Shoveling Sidewalks: Pedestrian Safety

Most Philadelphia streets were designed well before the automobile was even a thought and during a time when cities needed to be walkable. Walking was not only the norm, but the only way for many early Philadelphians to get around.

Despite Philadelphia’s planned walkability, the modern urban landscape poses challenges for pedestrians, and winter weather presents one of the most common ones. As we approach the height of winter with snow and other bad weather on the horizon, it’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with some best practices and to be aware of what your responsibilities are during winter weather.


Rules, Regulations, and Other Guidelines

According to the Philadelphia Streets Department, the city requires at least a 36 inch (3 feet) wide path to be cleared on the sidewalk that spans your property. Snow should be piled along the street side of the sidewalk, but do not throw the snow into the street. That path should be cleared within six hours of the end of a snowfall or freezing rain. This includes the part of the sidewalk that ramps down to street level known as a curb cut, and if your house is a corner property, you are responsible for the sidewalk along the side as well and any pedestrian ramps to cross the street. If your sidewalk is wider than the required 36 inches,  don’t be afraid to shovel the entire area. The more area you clear, the more space there will be for people to safely travel past your home. Shoveling snow is good exercise, however be cautious if you have a medical condition. Finally, while salt isn’t the most environmentally friendly way to remove ice and snow, it is sometimes the only way to safely provide access to the sidewalk. If you move snow immediately, you’ll be less likely to need salt. If you wait, or if conditions like sleet or freezing rain occur, you will likely need to use salt to keep your area of the sidewalk safe.


Who is responsible for snow removal?

It is the responsibility of the homeowner to ensure the sidewalk is clear. If you rent, then the landlord usually contracts with a snow removal service or does the removal themselves. In some leases, a clause about snow removal could be written into the agreement, requiring tenants to be responsible for their own snow removal. If you are a renter and are unsure who is responsible for snow removal, contact your landlord to ensure that someone clears the snow.

Providing a safe sidewalk in front of your house is a great first step, and the minimum in taking personal responsibility to make sure the city is safe for pedestrians. Unfortunately, Philadelphia has many large properties that aren’t maintained. These abandoned lots have sidewalks that go uncleared during snow storms. If no one is paying taxes on these lots, then no one will likely be out to shovel the sidewalks. If you are able and willing to lend a hand, we encourage you to help out with these portions of the sidewalk on your block. Consult your neighbors and maybe you can all take turns.


Why is it important to clear snow from sidewalks?

A small amount of snow can turn to ice, making sidewalks treacherous for everyone. If you know that a stretch of sidewalk in your neighborhood isn’t going to be shoveled, or if your neighbors aren’t able to shovel their property, take the extra time to clear the snow from in front of their house. It may be a small amount of effort for you, but it will go a long way for pedestrian safety, and you’ll have the bonus benefit of developing great relationships with your neighbors!

The icy stretches and snow covered curb cuts can be even more dangerous for elderly residents, people with strollers, and people using mobility devices. Injuries resulting from falls can be very debilitating and require weeks of physical therapy to recover. Older residents may fear injury and not leave their homes for weeks or months. Staying inside for long periods of time causes stress, depression, and can lead to feelings of isolation. Shoveling a few more feet of snow could save someone a trip to the hospital.


What do you do if you find a snow or ice covered sidewalk?

If you encounter a sidewalk covered in snow and ice on your walk, there are a few things you can do. Finding yourself facing a slippery sidewalk is a frustrating reality we often have to deal with, but ensuring your personal safety is your top priority. Always look where you are going and be particularly aware in the winter. It may help to slow down and take shorter, careful steps or walk around the ice. Try to avoid walking in the street, as this can present a whole other list of safety issues.

If the sidewalk is impassible, check out the other side of the street, and if it is clear take the extra few minutes to walk to another block that is clear. It is a good idea to leave for your destination earlier, having extra time on your journey means you will be able to make better decisions about your safety. You can report dangerous stretches of sidewalk using the City’s 311 app.

One last tip – consider taking transit during the worst weather. SEPTA tries to keep as many of its routes operating as long as possible, just check SEPTA’s website and Twitter page to stay informed on delays and service updates.

Dealing with winter weather can be a pain, but if everyone does their part (and a little extra if you want to be a good neighbor) we can make sure Philadelphia is a safe place for any pedestrian to navigate after snow, sleet, or ice.


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