The Wrong Post-Storm Priorities in Chapel Hill

I wrote the following as a comment to this article in the Chapel Hill News.

Many thanks to the Chapel Hill News for reporting on the issue of street and sidewalk cleaning. It would have been nice if some of the people who were critical of the town's response to cleaning sidewalks can be interviewed, but I understand that time is short. One thing that I think everyone would agree on is that the folks in public works at the Town of Chapel Hill have been working (and are continuing to work) very hard on cleaning streets. So, thanks to them.

I find it unfortunate that the reflexive response to the call for better sidewalk maintenance is "who is going to pay for it." I'm not aware that anyone on twitter or elsewhere has been arguing that the town should be responsible for clearing all the sidewalks the way it (and the NC Department of Transportation) is responsible for clearing roads. The issue is that there's a large gap between what the town does now, which excacerbates the problems people have when they're trying to walk, and what the town could do without assuming responsibility for clearing all the sidewalks.

The primary issue, really, is that the Town makes it look like it doesn't care about the pedestrian experience. Various emails that the Town sent out during the storm tell the tale. First, people were told not to walk in the street. Then, they were told it's nice to clear sidewalks. Finally, they were told the Town can't help but throw snow up on sidewalks while plowing the roads, so sorry, but still, don't walk in the street. And the Town only clears sidewalks on public property, even though it often doesn't. For a Town with a fare-free bus service which thousands of people rely on to get to work, telling them there's no way they can get to the bus seems to contradict the Town's goal that this be a walkable community.

There is a lot of low-hanging fruit out there which the Town could tackle that could make a difference.

First, the town notes that it is traditionally the property owners' responsibility to clear sidewalks. That's my understanding, and that's why I cleared off my sidewalk by Saturday afternoon (hint: Shovel early and often. It's easier). The Town needs to take a ledership role in sidewalk clearing. Unfortunately, it largely doesn't. Here's one example where the Town fell short. As I pointed out on Twitter yesterday evening (my username is @geoff_green), the Town did a great job clearing out the driveway at the Community Center Park. Anybody driving in had a seamless trip. But much of the snow that was moved out of the car path was pushed into large mounds on the sidewalks and at the crosswalks, making it virtually impossible for anyone to walk on the sidewalk, and practically impossible for anyone with any sort of a mobility issue. That's disrespectful of people on foot, such as those taking advantage of the Town's extensive fare-free transit system.

The Town's lack of attention to its own property has ripple effects. I contacted a large landowner near my home who I asked to clear the sidewalk adjacent to its property. I was told "I went by Town Hall yesterday and noted that the Town had only cleaned the sidewalk in front of their building and had not cleaned the sidewalk that fronted all of their property on MLK Boulevard.  I assume their request is a 'It would be nice' request rather than something expected of property owners." If the Town won't clear its sidewalks, why will anyeone else?

Second, the Town should at lesat work on its own and in conjunction with other large institutions (such as the landowner I mentioned) to make sure there are plans in place to clear high-trafficed areas such as bus stops. For example, the UNC campus. As Travis Crayton pointed out, many bus stops on the UNC campus were covered with ice. I heard reports from bus passengers that buses couldn't discharge passengers safely at stops because of the conditions. As of Tuesday, UNC was fully open. I expect the on-campus parking and walkways were clear. But bus passsengers, including my wife, were made to walk gingerly over ice slicks to reach their destintation. Thankfully, my wife and I are able-bodied. But the people we saw using canes to get around had a much more challenging time, and I expect people in wheelchairs gave up.

Third, there are best practices for clearing snow that don't break the bank. Carrboro has purchased a snow removal machine. It wouldn't be free, but I expect the Town could fund the purchase of a machine and a couple of people to work it to clear the places where people are walking and around their property without too much trouble. I don't know how much it would cost, but that's something our Town Council members and staff to investigate. The reflexive response of "it's too expensive" doesn't accomplish anything.

Finally, at the very least, I think it's enough to ask the Town to take care when plowing to make sure that snow is not piled up at crosswalks and curb ramps and bus stops, where it causes the most impediment. Don Kostelec, a consultant in western North Carolina, today provided some great tips on easy ways to improve the experience for pedestrians following storms. This advice is well worth investigating.

It's easy to say we complainers should hire an enterprising youth to clear the sidwealks. But am I going to hire them to clear the sidewalk on UNC's campus? Outside Town Hall? Outside Community Center Park? Outside a retirement community? If I needed someone to clear my own sidewalk, I'd pay someone. Fortunately, I don't.

Thank you, and I look forward to continuing this discussion with the Town's Transportation and Connectivity Advisory Board and ultimately Town Council.



maybe it's climate change but if we are going to get snow accumulation every year than CH needs to have a hearing or something to make sure everyone has the same expectations.    Staff claims that clearing school bus routes are the second priority in road clearing but I don't think they are or they don't know the bus routes. (and CH did NOT clear all bus routes within the Town of Chapel Hill by Tuesday).  If this is a climate change effect than yes town needs to do a better job and have formal policies everyone understands and that may include buying more snow removal/plowing equipment.   The Daily Tar heel today had an article about how canceling school affects a lot of parents who can't always afford to stay home or drop everything with 12 hours notice.   I realize the school bus routes not maintained by the State also include carrboro and the County but they need to work together to figure out funding and policy to do a better job if this is going to be an annual occurence.  (it didn't used to be, which is why I'm wondering about climate change.)

I love how this column by Jeff Danner explains how our increased storms absolutely could be caused by climate change --


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