ITHACA, N.Y.—The summer heat has not melted the determination of the Coalition for Snow-Free Crosswalks and Sidewalks. Despite the next snowfall being months away, the coalition is continuing to push out their message before they rattle the tin at the City of Ithaca’s forthcoming 2023 budget process this fall.

The coalition is composed of organizations and individuals, including Bike Walk Tompkins, the Finger Lakes Independence Center, the Tompkins County Office for the Aging and Eric Lerner’s Ithaca Pedestrian Snow Project. The coalition delivered a presentation to Ithaca’s City Administration Committee on June 22, reprising their coalition’s straightforward request.

The Coalition for Snow-Free Crosswalks and Sidewalks (CSS) wants the City of Ithaca to clear the crosswalks and sidewalks in addition to the streets. However, the potential cost of such a commitment makes some members of Ithaca’s Common Council wary. 

Someone clears snow from the sidewalk on Aurora Street’s “Restaurant Row.” Credit: Casey Martin / The Ithaca Voice

Currently, the city’s Department of Public Works (DPW) clears the streets after a snowstorm, and City of Ithaca property owners are responsible for clearing the sidewalks that line their property. But the coalition is quick to point out the shortcomings of this approach, particularly at crosswalks. On Ithaca’s street corners, the winter’s street-clearing tends to build up unruly snow piles, making a heavy workload for property owners responsible for clearing the area around crosswalks — a job that often goes neglected.

The result is at best a nuisance, and at worst a danger for pedestrians. Street corners become snowy, mushy, icy and slippery, and overall difficult to navigate. The coalition is also quick to point out that it’s the same case for vacant dwellings when there isn’t anyone to clear the sidewalk in front of a property, or for properties with absentee landlords.

Larry Roberts, a member of CSS, spoke to the committee about the challenges he has contending with Ithaca’s snowy winter streets as someone who is disabled and uses a wheelchair.

“I find myself stuck in my house for many days, and sometimes weeks, because of the lack of clearing of, particularly, the [snow] barriers that remain in crosswalks, even if the sidewalk and the curb ramps are cleared,” Roberts said.

A 2019 survey of more than 800 Ithaca residents prepared by a city commission found that 55% of respondents did not think that pedestrian walkways are cleared of snow and ice to a degree that makes it easy to get around, and that 63% of respondents disagreed with the current system of relying on property owners in the city to clear snow is a sufficient strategy. 

An obstructed street corner where snow was not removed.

The main message that the coalition stands by is that correcting these conditions are a matter of accessibility, especially for those with physical disabilities. It’s an issue of equity, but also environmental sustainability, said Margaret Johnson, director of Bike Walk Tompkins. 

While for many residents, particularly those who live in the valley and flat areas of the city, Ithaca is a walkable and bikeable community that allows people to reduce the carbon footprints associated with driving, Johnson made the point that unmanaged snow piles and ice can deter people from choosing alternatives from their cars.

“People will not bike, walk and roll more unless they have safe access to use these modes of transportation,” Johnson said. “Winter lasts a long time in Ithaca.”

The city committee expressed understanding and concern for the impact that inadequate snow removal has had on residents, but Common Council members did not immediately endorse a plan to use city tax dollars to fund snow removal. Committee Chair Alderperson Robery Cantelmo, though, is a notable supporter of municipal snow removal.

In Alderson George McGonigal’s view, the problem of snow-packed sidewalks mostly comes from people not shoveling their sidewalks. “It just takes extra effort,” he said. McGonigal did not come out as opposed to exploring a municipal snow removal program, but said he would look to see renewed focus put on a community service approach.

McGonigal illustrated two challenges that needed considering for the city to take on the responsibility of sidewalk snow removal.

“The problem is DPW is short staffed, and the other problem is the money to do everything that this group would like us to do,” said McGonigal. “It’s going to cost a lot of money.”

In their presentation, CSS suggested that the city explore contracting for sidewalk snow removal services, similar to what the City of Rochester does for the winters, to which McGonigal pointed out the challenge of inconsistent work embedded in that approach.

“In our winter conditions, these contractors could go for three weeks with no work at all,” said McGonigal. “To expect somebody to be on call when we do get a storm is asking a lot if you’re not giving them something to do on a steady basis.”

“And last thing I’ll say is you’re not supposed to ride your bike on the sidewalk,” he added with a smile.

Among its secondary requests, the coalition asked for the city to improve its enforcement programs, citing that the two that exist are independent which can make them uncoordinated and ineffective. They suggested creating an interactive digital map, which would allow members of the public to mark out areas where snow has not been removed in the city.

Alderperson Jeffrey Barken echoed some of McGonigal’s statements noting that, in the short-term, increasing communication with neighbors to plan for hefty shoveling projects is a good way to address this issue, as well as develop community.

Jimmy Jordan

Jimmy Jordan is a general assignment reporter for the Ithaca Voice. Questions? Story tips? Contact him at jjordan@ithacavoice.com Connect with him on Twitter @jmmy_jrdn