Almost a month after a historic snowstorm dumped more than two feet of snow on D.C., advocates, councilmembers, and residents met to discuss the city’s response, and many reiterated their concerns about pedestrian access and mobility.
Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh—who chairs the Council’s Committee on Transportation and the Environment—organized the public roundtable, which featured some overall positive reactions to the District government’s response but also a number of critiques. In particular, residents expressed frustration with the amount of time it took for many neighborhood sidewalks to be cleared, compounded by plows that pushed mounds of snow onto them.
“We think about roads, roads, roads, roads, fine,” Cheh said. “Would we tolerate a road that went for a couple of blocks and then stopped? Absolutely not. We have to think of [sidewalks and walkways] as pathways where people are going.”
Advocates for pedestrians and people with disabilities echoed that theme over the course of the hours-long hearing. Thomas Mangrum, who uses a powered chair, said he couldn’t leave his house for more than a week after the storm because alleyways and curb cuts were still covered with snow. Heather Edelman of the D.C. Pedestrian Advisory Council said certain spots, such as an underpass on Florida Avenue near 4th Street NE, which lies beneath Metro tracks, were not safe to walk because plows had cleared streets for vehicles but, as a result, covered sidewalks.
“I saw a lady with a stroller and four kids walking on the street,” under the overpass, Edelman said. “The problem with not having frequent snowfalls is not having opportunities to make a list of what needs to get fixed. Having citations and a priority list would be useful.” (Mark Eckenwiler, an ANC commissioner, also mentioned the Florida Avenue spot.)
Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen added that he was “surprised” local agencies did not clear snow-emergency routes “curb-to-curb” such that, after the storm, cars would have had to park closer to the middle of them. He said the District needs figure out what to do about the National Park Service, which manages parks that became “dangerous.”
When executive-branch officials testified, they noted that January’s major snowstorm was unprecedented. Twenty-six inches of snow accumulated in the District, according to National Weather Service stats. Chris Geldart, director of D.C.’s Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency, said the storm rivaled the power of previous weather-events combined, and that the District had nearly 1,000 pieces of equipment on the streets from the District Department of Transportation, the Department of Public Works, and outside contractors retained for the city’s response. To date, Geldart said, that response cost D.C. $55.3 million, though it has applied for federal relief.
“In the end, it was a swift and effective response,” Geldart said. DPW Director Christopher Shorter added that 14 citations were given to businesses for failing to clear their sidewalks after the storm. Mayor Muriel Bowser initially declared amnesty for businesses, ultimately deciding not to enforce snow-removal laws among residents following the event. Her administration also forgave tickets related to towing on snow-emergency routes, issued that Friday.
“By waiving these [towing] fines, which amount to about $700,000 in lost revenue, we signal to our residents that our public safety laws are arbitrary and need not be consistently followed,” Cheh said in a statement on the dais. She added that not enforcing sidewalk-shoveling laws, which she spearheaded getting passed, made the rules lack any “meaning.”
Photo by Darrow Montgomery