Sidewalk being shoveled. Photo by faz the persian on Flickr.

This morning at 10 is a DC Council hearing on Tommy Wells’ and Mary Cheh’s bill to fix the enforcement rules for unshoveled sidewalks so DC can realistically write tickets. Now that Tommy Wells is chairing the committee, chances for passage are very good. Below is my testimony.

Mr. Chairman,

My wife has knee and ankle problems which have been a struggle for several years now. It’s frustrating enough to have to limit mobility, but when there is snow and ice, she is unable to walk on sidewalks to the store or to the Metro. That forces her either to be trapped at home or to walk in the street, which makes me worry very much about the inattentive drivers she might encounter.

Uncleared sidewalks are a nuisance to most of us, but to those with disabilities, even very minor or temporary ones, they can pose serious hazards or make sidewalks practically unusable. This is not acceptable.

I urge the Council to pass a version of this bill. It’s important that we enable the DC government to actually enforce the sidewalk shoveling law that has been on the books since 1922. It’s also important that DC follow through and enforce this law, at least for the biggest offenders.

Those offenders are usually the buildings with substantial street frontage, especially corner buildings, which are more often either commercial properties or large apartment buildings, which DC law considers to be commercial properties for many purposes such as trash removal.

For instance, during last year’s enormous storms, the MarcParc in your own Ward 6, between 5th, 6th, and K Streets and New York Avenue, NW, shoveled its own parking spaces and vehicular entrances and exits but none of its sidewalks. That parking lot occupies an entire city block, affecting a great many residents.

Closer to home, during the last snow, the building on the corner of my street shoveled its 18th Street frontage but not its longer frontage on my side street, creating a very long, treacherous, icy walk to the Metro.

I am concerned that the $250 fine proposed for commercial properties may not suffice if the cost to a large property owner to shovel the sidewalks exceeds the potential fine. I hope you can hear from some BID representatives who might shed light on what it will take to push compliance. I also encourage you to ensure that the definitions of residential and commercial properties are appropriate.

As we just discussed in the pedestrian and bicycle safety hearing and on the blog, there are two approaches to incentivize following a law: large fines or frequent enforcement. Frequent enforcement is better, since it is more effective and seems less unfair. However, if DC lacks the resources or ability to write many smaller tickets for the bigger property owners after each storm, we may need large fines for these large properties with large quantities of sidewalk.

Focusing enforcement resources on these large properties will not only deal with the biggest safety hazards, but also reduce concerns that poor, elderly owners of small homes might be getting fined for actions they aren’t physically able to perform and/or can’t afford to contract out. However, there should still be a fine, the mechanism to enforce it, and some tickets written.

This bill will not solve all of the problems with snow removal. The DC and federal governments are still neglecting sidewalks in many cases. DPW failed to clear many bridges after the most recent snowstorm.

In my own neighborhood, the Q Street overpass over Connecticut Avenue was still icy two days after the storm, and many people on my blog reported similar problems with the Glover, Taft and Ellington bridges over Rock Creek, the Key Bridge, overpasses on North Capitol Street, and many more.

Likewise, examples still abound where the National Park Service devoted resources to clearing internal walkways inside some of their small parks in DC, but not clearing the sidewalks on the periphery, which are much more important for pedestrian circulation.

However, we must pursue all of these avenues at the same time. This bill will take one step toward solving the problems with noncompliant private landowners, which do create real safety hazards by not clearing sidewalks after snowstorms. Please move this bill before winter ends and people lose focus on this important issue.

David Alpert is Founder and President of Greater Greater Washington and Executive Director of DC Sustainable Transportation (DCST). He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. Unless otherwise noted, opinions in his GGWash posts are his and not the official views of GGWash or DCST.