Greater City Providence

Plowing done wrong


East Avenue near the Pawtucket/Providence line.

I’m seeing a lot of bellyaching on social media about streets not being plowed yet. While, my street is showing signs of blacktop, I feel others pain, but. We got walloped with feet of snow drifting to amazing proportions. There are hundreds of thousands, probably millions of tons of snow that need to be removed from hundreds of miles of roads. This is not something that just happens in a day or two, or more.

What does annoy me, is snow removal done wrong. The Providence Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Commission (of which I am a member) has discussed with Providence EMA the problem of plows piling snow at the corners of blocks, which then makes it impossible for abutters to comply with snow removal regulations. And while like I said, we’re dealing with a monumental amount of snow, that really has few places to go, I’m seeing a lot of signs around the few parts of the city that I’ve been able to reach this weekend, signs that this continues to happen.

While the photo above is from Pawtucket, not Providence, it illustrates the problem well. My friend who took the photo asked the workers who were dumping the snow if the abutter here would receive a fine and was told: ‘if they talked to city hall they wouldn’t get a fine.’

Well, that is nice for the pocketbook of the abutter (though, ‘talk to City Hall,’ is a rather vague directive), it sucks for all the people who now have to walk in East Avenue because the sidewalk will be closed for weeks.

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.


  • Jef,

    As a pedestrian living on the East Side, I fully agree with your observation. The City plows often dump a block’s worth of snow on our sidewalk, because our home is at corner where the road turns 90 degrees.

    Another problem is that the City of Providence doesn’t plow the sidewalks in front of its own properties. I have been documenting this with photos for over a decade (happy to send them to you.) By ignoring the rule of law and engaging in such hypocrisy, the City government (and Mayor) show that they are not serious about pedestrians.

  • Brad, frankly, that “citizens complying with snow removal ordinances” is even a concern shows that the city just doesn’t care. Maybe this is an unpopular opinion here or elsewhere – I don’t know, but it shouldn’t be on the owners of properties to have to shovel their sidewalk out. It isn’t on the owners of the abutting properties to make sure that section of the street is clear, and last I checked, sidewalks were public property just as much as streets are.

  • So Ryan… do you want your taxes to go up? Because if the city had to clear all sidewalks, it would (1) never get done and (2) cost a fortune. They already can’t get the streets cleared well enough or fast enough. If they had to do sidewalks as well, people would be walking in the street, the entire length, until the snow was melted.

  • I’m fine with shoveling the sidewalks, it makes sense. The sidewalk is technically City property, but really, we “lease” it. If your sidewalk line has grass, you mow it (the City will never do that). If it has a tree, you care for it. If it snows, you shovel it. That’s all fine.

    I’m on one of the few East Side dead end streets, and no, we were not plowed. We seldom get plowed. My neighbors and I (4 houses use the street as their primary car routes) dug out a path for one car width, which will do for now.

    What kills me is that some of the other streets look and drive worse than the street we shoveled by hand. They are barely passable, never mind walkable. While the City has a large task on their hands, they did have plenty of warning and more than enough trucks. I think that by Sunday night, they could have done a better job.

    I feel bad for riders of RIPTA or the school bus system. There is barely enough room on most roads for one car, let alone a bus.

  • In a perfect world, I agree, the City would clear the sidewalks. However, it would be such a mindbogglingly expensive thing for the City to do, that I just can’t imagine. What I’m saying is though, the City can do things to not impede residents and businesses from being able to clear their sidewalks, like ensuring that a shit ton of snow is not piled on every corner in the city.

    There is no parking within 20 feet of every corner by statute, the City could educate plow drivers to pile snow in the street in that area where parking is not allowed, which would keep the snow out of the corners and off the sidewalks and allow people to be able to shovel, as the City requires.

    As for the City’s response to this storm, I think I would give them a C. There are a couple places where I think they fell down. One being not canceling school until almost 6pm today, I mean really, who was going to send their kid to walk or wait for the bus in this, and the streets are not ready for all the people who feel they have to drive their kids to school everyday either.

    The other big failing I think is not having a shelter ready before the storm. It was very late when they opened the Technical School as a shelter for people with no power and heat (ETA, I was emailed a press release Saturday at 6:30pm about the shelter, a lot of people were really cold prior to that). I don’t know how many people actually took advantage of it, but meteorologist were telling us all week to expect power outages, the City should have had a shelter(s) ready Friday morning.

    As for plowing, I know people are upset, but this was a once in decade (once in a quarter century maybe) storm. I really never expected things to return to near normal before Tuesday and it appears that Tuesday is probably when that will end up happening. Look back at the so-called “December Debacle” or the Blizzard of ’78 and see how easy we’ve had it this weekend.

