of a chore and more of an outright obstacle. While the state, counties, and municipalities often do an excellent job of clearing the roadway, bicycle lanes and sidewalks are often left untouched, or worse, piled with excess snow from the streets. Some areas get so snow covered that pedestrians have to resort to walking in the street, and bicyclists, while fully in their right to ride in the street, have to forgo the safety of bicycle lanes. This is to say little of persons with disability, such as those requiring a wheelchair, who are unable to traverse snow covered sidewalks and buried curb cuts.

This pedestrian signal in New Brunswick is completely buried in snow and ice.

New Jersey has had a lot of success in advancing Complete Streets policies and implementation, a concept in which streets are designed to accommodate all users equally, and thanks in large part to the work of the New Jersey Department of Transportation, the state has become a leader in Complete Streets. However, a street is not complete if it is covered in snow. Most plowing priorities favor roadway clearance at the expense of pedestrian and bicycle facilities. To have truly Complete Streets, snow removal management must be as equitable as the street design. As a state that encounters yearly winter weather, it is a disservice to ignore the needs of pedestrians and bicyclists every year when the temperature drops and the snow begins to fall.

In order to address this problem, New Jersey and its counties and municipalities should adopt snow removal management policies that address the deficiencies in sidewalk and bicycle lane clearance. The challenge is that snow removal varies by city. Some cities take an active role in removing snow in high pedestrian areas like downtowns, but sidewalks in residential neighborhoods are slower to be cleared. Other municipalities have delegated the responsibility of sidewalk snow removal to property owners, with mixed results. The sidewalks take much longer to clear than the roadway, and sometimes sections never get cleared at all. Bicycle lanes have it the worst, and are often used as space for snow storage, remaining covered until after all the snow melts.

Caption: Long after the snow has cleared, piled up snow remains at the curb, impeding pedestrian access to buses on Bloomfield Avenue.

The solution to this problem lies in policy changes. While municipalities could place more emphasis on enforcing existing ordinances requiring property owners to clear sidewalks, a better long term solution would be for municipalities to take responsibility of sidewalk snow removal. There are many cost and time savings in having municipalities responsible for sidewalk snow removal, which can deploy snow blowers and clear sidewalks faster than property owners armed with shovels. In addition, by having municipalities in charge of sidewalk snow clearance, more attention could be paid to curb ramps, enhancing the mobility of persons with disability. Finally, the maintenance of sidewalks on bridges should not be ignored; they are often neglected after a snow storm and are treacherous to navigate. In the meantime, there are alternatives for citizen groups to take initiative when cities don’t step in, such as by establishing community-funded snow removal.

Bicycle lanes are a special challenge. Due to the nature of snow removal, which requires pushing snow to the periphery of the road, bicycle lanes are often obscured by piles of snow that are slow to melt. One solution is through design: placing bicycle lanes between on-street parking and the travel lane, a common design approach to accommodate on-street parking, provides a buffer between the curb and the bicycle lane after a snowfall. Painted buffers between travel lanes and bicycle lanes can also serve as snow storage, as well as protection for bicyclists. If parking or a buffer is not possible or desirable, extra care must be taken by snow removal personnel to clear the bicycle lanes during and after the main roadway is cleared.

Caption: Travel in Hoboken is difficult after a heavy snowstorm which leaves sidewalks covered in snow.

Even though pedestrian and bicycle mobility is not always a priority for snow removal, it doesn’t have to be this way. Creating a more pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly New Jersey requires cooperation between residents, municipalities, counties, and the state. With much already invested in creating strong Complete Streets policies and infrastructure, addressing snow clearance on sidewalks and bicycle lanes can extend the usefulness of Complete Streets into all four seasons and create a better, more livable New Jersey.

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