Photo by Marc Tomik on Flickr.

Early Friday morning, 61-year old Joseph Brown was walking to Metro. The sidewalk he wanted to use on the Sousa Bridge was full of snow plowed off the street, and he chose to walk in the roadway instead. When a driver killed him, DC police gave him a posthumous citation.

We’ve talked a lot in recent weeks about the failure of property owners to clear their sidewalks. Unfortunately, snowy sidewalks are often more than an inconvenience. And this weekend the abysmal condition of one DC sidewalk turned deadly for Brown. To add insult to injury, according to NBC4, the Metropolitan Police issued him a citation for walking in the roadway. As if he had a choice.

We could look to the adjacent property owners, I suppose. After all, under DC law, they’re required to clear the sidewalks in the public right-of-way adjacent to their property. But we won’t get far. This incident happened on the Sousa Bridge, where Pennsylvania Avenue crosses the Anacostia



In this case, the responsibility for clearing this sidewalk rests with the District government, and the Department of Public Works does actually work to clear bridges. But at the time of Mr. Brown’s death, less than 24 hours after the snow ended, they hadn’t yet cleared the Sousa Bridge sidewalks.

Does the system work?

Sidewalks are a vital and integral part of the District’s transportation infrastructure. They’re not just some accessory put there to make the street look nicer. People rely on sidewalks to get around the city. Additionally, sidewalks are fundamental to transit access. If the sidewalks are impassible, people can’t walk to the bus stop or Metro station.

If not all, most of the jurisdictions in the region rely on property owners to clear sidewalks. That’s the law on the books, though it doesn’t appear any of the jurisdictions enforce it. Whether or not that policy makes any sense (after all, we don’t rely on property owners to clear the street in front of their homes and businesses), it wouldn’t have made any difference to Joseph Brown.

Some people do shovel the walkways in front of their properties. Sometimes they even do it for their neigbors. But other property owners don’t, leaving a patchwork of sidewalks that are inaccessible and often dangerous.

There are penalties for not clearing the sidewalk in front of your property, but that law is rarely enforced. And without enforcement or a government effort to clear the walk, the snow remains for days. In places where plows have piled it on sidewalks, it can last for even longer.

What that says is that many local jurisdictions think it’s okay to close down one fundamental part of the network. Hundreds of workers are dispatched to sand and salt roads and plow snow across the region. But when it comes to sidewalks, the District and the other jurisdictions prefer the Atlanta approach: wait until it melts.

And if we just had a few inches of snow, that might not be so bad. But across the region the sidewalk is simply the place plows deposit the snow. Those massive deposits take forever to melt, and with no crews (or neighbors) to help clear them, they can make sidewalks impassible for weeks.

After two inches of snow crippled the Atlanta region for days and stranded commuters in their cars on freeways for more than 24 hours, Mayor Kasim Reed and Governor Nathan Deal took tremendous heat for not doing enough.

In Metropolitan Washington, we generally don’t let our roadways turn into ice rinks. We’re prepared. But when it comes to sidewalks, none of the officials in the region do anything. And they rarely seem to get heat for it either.

When tragedy strikes, it’s far easier to simply blame the victim. After all, he’s the one who walked in the roadway. Never mind that the sidewalk was essentially closed for the winter, like many sidewalks in the region are, even today.

Matt Johnson has lived in the Washington area since 2007. He has a Master’s in Planning from the University of Maryland and a BS in Public Policy from Georgia Tech. He lives in Dupont Circle. He’s a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners, and is an employee of the Montgomery County Department of Transportation. His views are his own and do not represent those of his employer.