Greater City Providence

Clearing snow from sidewalks

As I impatiently wait for the first real snowfall of the season, let’s take a minute to talk about removing snow from sidewalks, my favorite topic here on Greater City: Providence.

Back in February, the City Council updated the snow removal regulations, I was somewhat non-plussed by their action. My issues with the update were two; the DPW was given the authority to write citations, then immediately said they did not have the manpower to do so (the Police who originally had all the power here have been saying pretty much the same for years now), and the amount of time to remove the snow was increased from 4 hours after sunrise after the end of the storm to 8 hours.

As I outlined in the post in February, this extension to 8 hours could potentially create a situation where property owners are within the law not clearing their sidewalks for up to 24 hours. Were the roads not even attempted to be cleared for 24-hours, the citizens would rise en masse and burn down City Hall. And as I always say, at some point, every motorist leaves their car and becomes a pedestrian. So why have regulations that are so lax on snow removal when pedestrians are effected, but call out the National Guard if we have to to clear the roads?

In Cambridge, MA, a city with an online tool for reporting unclear or icy sidewalks, they are clear about when snow and ice need to be removed.

City Ordinance requires property owners to remove snow from sidewalks next to their property or business within 12 hours of daytime snowfall and before 1:00 pm when it has fallen overnight. They must also remove or melt all ice within 6 hours of the time it forms.

Public Works and the Traffic Department work together to enforce this Ordinance. Parking Control Officers in the Traffic Department conduct enforcement on priority pedestrian routes throughout the winter, and Public Works Compliance Officers investigate all complaints received of uncleared sidewalk.

We all have a shared responsibility for keeping our community safe and accessible during winter weather. For you, your neighbors, people with strollers or using wheelchairs, and the many people in Cambridge who walk, please do your part.

That 12 hour window seems excessively long to me, but the other part, the “remove or melt ice” bit is really the major problem in Providence. This week we’ve had two minor little dusters, the streets were barely impacted, but their was enough snow to make the sidewalks slick in some areas, however, I saw no evidence of anyone treating the sidewalks. This is a condition that repeats all winter. Just enough snow to make the sidewalks slick, but not enough where anyone bothers to clear it. And of course, we have absolutely no one doing enforcement because they have all begged off that they don’t have the manpower.

Cambridge also steps up to the plate and addresses the issue of the elderly or disabled who are unable to clear their own sidewalks:

If you are a homeowner on a low income and/or you are elderly or have a disability, you may qualify for the City’s Snow Exemption Program, in which case the City will shovel your sidewalk. To find out whether you are eligible, please call the Cambridge Council on Aging, 617.349.6220 (voice) or 617.349.6050 (TTY).

If you do not qualify for an exemption, the Council on Aging can provide you with a limited list of professional snow removal companies and a list of students who want to earn money by shoveling – you contact the student yourself and negotiate a price.

That’s what civilization looks like folks. A city that realizes it is located in a geographic area that has seen snow for millennia somehow manages to find itself unsurprised by this climatological situation and has created regulations and programs to deal with it.

We have a new Mayor, and largely new City Council, and importantly a new Public Safety Commissioner starting work in under two weeks. It can never be too soon for them to get to work ensuring that our city is navigable for all citizens all year long. The Public Safety Commissioner should work with the Mayor and the City Council to determine how to tackle the public safety threat which is snow and ice covered sidewalks. The answer cannot continue to be that it is the responsibility of a department who cries that they do not have enough manpower.

Jef Nickerson

Jef is Greater City Providence's co-founder, editor, and publisher. He grew up on Cape Cod and lived in Boston; Portland, Maine; and New York before settling in Providence. In addition to urbanism, Jef is interested in art, design, and ice cream. Please feel free to contact Jef if you have any question or comments about Greater City Providence.


  • I’m so sick of lazy-ass residents not clearing their sidewalks, that I am planning a guerilla-style action on the west side, where residents do NOT seem to understand that they are responsible, even though school kids are regularly using the street because the walks are covered and blocked. I’m going to print out a batch of official looking warnings, pointing out the regulations in English AND Spanish, and leave them in the mailboxes of every resident that’s guilty of this. This makes me CRAZY!!

  • While in a utopia it would be great for laws like these to mean anything… they don’t. File a law like this under the same category as jaywalking, littering, and lour music. Or.. and even the no posters on utility poles.

    The problem with a law like this is that unless 100% of property owners clean their sidewalks, then people will have to walk in the street regardless. On a good day you might get every second or third sidewalk cleaned, then you have to head into the street to avoid the uncleaned sidewalk.

    Most people I see just walk in the street because they are not going to constantly move on and off the sidewalk. And unfortunately, there is no way the city can enforce this without a HUGE team of workers and an even BIGGER housing court system to process all the “GUILTY WITH EXTENUATING CIRCUMSTANCES” pleas.

