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City hikes fines for snow-shoveling scofflaws but doesn't plan to write more tickets

Everyone hates walking on icy sidewalks, and the city is broke. So why won’t officials step up enforcement?


A pedestrian walks in the street to avoid a snowy sidewalk at Harrison and Wacker. - READER SUBMISSION
  • Reader submission
  • A pedestrian walks in the street to avoid a snowy sidewalk at Harrison and Wacker.

Despite the current deep freeze, we've had a remarkably mild—some would say anemic—winter so far. (Thanks, climate change.) Still, there have already been a couple of nasty sleet- and snowstorms, and for days afterward, you didn't have to look hard to find unshoveled sidewalks and impassable bike lanes.

Last week, for example, a stretch of the narrow sidewalk along North Avenue near Leavitt Street in Wicker Park was coated with crunchy snow and ice. That made it tough going for a father pushing his baby in a stroller.

While snowy and icy walkways are aggravating, they can also be a major barrier and hazard, especially for people with disabilities, seniors, and families with small children. Nearly 27 percent of patients admitted to three hospitals in Buffalo, New York, between April 1995 and March 1996 were injured on icy surfaces, according to one study.

The city of Chicago is usually aggressive about fining people who don't comply with local laws. So it's a mystery why the Chicago Department of Transportation, which is responsible for enforcing the snow removal ordinance, doesn't write more tickets to shoveling scofflaws.

Last winter, a challenging season that included our city's fifth-heaviest recorded snowfall, CDOT wrote only 226 citations for failure to shovel. Meanwhile, Evanston, with about 1/36th the population of Chicago, issued 53 tickets for noncompliance, according to Evanston city staffer Carl Caneva. That's more than eight times CDOT's ticketing rate.

A frozen sidewalk on North Avenue in Wicker Park makes it hard to push a stroller. - LINDSAY BAYLEY
  • Lindsay Bayley
  • A frozen sidewalk on North Avenue in Wicker Park makes it hard to push a stroller.

Moreover, Evanston has a very sensible approach to maintaining the public way. After issuing warnings to those who don't shovel, the city hires a contractor to do the work. The offender is invoiced an average of $190 for the service, which becomes a $230 property lien if the bill isn't paid. Other suburbs like Forest Park, Wilmette, Winnetka, and Glencoe clear all public sidewalks for residents.

In Chicago, however, shoveling sidewalks for pedestrians continues to be a much lower priority for the city than plowing roadways for drivers. Ever since Michael Bilandic lost reelection following the Great Blizzard of 1979, local mayors have generally been fastidious about keeping streets clear of snow, and the Department of Streets and Sanitation often salts the roads if there's even a rumor of a storm.

City Hall did take a step in the right direction last fall by passing a new ordinance that hiked the fines for failure to shovel from the previous $25-$100 range to $50-$500. The law also clarifies that a five-foot-wide path must be cleared, and corner properties must clear the wheelchair ramps leading to crosswalks.

"For people who use wheelchairs or other assistive devices, winter can be a difficult time," says Gary Arnold, a spokesman for Access Living, which advocates for people with disabilities in Chicago. "Curb cuts are often a problem area because accumulation from snow plows can wind up blocking them. We're thrilled that the city is making an effort to address this."

The new legislation also lays out the required time frame for clearance: snow that falls between 7 AM and 7 PM must be cleared by 10 PM, while snow that falls overnight needs to be removed by 10 AM the next morning.

The ordinance also specifies that snow can't be dumped in the street, including curbside-protected bike lanes, which are useless when filled with slush or ice. In addition, it stipulates that shoveled snow may not block building entrances, bus stops, train stations, bike racks, or Divvy stations.

You might guess that all these new rules would lead to a blizzard of ticketing—but you'd be wrong. A CDOT summary of the ordinance prior to its passage stated that "There are no current plans to increase enforcement."

"There are no current plans to increase enforcement."


Last week, transportation chief Rebekah Scheinfeld confirmed that the city has no plans to boost the number of citations issued. So far this winter, CDOT has written 74 warnings, mostly to commercial and multiunit buildings, and zero tickets.

