View from a Milwaukee skyway. Photo by the author.

View from a Milwaukee skyway. Photo by the author.

Several Midwestern cities got their first dump of real snow over the holidays, and it was a familiar sight out on the roads: Midwestern drivers tend to temporarily freak out, spurred on by TV weather reporters, and forget everything they learned during their other 17-67 years of enduring Midwestern winters. They drive like maniacs or become so overly cautious that a tiny patch of ice sends them into a spin.

A friend recently relayed a lengthy “horror story” about the night of the first big snow. He didn’t feel like shoveling and his snow blower had died, but he needed to get to work and his car was stuck in his garage behind piles of snow at the top of his driveway. So, he called up a plowing company that he found on the internet. The company appeared eight hours after they said they would be there and proceeded to push even more snow up the driveway before realizing that their plow wasn’t going to make it to the top and abandoning the job altogether. At the point of giving up, my friend was eventually able to coax his car over the frozen snow mound in his driveway and park it on the street temporarily. Several phone calls and days later, my friend still had snow and ice mounds all over his driveway and walkways. He was stressed out and had already spent more than a hundred dollars with few results.

Other friends have relayed similar car-in-snow related struggles:

“It was impossible to find a parking spot for church with so much snow packed along the edges of the streets.”

“It took me half an hour just to dig my van out for work this morning.”

“My car was parked on a sheet of ice and it took four guys to help push it off the ice.”

Northern cities spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on plows and de-icers each year, then in the summer, they trot out hundreds of thousands more in taxpayer money to repair the damage done to the roads by those vehicles and the cold weather. Our engineers and planners insist on constructing streets to a width that would be “manageable” under the iciest and snowiest of conditions. Emergency vehicles respond to hundreds of car crashes that result from the winter weather. Drivers complain and worry about the constant threat of snow.

All of this stress, money and time goes into creating and maintaining our ability to drive in the winter. But there’s another option: Walking.

All of this stress, money and time goes into creating and maintaining our ability to drive in the winter. But there’s another option: Walking.

While all of my friends were struggling to dig their cars out of the snow, I was enjoying a brisk walk in a warm pair of boots. The sun was shining. There were plenty of people out (shoveling!). I was unhindered only by the occasional unplowed sidewalk.

I often hear the argument that walking is all well and good when the weather’s nice, but as soon as the snow hits, you really need a car to get around. This is simply untrue. (The same is often said of biking: it only works when the weather’s nice. I know my biking friends like Jason, would say otherwise.)

I actually find that it is often much easier to get around on foot in the winter than it would be in a car. For one thing, I don’t have to begin my journey with an extensive dig-out operation involving shovels and ice picks. I just bundle up and walk outside.

For another thing, I feel much safer walking than driving, especially when there’s a snowstorm and visibility is limited. When I’m walking, I only have to worry about me. I can look down and make note of the icy patches to avoid. Meanwhile, drivers must worry about the idiocy of every other driver on the road and navigate streets where it’s very hard to see icy patches until you’re already skidding uncontrollably across them. As a pedestrian, of course, I have to be especially prepared for dangerous drivers when crossing the street, but while I’m on the sidewalk, I feel much safer than a car on the road.

In addition to snow and ice concerns, another common complaint about winter walking is that it’s too cold. However, I think this is only a problem if you aren’t dressed properly. A good thick coat, heavy boots, mittens, scarf and hat should keep anyone warm if they’re walking at a standard pace. These don't need to be expensive designer outerwear either, and most of us have these items already; it's just a matter of employing them. I’ve gone on plenty of winter walks where I actually ended up taking off layers because I got too hot.

The author, bundled up to watch the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York, 2013. Photo by Matthew Morris.

The author, bundled up to watch the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York, 2013. Photo by Matthew Morris.

In spite of these huge benefits to winter walking over winter driving, there are two caveats: one is that for anyone in a wheelchair or with a mobility issue, walking in the winter can be quite a challenge. When the sidewalks are not 100% plowed, they’re very challenging to navigate with a wheelchair or walker. It’s easy to slip or get caught on a pile of snow, especially at intersections.

Which brings me to the second caveat: unplowed sidewalks can present a big hindrance to walking in the winter. Whereas streets, roads and highways are plowed by the city and usually in a fairly timely manner (at least in cities that are used to snow), sidewalks are often left up to the home and business owners whose properties abut them. While most cities threaten property owners with fines if they fail to shovel, that threat isn’t usually enough to get the sidewalks universally cleared. What happens at abandoned properties? What happens at properties where the owners are out of town when snow falls? What happens when the owners are just too lazy to clear the snow, or unable to shovel because their health or their busy lives prevent them from doing so?

The failure of cities to plow sidewalks is utterly indicative of the way they view pedestrians. We would never ask property owners to be responsible for shoveling the streets and roads outside their buildings. Partially, that’s because the roads would take much more time and effort to shovel. But mostly it’s because we know that hundreds of other cars will pass through those streets on a given day, and we don’t think those drivers should have to risk getting stuck or getting into an accident because a few property owners couldn’t be bothered to clear the streets.

Why won’t the city take on the same responsibility for sidewalks? I think much of the reason stems from the misperception that sidewalks are just a quick path used by people walking from their cars to their houses, offices, and business. If that were the case, it would be reasonable to leave sidewalk shoveling responsibilities to the people who primarily use the sidewalks (business and homeowners). Heck, it would be reasonable to forgo any sort of penalty at all; we’re not legally required to shovel our driveways right? But most sidewalks, especially those in commercial areas or downtowns, are used by plenty of people besides the property owners. Even the quietest residential blocks will have a few dog walkers or kids coming home from the bus stop using the sidewalks.

If we want to encourage walking and position it as a viable alternative to driving, our cities and towns will need to take responsibility for sidewalk plowing--either by doing it themselves or creating a different system to ensure that the work gets done. Most cities would be able to plow in a far more reliable and expedient manner than property owners anyway. I would happily pay a little extra in my taxes if it meant that I and, more importantly, my elderly and mobility-impaired neighbors, could rely on clear sidewalks throughout the winter.

If more people had the option to walk instead of drive all year round, we would save countless dollars on road projects and surely, the lives of many people who routinely die in car accidents during the snowy months.

(Top photo from Wikimedia)

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