  • I am not sure you need Utopia in order to ensure that those who do not clear their sidewalks get fined, and for ways for sidewalks to get cleared for folks who can’t to it themselves.

    And Lorelei, it is a federal offense to leave non USPS mail in mailboxes so be careful there. 🙂

  • Could the city enact an ordinance that didn’t allow for you to appeal the fine? Make the fine small enough, like $25, but don’t allow it to be appealed. Notify all residents each year that if they want to file for extenuating circumstances, they must do so by a certain date.

    I mean, we’re required to pay our taxes even if the city decides they don’t want to send us a bill. Why should this be any different?

    And they don’t even have to fine all of the offenders to make it work. Once people start getting fined and word gets around, people will start shoveling properly. Look at what happens with overnight parking. You get a handful of violators, but everyone knows you’re likely to get a ticket.

    There’s really no excuse. Most of the houses don’t even have that much street frontage. It’s only about 30 feet. Clearing a 3 foot path is nothing. It’s my driveway that’s a pain in my ass.

  • Miguel, your lack of imagination disappoints. There’s a thousand ways to skin a cat. While it’s true that enforcement will likely never produce the result we want, the city and it’s people can do a hell of a lot better than we do.

    To me, your message of capitulation is as problematic as the snow.

  • You make the fines expensive enough that people would rather shovel than pay, but cheap enough that they don’t want to take a day off work to go to court to contest them (and ensure that we don’t have a Judge Caprio excusing every damn ticket).

    Escalate the price for repeat offenders, and create a system whereby people who truly cannot shovel get assistance, and people who just don’t want to shovel can easily find people to pay to do it for them.

  • I lived in Cambridge for a few years, and that may look like a great ordinance, but unless things have significantly changed in the last 5 years, there are still plenty of people who are breaking the law up there too. That said, it certainly seems worse down here. I’m tempted to create an official looking notice like Lorelei mentioned, but I’ll just stick it to their doors. That should be about as effective as the current law.

  • The police department did not have manpower to enforce snow removal. Funny, there is always plenty of manpower available for gestapo-like enforcement of the overnight parking ban. I was straight-facedly told the reason for that ban is so ambulances will not be impeded. I will be grateful for that when I get run over in the street because the sidewalk is inaccessible.

    Those $20 overnight tickets are ruthlessly issued to students and the kind of people who need roommates to afford the rent. Fines for snow-blocked sidewalks however would have to be imposed upon bigshot landlords, parking lot moguls, fast food chains and oil companies. Whoa, that’s different.

    What other facts could you need to reach the saddest conclusions about how, and for whose benefit our city is run?

  • I also saw a police officer writing tickets on Atwells Avenue at 12:05pm to cars that were in violation of the parking ban which had gone into effect at noon.

    I did not see that officer writing violations for the unshoveled sidewalks on Atwells this morning.

  • Do me a favor, check the overpasses to I-95 on Atwells and Broadway. If the sidewalks aren’t cleared contact John Lombardi.

  • I know of at least 1 cop who spends most of his time hanging out on a college campus doing absolutely nothing but paying college students to do his homework for him. He got a bachelors degree from a certain easy bay college that has a downtown campus. Oh, and this is while he’s on duty. He certainly has plenty of time to write tickets for snow removal violations, but our tax money pays for him to do absolutely nothing.

    And these are not hearsay allegations, it’s completely true.

  • Funny how two people have brought up posting fake warnings on residents’ doors who don’t clear their sidewalks, I was going to do this too! I was going to use a more “guilt” approach though, and write things like “how would you feel if a child was hit by a car and killed walking in the street in front of your house because you didn’t clear your sidewalks?” Maybe next time.

    Also, while I appreciate those that do make an attempt to clear their sidewalks, it doesen’t do much good if you clear 95% of it and then leave a massive snowbank at your property line that everyone has to walk in the street around!

  • City enlists snow shovel volunteers [WPRI]

    The city of Pawtucket has lined up a brigade of volunteer shovelers to help seniors clear their sidewalks after winter storms.

    Apparently Pawtucket has been listening to what we’ve been talking about for years. I still think that a non-profit could take the lead on this and make a slim profit. Enlist shovelers, send them out to shovel for the elderly and disabled gratis, make them available for a fee for people who just don’t want to shovel, and divert some money from fines to run the program/pay the shovelers.

Providence, RI
5:16 am8:08 pm EDT
Feels like: 70°F
Wind: 9mph S
Humidity: 52%
Pressure: 29.86"Hg
UV index: 0
77°F / 61°F
68°F / 64°F
81°F / 61°F