The Green Room: Pedestrian And Bicycle Access In Winter

Feb 27, 2015

To decrease its carbon footprint, the Climate Action Plan of Ann Arbor calls for increasing walking, biking and public transit.  But heavy precipitation events have increased 37% in the Midwest in the last century, and keeping pathways clear can be a challenge.  In this installment of WEMU’s “The Green Room,” we explore local attempts to make sustainable travel viable, year-round.


Snow Shoveling

Barbara Lucas:  Many communities have ordinances spelling out property-owners’ responsibility for keeping their sidewalks free of ice and snow.  But things get fuzzy when it comes to bus stops, sidewalk corners, and ramps at crosswalks.  It may come as a surprise to many that in Ann Arbor, if any of that is connected to your sidewalk, legally, it’s yours to clear. 

Ponvert:  I don’t think that shop owners are very good about clearing sidewalks. I don't know where their responsibility ends and the city begins, actually.

Barbara Lucas:  That’s Ann Arbor elder Phyllis Ponvert, for whom walking on snow and ice is downright dangerous.  The city’s Pedestrian Safety and Access Task Force wants a stronger, less ambiguous sidewalk snow-clearing ordinance.  Linda Diane Feldt is chair of the Task Force.

Feldt:  I think one of the main opposition components to being more on top of enforcement is they’re disabled or they are elderly or for some reason they can’t do it themselves.

Barbara Lucas:  At a recent meeting, Task Force member Scott Campbell noted the challenges.

Campbell:  It takes speed and it usually means that you have to plan ahead of time because if it snows a foot it’s going to be hard to scramble to find someone.

Barbara Lucas:  An extra-ordinary example of planning ahead is garnering national attention. It’s called “Snowbuddy,” an all-volunteer sidewalk snow clearing service in Ann Arbor’s Waterhill neighborhood. Jeff Kahan is a City Planner in Ann Arbor.

Kahan:  I am thoroughly enjoying SnowBuddy in Waterhill. Last year was pain and misery walking to work—this year it's vastly different.

SnowBuddy engine approaches

BL:  Paul Tinkerhess is the creator of Snowbuddy. I catch up with him as he pilots a shiny new mini-tractor with a roller brush, making short work of the sidewalk snow on Sunset Street.

Tinkerhess:  We feel like we are bringing a level of respect to the people who choose to travel without a car, and also people who use wheelchairs, who are basically housebound through the winter.

Barbara Lucas:  Tinkerhess says Snowbuddy is also helping facilitiate mass transit, by allowing people to more safely walk to the bus stop. He says while the program has been a great success thus far…

Tinkerhess:  We won't feel like our job is really done until the city takes on this responsibility! Because, I have a job downtown that I should probably be at right now. They have the equipment, they have the know-how.  This is a transportation corridor exactly like the road is, when it is maintained as a transportation corridor.

Barbara Lucas:  He tells me about Grosse Pointe and Rochester New York, where the city government clears all sidewalks after a major snow, regardless of who owns them.

Tinkerhess: I do believe, after last winter,  if you put this to a vote a majority people would be willing to be taxed an extra $30, $40, I’d say they’d go for $50, to take care of the problem of ice on the sidewalk.

Barbara Lucas:  He says so far, the city doesn’t appear eager to take him up on his offer.

Tinkerhess:  Ok, let's fire this thing up! [He turns the motor back on.]

Barbara Lucas:  Walkers and wheelchair users aren’t the only ones who rely on clear sidewalks. Many bicyclists don’t feel comfortable riding with the traffic on busy roads, especially in winter.  Jonathan Levine takes the sidewalk along Plymouth Road to his job as a University of Michigan urban planning professor.

Levine: It's usually very patchy, so I ride for a while and then I come to a business that hasn't cleared of snow and I have to get off stop my bike, and in the worst case I have to stop and carry my bike.  

