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Its still snowing outside, in the coldest, wettest winter I can remember.  I did come to the hazard, however, moving from the southeast to the northeast in 2005.  Even old neighbors in our quaint (1967) suburban townhouse community say they’ve never seen anything like this.  So there we have it.  Whether this is an example a “Climate Weirding”, a revocation of same, or a periodic climatic event depends on your biases and how close they are to you.  I withhold judgement, as climate is not a thing that happens in a season.

I just looked out my window on this snow day and saw the neighbor haplessly shoveling snow while her kid watched and played in the falling snow.  By the time she’s at the end of the walk, the stoop will likely be covered in a fresh inch of snow.  I’m not touching a shovel until this nonsense is over.  The high today is 22 degrees, so I’m not of a mind to go out twice.

The reason this inspired me to write this is it called to mind something about maintenance.  On Dan Burden’s Facebook page, he’s asking for advice on the state of the art in enabling walkers to be as much of a transportation mode as traffic*.  A favorite topic this wintry weekend is shoveling.  The state of the art in snow shoveling for the sake of walkers is city ordinances requiring people to shovel their walks within a day of a snowfall’s end.  The sidewalk in front of each owner’s house or business is their responsibility, not only for seasonal shoveling, but for heaving, cracking, breakage, and other acts of egregious unlevelness that might cause someone to trip.  The legal maximum deflection in our town is 1/8 inch, or about the width of the “_” on your keyboard.  

Maintenance of sidewalks are the property owner’s responsibility, even though the sidewalk is within the publicly owned right of way.  The city can make a point of this, or not.  Cities can be very pushy about this, and concrete formwork and  pouring for a broken section of sidewalk is not a bill any homeowner wants to get.  My native Atlanta did not make a point of sidewalk maintenance for a very long time, and some of their sidewalks are in worse condition than the Appalachian trail.  Putting responsibility for maintenance on the adjacent landowner implies that the primary beneficiary of a sidewalk is the landowner themselves.  The primary function of a sidewalk in this legal doctrine is to be walked across from building to parking, not to be walked down as a means of walking from one place to another.  Just as the sidewalk is a strip mall is for crossing between storefront and parking lot, the sidewalk in the suburbs and cities (Atlanta, Ann Arbor, Los Angeles, New York, and probably any other city I care to check) is budgeted and planned for crossing between properties and traffic and back.

Contrast this with maintenance for highways.  Who do we charge for the upkeep and plowing of traffic lanes?  Every passing car, off to trips maddeningly local or adventurously distant, cannot be bothered to pay the penny its live load costs in maintenance costs for every mile, every year.  So we’ve agreed for a century that the maintenance of public roads is the public’s business, and we task state highway departments to monitor and repave the hundreds of thousands of lane miles in their charge.  The annual cost to the public to own and operate a lane mile of road is very similar to the amount it costs for a household to won and operate a car: 8-9 thousand dollars.  We spend something like the Marshall Plan** ($100 Billion) on the construction and maintenance of roads every year.  We spend almost as much as health care ($1 trillion) to own and operate the cars on those roads, in traffic.

We see the maintenance of sidewalks as the property owner’s responsibility, because we don’t see walking as transportation for the public good.  We see the maintenance of roads as the public’s responsibility, because we see traffic as the only form of transportation worth using in most of America.  America has much to gain by seeing and enabling both as valid transportation modes.

  * The metric of success is simple.  For every 10 cars you see on the road, do you see 16 or more walkers on the sidewalk?  Do you see 16 bikers in the bike lanes.  If you get past those numbers, then you have a walkable, bikable place.  

**  Thanks to Bob Yaro for the striking comparison