    I don’t know where the City is going to get the money to pay for the amazing feat of clearing this snow (actually I do, keep an eye on the media for stories about property tax increases). The City could pull out all the stops and hire an army and clear the snow – or – it can not go bankrupt.

    I’m sorry if I sound like an apologist, I feel I’m being a realist.

  • And on the topic of not canceling school – it is not the length of time it took them to decide that is the problem. It is the idea that they thought that maybe they could have school, or delay it an hour or two; it feeds the perception, deserved or not, that they have no idea what is actually happening in the neighborhoods right now. I’m not saying it isn’t bad, it is, it’s really bad in some places. But I didn’t not expect it to be exactly the way it is across the City right now. The fact that the City thought for a minute that maybe we could have school tomorrow is troubling.

  • I feel bad for anyone who has to drive in the city on any road that isn’t a major road (like even the sub-major connector streets weren’t plowed well, like Knight St). Heck, even Atwells wasn’t plowed well.

    The kicker, though, was when I was on Federal St earlier tonight. I watched a bucket loader moving snow off the street to make it wider. Instead of moving the snow to an empty lot or a dump truck, it was dumping it right on the sidewalk.

  • Plowing sidewalks is not that expensive. Perhaps Providence is too poor to afford it, but it’s entirely affordable for cities which have a little money.

    You do have to get specialized equipment. A motorized riding snowplow which is sidewalk width. Cities and towns which have those can clear sidewalks *fast*.

  • Which cities and towns have those that do ALL of the sidewalks? I’m guessing they’re up north or in the Rockies.

    Providence doesn’t have any money for it, but they shouldn’t have to. We don’t get enough snow all at once on a regular basis.

  • I doubt seriously that any city can clear all the sidewalks. BUT, EVERY city is certainly required to clear the sidewalks in front of, and along side, the buildings that they own.

  • A quick ask on Twitter says that Providence has about 380 miles of City maintained streets, assume that each has sidewalks on both sides (which they don’t but they should), that would be 760 miles of sidewalks. Some can be cleared with relative ease with sidewalk plows and riding snow blowers, but many would need to be shoveled by hand.

  • Nathanael,
    The equipment may be relatively inexpensive but the manpower is not. The city will have to pay someone to operate all that equipment at union rates PLUS overtime (because there is no way you can clear 700 miles of sidewalks without overtime). Add to that the fact that the DPW employees who would most likely be doing the work are either out plowing or trying to keep the plows running. Therefore you would have to hire more people to do the job.

    May I direct you all to this:

    Arlington County Va has a snow blower loaner program. As they say on their website:

    “Snowblowers are loaned out to civic associations and other community groups who develop a plan to assist with the clearing school routes, Metro stops and sidewalks that the County and/or neighbors need assistance clearing.”

  • I live in Pawtucket…Frankly, I do not believe we should have to shove the sidewalks, which, btw…if you want a sidewalk in front of your house, it costs for you to have the city workers lay the cement (to the tune of $700.00+). And this is PUBLIC property ! Why should we have to pay for it and why should we have to shovel public property ?? At age 60, with fibromyalgia, I physically cannot shovel what the plows have left in front of my house ! This is just a way for Pawtucket and Providence to make more $ off of its tax payers, who, btw, are already over-taxed !!!

  • Of course the city can not provide snow removal for 760 miles of sidewalks, but here is what it could do, at no public cost: Buy some heavy duty sidewalk sized equipment. Refer to the citizen complaints of blocked sidewalks, Prioritize the busiest and most hazardous locations. Go and clear the damn sidewalk before anyone else gets killed walking in the street. Attach the bill to the property tax bill.

    I am not talking about little old ladies with bad backs. Start with the gas stations and parking lots along North Main street.

  • Andrew…we were talking about snow in front of the residents houses. I have seen those small sidewalk-manned plows in Seekonk, Ma…We need them in Pawtucket & Providence.
    And not at a tax hike. We get that every year !
    Oh…and as for the ‘little old lady with a bad back’ remark….first off, Fibromyalgia is far worse than a bad back problem. Secondly, I am far from being a ‘little old lady’ at age 60 ! That remark was uncalled for, especially since this forum was talking about residential problems…not businesses.

  • Paula, the City cannot go out and buy sidewalk plows without raising taxes, it has no money for any extra expenses, and as has been pointed out, the actual acquisition of equipment would be the least of the expenses.

    And the topic is about sidewalks in general, residential, business, City/State owned… they are all problems.

  • Although…

    Someone has a little ride on snow blower, the sidewalks on at least the Atwells and Broadway overpasses were cleared with it:

    I’m not sure who’s it is, the bridges are State property, so maybe it was from the Convention Center.

