The Providence Journal reports that towns and cities across Rhode Island are facing a revenue crisis in their snow removal budgets. The snow removal budgeting is just one more screaming signal that we need to rethink our relationship to our cars.
Now, of course, the roads have to be cleared one way or the other. Besides private car usage, there are obvious overarching public usages of the roads. Ambulances, fire trucks, and police that need to get to emergencies use our road system. Some users of the roads are obviously in buses. Nonetheless, the greatest direct beneficiaries of plowed streets are drivers, and yet no one pays for plowing as a driver.
I think this may be at the root of some of the problems with our winter streetscape. Some parts of our roads don’t get cleared, while others do. This is Broadway’s bike lanes, doubling as icy death trap:
The sidewalks in front of many private properties, like the one in this same photo, remain unshoveled. Even though there was some tough talk last winter about fining property owners for failing to clear the public walkways, the city hasn’t followed up. To add insult to injury, many of the publicly owned sidewalks, like those over I-95, are unshoveled or poorly shoveled.
On Saturday, I set out to clear at least one hurtle to pedestrians, the Westminster crossing of I-95. With as much ice accrued to the sidewalk as there is now, it took me the better part of two hours to clear away just one snow drift (although it was nice to watch some pedestrian walking through that clearing afterwards, instead of around it in the street). When you get bogged down in the work of moving even a small amount of snow, you start to pay direct attention to where the problem is worst. I noticed a few things:
- Although there were definitely offenders in all kinds of privately owned buildings flaunting their responsibility to shovel the walk out front, the worst offenders were those that had surface lots. It seems like the direct consequences of an icy sidewalk escape the minds of people who walk straight from the parking lot into their offices. Yet, worst still, because the footprint of these properties tends to be larger than of buildings that are of a more walkable design, even more of the sidewalk is not shoveled in these cases. It doesn’t seem that the city enforces the snow removal ticketing to begin with, but as far as I can tell there’s not a greater penalty if your property is larger. A narrow building would pay the same fine as a big box store for not shoveling.
- Where public properties are concerned, the widest areas that get cleared are also the most expensive. If the State House parking lot needs clearing, it gets done, despite its huge footprint. If a very wide boulevard needs clearing, it’s done. I-95 itself? You bet that’s cleared. Even the little slipways that allow cars to speed around corners and pedestrians walking in the street–cleared.
- There’s a lot of evidence that where we do lose parts of a street from snow cover, it’s to our benefit. There’s increasing understanding that “sneckdowns” or “snow neckdowns” can be a positive benefit to pedestrians. Leaving some snow in place in certain places is actually a good thing, and saves us money too.
Notice too, that while all municipalities are struggling with the snow, it’s not equally. Says the Projo:
Providence has used $550,000 of its $1.8-million snow budget, city Internal Auditor Matt Clarkin said Wednesday. The amount is what has been paid so far, meaning “there are likely additional payments” still to be processed.
North Providence is close to expending its snow budget, Mayor Charles A. Lombardi said Wednesday. The town budgeted $250,000 for snow removal and has spent $230,000 to $235,000, Lombardi said.
What does this say about the relative cost of different types of communities, and different types of streets? Providence is certainly not taking care of its budget better due to some great wealth gap that it’s lording over the suburbs.
In other words, in every possible way, there’s a reverse correlation to the scope of an area that needs clearing, and the actual apparent cost to private owners or the public for those areas being cleared.
I think this budget shortfall is the universe’s way of telling us that we need to realign costs to the most direct beneficiaries of a service. Some portion of plowing should come from the general budget, but a much larger piece should be paid for by user fees on cars. Remember, drivers already pay for plowing, just not as drivers. When we have to think about the relative costs of clearing four feet of sidewalk versus two-hundred feet of highway, we’ll be able to rationalize some of our municipal decision making. Maybe we’ll find that cities and towns even choose to forego clearing certain parts of a road, like slipways, in order to save money, or decide to do temporary road diets by only clearing narrow lanes instead of wide ones, thus reducing speeding. When the costs are added up, it will just make sense.
And when this guy can’t get past a snow drift, at least he won’t be paying through his taxes for the pleasure of almost getting hit by a car in a nicely cleared highway slipway.