Scheinfeld says the point of the new ordinance was to improve the clarity of the law and make it easier to enforce. "The snow ordinance hasn't been updated for at least 20 years, and certainly our built environment has changed since then," she says. "The old fines were outdated. At $25, it would be cheaper just to pay the fine than to hire someone to do the removal."

An ad on a Loop newspaper rack reminds residents to shovel. - JOHN GREENFIELD
  • John Greenfield
  • An ad on a Loop newspaper rack reminds residents to shovel.

The department has created a brochure outlining the new rules, which is distributed via ward offices and chambers of commerce, and is available on the city's Sidewalk Snow Removal web page. Ads reminding Chicagoans that failure to shovel is unneighborly are displayed on el trains, buses, bus shelters, news racks, and digital billboards. Residents are also encouraged to nominate merchants and organizations that do a great job of clearing snow for a " Winter Wonder Award " by March 15, online or by calling 312-744-5918.

Enforcement of the ordinance is done by CDOT's public way inspectors, with priority placed on the Loop and surrounding areas with high foot traffic, and a focus on commercial and large residential buildings, Scheinfeld said. First, the inspectors leave a warning notice with the brochure. A follow-up visit is made the next day, and a citation may be issued if the building isn't in compliance.

So why aren't more tickets being written? "The reality is, we have 4,600 miles of streets in this city," Scheinfeld says. "Our inspectors see a lot, but we need the public to be our eyes and ears by reporting locations that don't clear sidewalks to 311, by phone or online ."

I asked whether the city has considered hiring more inspectors, perhaps seasonal workers whose wages could be paid via fees, or emulating Evanston's practice of billing property owners for shoveling by contractors. Scheinfeld says neither of those ideas is on the table at the moment.

"We would hope that a warning would suffice," she added. "This is not about fines and revenue, this is about making sure the public way is clear for people of all ages and abilities to move safely."

If that's the case, it's puzzling why CDOT doesn't do a better job of clearing snow from sidewalks on bridges, plus expressway and railroad overpasses, which the agency is responsible for shoveling. Scheinfeld says the department prioritizes moveable bridges downtown and along the Calumet River on the southeast side, but sidewalks on bridges and overpasses in other parts of town generally don't get shoveled unless there's a severe snowstorm. She recommended calling 311 to request snow clearance at these locations.

Uptown’s Broadway protected bike lanes were an arctic wasteland last week. - JOHN GREENFIELD
  • John Greenfield
  • Uptown’s Broadway protected bike lanes were an arctic wasteland last week.

On the other hand, CDOT appears be largely keeping its promise to clear curbside protected bike lanes within 24 hours of a storm, at least on the more heavily pedaled routes. However, last week Streetsblog's Steven Vance found that stretches of protected lanes on Franklin Boulevard, Lake Street, and Jackson Boulevard on the west side hadn't been plowed at all, several days after the last snowfall.

The main issue with protected lanes is that, after the city plows them, it's very common for workers to push snow into them while clearing sidewalks. That's why the protected lanes on Broadway in Uptown looked like a scene from Shackleton last week.

Again, Scheinfeld recommends reporting trouble spots to 311, which recently added a special category for noting snow in bike lanes and at Divvy stations. The Active Transportation Alliance also suggests taking a photo and sharing it on social media with the city's #ChicagoShovels hashtag, as well as reaching out to businesses owners, chambers of commerce, and aldermen.

Active Transportation Alliance director Ron Burke, ahem, hailed the new snow-shoveling ordinance as a big improvement. "But Chicago . . . needs to do more to ensure sidewalks and bike lanes are adequately shoveled," he says.

Burke recommends that CDOT adopt the suburban best practices of clearing all public sidewalks, at least on main streets, or else making noncompliant properties pay for snow clearance. "No Chicagoan should have to contend with dangerous ice and snow on sidewalks or in bike lanes," he says. v

John Greenfield edits the transportation news website Streetsblog Chicago.

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