  • Clearing a city’s snowfall is extremely complicated and expensive. Contrary to what many seem to believe, there are no silver bullets.

    It’s almost impossible to clear all snow and ice off of a surface, contrary to what the city’s ordinances may suggest (you know that those who draft the ordinances have never cleared snow). Snow doesn’t fall on a regular schedule. Sometimes it starts in the middle of the workday; other times in the middle of the night. Try calling a plow service at 3:00 a.m.

    And be careful what you wish for. Clear the snow and you may create a more dangerous ice surface.

    Machines alone aren’t enough for sidewalks; it is a very labor intensive and expensive process. Just watch the tax-exempts like Brown and RISD try, often unsuccessfully, to clear their sidewalks.

    Here in Providence, as many have noted here, the city still has yet to learn how to plow streets without burying sidewalks. And look at Boston, a far better managed city, where many streets remain unplowed.

    For the foreseeable future in Providence, I would focus on getting all streets (including side streets) plowed quickly — i.e., fast and dirty. Don’t worry about the sidewalks for now; learn to walk before you try to run. Experience suggests that snow doesn’t last forever, and spending unlimited funds on its removal — whether from streets or from streets and sidewalks — by an insolvent city may be unwise in the long run.

    I would also back off on fines for allegedly unshoveled sidewalks, unless perhaps those sidewalks abut schools, hospitals, and similar critical areas. Commercial property owners have an obvious incentive to spend money on sidewalk snow and ice removal. Most private property owners clear their sidewalks voluntarily, even several times during any storm, because the plows re-cover what property owners have cleared. The city fails to clear many of its own sidewalks (sidewalks abutting city buildings and parks). The police, to their credit, have rarely cited owners for failure to remove snow, because of the complexity of the issues.

    For the disabled and the ill, it can be very difficult and vexing. Perhaps a registry for disabled persons could be established, and volunteers could be trained to shovel their walks or provide necessary transportation through the snow. Many similar possible solutions could be implemented at low cost.

  • Relax Paula I was not talking about or responding to you.

    Whenever I confront a city official about zero enforcement of snow removal, I point out egregious offenders on major routes, like gas stations and parking lots, whose piles block sidewalks long after the rest of the snow melts. The officials always wring their hands and sanctimoniously rattle on about how if they busted Dunkin Donuts or whoever, they would also have to ticket poor little old ladies with bad backs.

    Funny how selective enforcement becomes a serious problem, and zero enforcement becomes the solution only when the offenders who most need to be selected happen to be wealthy or connected.

  • Tax $$ are spent big time after storms so motorists can soon drive fast, so I don’t see why tax $ shouldn’t also be spent for helping folks that don’t drive. As it is now, it is dangerous to wait at most bus stops, indeed a friend walked to safer spot to wait and wound up being passed by a bus as he wasn’t at a designated stop. At least on state roads, RIDOT should also be required to accomodate pedestrians and transit users as they do motorists, an elementary “complete streets” concept. Some motorists might object to paying taxes to help such groups but too bad for them.
    And those that put snow from their private parking lots onto public sidewalks, sometimes blocking them for weeks, should be fined and their businesses avoided for the duration.

  • Barry is right. If lots of money is spent on making sure roads are clear for cars, why should pedestrians suffer? While I don’t see the need to spend tax money on all sidewalks, I do like the idea of having the city go and clear sidewalks that get reported and bill the property owner.

    And, Bill… have you walked on a sidewalk that has had snow on it that gets packed down? It freezes. When snow is cleared from a sidewalk, there’s a better chance of having the sidewalk dry on a sunny day (as can be observed if you look in front of my house, where I cleared a nice wide path on Saturday). And if you are walking in the snow, it really sucks having your feet wet and cold and you never know when you might step on what you think is hard packed snow and it ends up as deep as your knee.

    Sure, the city should go after businesses harder than residents, but the problem is if we don’t go after the residents, then we still end up with people walking in the street. Most of the sidewalks in the city are in residential areas, and there are a LOT of people who walk on them, especially children. Children should NOT be forced to walk in the street. It’s downright dangerous, nevermind how much it sucks when you’re walking in the street and a car drives by and splashes that foul nasty water on you. I have absolutely no problem with the city fining individual residents who don’t shovel their sidewalks. It’s the law. It’s a public safety issue, kinda like speeding or running stop lights. People get fined for that, why not fine them for not shoveling?

  • Then the City goes out and does “widening” operations and the sidewalk I had is gone.

    I walked in the street from the Dunkin Donuts on Atwells (newly privatized Garibaldi Park’s sidewalk is not shoveled) to the Hilton. At the north bound Service Road a left turning school bus nearly ran me down while I was trapped in the middle of the road with nowhere to go.

