Do Our Part…

I try to walk 5-6 days a week. Some days it’s a quick walk to the park and back, about 3.6 miles. Other days it’s a trek of 7 miles or more. I am very lucky to be healthy and to live in walkable community.

Well, it’s not walkable all the time…

The third biggest snowstorm in Albany’s history occurred a few days ago. Just under two feet of snow in about 16 hours. Luckily it was a light, fluffy snow, and most people seemed to have handled it pretty well. But my 5-mile walk today revealed so much that we still must learn and certainly can improve. It comes down to everyone doing their part. And, more importantly, doing their part to support a system that their neighbors and community depend upon.

My wishes for 2021 and our shared future, as revealed by my snowy walk, are listed below. It may be that there are individuals out there already doing some of this, and I salute you and thank you. It may be that there are cities successful in creating and maintaining their sidewalks and transit systems so that people can move around well all year round. I encourage your to share your favorite walkable city in a comment on this post. This way we can all learn and then visit inspiring cities. There is nothing better for the health and well-being of people or the vibrancy of the local economy than a walkable city.

First, we need to make sure that we are not literally burying each other’s work. People clearing sidewalks must pay attention to already cleared off cars, and people clearing their cars have to avoid dumping snow onto freshly cleared sidewalks! I experienced this twice over the last few days. It is sad to see someone who had just finished clearing their corner-lot sidewalk (that’s a lot of shoveling, BTW) come back around the corner to see a car pulling away from the curb and their sidewalk all blocked again with snow. It’s not even as if anyone is asking you to do more than you need to. Just do what you need to with some respect. It takes some awareness and a little thought.

And please, do more than you need to if you can. I saw a small crew, today, with half a dozen shovels and two snow throwers walking around their part of town and helping to clear stairs and sidewalks. Lovely. I also talked to a guy who cleared several crosswalks across the center island on his street. He said “Eh, I have a snow thrower so it was easy.” It is, you know. It is easy to be a good neighbor. Do what you can when you can.

How can we get walkable cities, year-round, when cars are deemed more important than people?

Second, cities need to approach plowing with multi-modal success in mind. It may be that Albany just hasn’t gotten to these parts of the plan, yet. And I say that’s not good enough. Until people are at least as important as cars, our cities cannot possibly be considered sustainable.

We need more awareness in our snow management planning:

  • A city team responsible for clearing the bus shelters. It’s not enough to provide a shelter if you cannot access the bus from it. 
  • A group to clear crosswalks. It’s not enough to have signage and cool flashy lights if the way is not clear.
  • Most importantly, a plan not just for plowing for the benefit of cars, but to ensure every corner access to already-cleared sidewalks remains clear. Yes, it is the responsibility of the home or business owner to clear out the corners after the plowing is done, but that approach has not proven workable – the individual owner’s efforts are undermined, which is de-motivating AND have you ever tried shoveling out the plowed snow at the corners of the block? It is heavy, wet, and often frozen solid. It is unreasonable to put this responsibility onto an individual property owner.

Third, car owners really need to do better. Seriously. Leaving a snow cap such as the one pictured may kill someone on the highway later in the day…Fourth, landlords and tenants need to know their responsibilities. Landlords either have to communicate better with tenants (In Albany, tenants are responsible for clearing the sidewalks in front of the rented property) or hire the necessary services to keep the sidewalks clear.

Fifth, which is really first, we each need to clear our own sidewalks, and to the width of the sidewalk. Maybe you cannot do this the first day after a big storm. Understood. But please do it as soon as you can. A single shovel width is not enough. Someone with a cane, or a walker, or a wheelchair will be trapped in their home if the sidewalks are not clear. And more and more of us are dependent on mobility aides to get around. Our future cities (and therefore our present ones) need to support all of our city dwellers. All of us.

All of this comes down to understanding the systems that need to be complete for dependable and year-round accessibility to foot traffic. It is not enough to shovel your sidewalk if the corners on your block are blocked in. It is not enough for the local bank to plow out its drive-through and ignore the sidewalks. It is absolutely not right for the city to bury the efforts of the individuals trying to do right by their neighbors.

It will be enough if we all do our part, and all work together to keep our city walking.

Albany is an interesting city in that it is broken up into neighborhoods. Is there a way to create neighborhood supported services for sidewalk clearing, public-area tree trimming, etc? This would take the responsibility off of the individual property owners and ensure that the system is treated as a whole, not as a bunch of sidewalks that may or not be cleared in a continuous path. Maybe a piece of our property taxes should support this systemic approach.

We should always put our investments into the future we wish to create. I am not saying that we should abandon our car culture. We can continue to provide reasonable support for car use while we provide preferential support for transit, bike, and pedestrian access. These are the modes we want for our future, sustainable cities. These modes will reduce GHG emissions, increase safety, support equity, improve our local economy, and increase individual health.

A sidewalk along the park, on Madison, in Albany

A sidewalk, plowed under, on State St., in Albany

Albany will never be a sustainable city, or worthy of accolades for her efforts to become so, while access for the people of the city remains less important than the parking of and movement of cars. I walked along Washington Park today. Not only were the two normally busiest sidewalks of the city not cleared, but the one along State Street, usually boasting runners, walkers, families, and people walking their dogs, was rendered inaccessible by snow bulldozed off the street to clear the street-side parking spaces. I expect it will be a week or more before this heavy quantity of snow/ice/salt/road-dirt can be moved and the sidewalks usable again.

Winter is the time we need to encourage people to be out and moving when they are able. We will remain healthier. We will get fresh air which is truly necessary, especially in the time of COVID, and we will know our neighbors and our neighborhoods better. I chatted with a postal worker today, got two compliments on my Santa hat, bought a latte at Brewtus, and exchanged holiday greetings with maybe a dozen people. Social connection has been proven a vital component in support of good health and a long life. How can we get this connection without walkable streets, year-round? How can we do this without understanding the connections between sidewalks, crosswalks, and roads. And how can we get walkable cities, year-round, when cars are deemed more important than people?

Think of your neighbor, build your community, and be greener,

Jodi

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