  • Perhaps most of our disagreements about street and sidewalk clearing turn on our perceptions of whether money is or should be made available for the results we want. Providence is broke. The last I heard, the city is running an $11 million FY2013 deficit — if you include the arguably non-mandatory $4 million contribution that the city should make to its rainy day fund. The accumulated deficit from past years is now around $39 million (which does not include the number for this year). Taxes are probably twice as high as they should be. Some city staffers make around $200K, if you include benefits, which may explain in part the attitudinal problem at city hall. The category 5 fiscal hurricane is still very much with us, despite some unpersuasive voices to the contrary.

    The state is also broke and will probably become more broke as time goes on. Declining gambling revenues, incompetent fiscal planning, and declining dollar buying power, among other things.

    Ripta is broke.

    If this were a healthier economic environment, spending money on sidewalk clearing and better street clearing might make sense. But the money’s simply not there, and raising taxes higher or borrowing more money is beyond crazy. Many property owners are barely hanging on; some are elderly and disabled, etc. Median incomes city-wide are very low.

    At the risk of offending some, I suspect most would agree that clearing snow from streets has a higher priority than clearing the sidewalks. But If there isn’t money to do the streets minimally well (carting the snow away rather than moving it onto sidewalks and other places), then why argue for additional money to be spent for clearing sidewalks?

    Threatening property owners with fines usually backfires, because there are often extenuating circumstances. Boston is issuing some fines, but apparently only after warnings are given. It has also asked for volunteer efforts to help those who cannot clear their own sidewalks. See Fining people for failing to clear snow sounds simple, but in a near depression environment like that of Providence where little law enforcement of any kind takes place, especially for quality of life violations, I suspect assessing fines would be unlikely to be successful. Do we even have the manpower (police, traffic enforcement?) to assess fines if we wanted to?

    And do we want to start litigating snow clearing violations on a large scale? In many cases, the city would lose in court — because the city probably dumped snow on some hapless property owner’s sidewalk after he or she cleared it, or for other reasons. What if 90% of a sidewalk is cleared — do you assess a fine because the last 10% wasn’t cleared? (“Your honor, I observed a one square foot area of snow on the otherwise perfectly cleared walkway — I recommend a $500 fine”). What would be a reasonable prosecution standard? I often take photos of my sidewalks after clearing them, to protect myself from such possible claims. Who would pay for the additional city lawyers needed to prosecute the claims and judges to hear them?

    But it might be great for lawyers. A new legal specialty — snow removal fine defense. I can see it now.

  • Who said anything about litigating? I’m a big fan of sending a crew to remove snow from places where it’s reported and just billing the property owner on their tax bill. It would probably require a change to the ordinance, but why do we even have an ordinance if it’s not going to be enforced? They need to enforce the laws we have on the books and maybe they’ll be able to afford to do things like remove snow for old ladies and people with disabilities.

  • I agree with Jim. And it isn’t like Providence doesn’t already have something like it already. Vacant and trash strewn lots used to be cleared by the city (or its non profit stand in–I think it used to be Cleanscape?) and the cost of the clean up was attached to the house/property as a lien.

    BTW, Pawtucket has a volunteer core of shovelers, and matches it with a “wish list” of people who need help. Not sure why Providence or ANY of the non profits don’t have the same thing.

    When NoVA had almost 3 ft of snow two Februarys ago, the entire region was immobile for a week, but within two days all the sidewalks on my street were cleared. By whom, do you ask? Homeowners, neighbors and tenants. Our street hadn’t even been plowed yet and the sidewalks were dry. So, it can be done.

  • Jen
    If you are in Arlington they have a snow blower loaner program for civic and neighborhood groups. They get training as long as they have a written plan and commit to storing and operating the equipment during the winter. That could be one way that the Arlington sidewalks are cleared. I posted a link to this but it seems that people want to spend more time complaining than seeking possible solutions. Let me try this again

    There are several civic and neighborhood groups that could take advantage of a program like this. Start with neighborhood groups like WBNA, Summit or College Hill. They have a better knowledge about where the trouble spots are, who cannot physically shovel their sidewalks and can tap into a local source of volunteers who have the time to do the actual work. This can be a win-win since the city could buy the equipment at reduced cost (or seek grant funding) and not be subjected to the exorbitant cost of operating it.

    Its nice to see that Arlington residents are willing to chip in help instead of just complaining as to why the government didn’t do it for them.

Providence, RI
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Feels like: 66°F
Wind: 11mph N
Humidity: 80%
Pressure: 29.89"Hg
UV index: 1
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