Barbara Lucas:  He tells me about Ann Arbor’s “A2 Fixit” program, where residents may report sidewalk snow and ice hazards. That alerts the city to move on enforcing the ordinance. Dr. Levine says the city is prompt about responding, but….

Levine:  That's no way to run a transportation system!  Walking is transportation, biking is transportation.  Public transit is transportation, and transit depends on pedestrianism.

Barbara Lucas:  Dr. Levine would like to see more businesses and homeowners pooling resources to contract with snow removal services.   And he suggests the city could clear sidewalks along major thoroughfares, as is the policy in Cambridge Massachusetts.

Levine: Almost 20% of our residents walk or cycle to work. So we have a responsibility to our 20% of our people who choose to do that. And of those who don’t do it in the winter, some them would do it, if it was safe and accessible and amenable.

Barbara Lucas:  Dr. Levine feels snow need not be an impediment to winter biking.  He says worldwide, the cities with the highest rates of cycling are most often in northern climates. 

Levine: The great cycling cities of Europe, the great cycling countries, it’s the northern countries!  It’s Denmark, it’s the Netherlands, it’s Belgium.

Barbara Lucas:  In the U.S. you need look no further than Boulder Colorado. It gets almost five times as much snow as Ann Arbor, yet has double the rate of bicycle commuters, and it’s bike share program runs year-round. 

Sound of winter road traffic.

Barbara Lucas:.  Sixty-three year-old Dale Petty is another year-round bicycle commuter who, like Dr. Levine, avoids riding in busy road traffic.  He takes the Border-to-Border trail to his teaching job at Washtenaw Community College.

Petty:  The biggest problem in the winter is it’s just not consistent. Gallup Park was beautiful this morning, and then I got up the hill from Gallup Park and the county doesn’t clear the bridge, the Dixboro Bridge, and so you are forced to go in the street.  There was someone walking in the street as well.  The side of the road isn’t getting cleared—that’s where they pile the snow.  So people are walking and biking right in the lane.

Barbara Lucas: According to Washtenaw County Road Commission director Roy Townshend, although the county does own the bridge, it doesn’t have the budget, staff, or equipment to do paths outside the roadway.  But this could change with the vote on May 5th to increase the sales tax and generate funding for roads. 

Traffic noise.

Barbara Lucas:  While Levine and Petty try and avoid it, there are some brave folks who do ride with traffic in winter. That would include Ian Ogden.

Ogden:  The number of winter commuters seems to be increasing even though the winter was so terrible last winter…

Sounds of mechanical work.

Barbara Lucas:  Odgen is volunteering at a winter bicycle maintenance workshop sponsored by the non-profit organization “Common Cycle.” He says he’s comfortable biking in the city core in winter, because of the increasing numbers of cyclists.

Odgen:  That’s one reason drivers are especially careful in that area, because there are already cyclists on the road.

More sounds of fixing bike.

Barbara Lucas:  Patricia Chen is among the new winter bicyclists. 

Chen:  Should I grease it in winter?  Odgen:  It’s generally a good idea….

Barbara Lucas:  Originally from Houston Texas, Chen is taking to Ann Arbor’s snowy streets surprisingly well. 

Chen:  It's been a good for a way for me to just lean in, lean into the winter! And studded tires, I don't know, I feel like that's my golden key.

Barbara Lucas:  Odgen doesn’t use studded tires, but like Chen, has bike lights and warm clothes.  He considers cycling…

Odgen: …a viable way to get around in the winter if you dress right. Any temperature is comfortable if you dress right! I'm trying to convince my mother of that.

Barbara Lucas:  Asked what would most help winter cycling, Ogden says…

Odgen:  The biggest thing is just to make it more and more common so maybe then we can have separated bike lanes and bicycle-centered traffic design.

Barbara Lucas:  When it comes to walking and biking in winter, could it be that political will and strength of numbers determine more than depth of snow?  According to Dr. Levine…

Levine:  It's safety, it's not the climate!

Snow removal machine passing by.

Winter Sidewalk Snow Removal Requirements in Washtenaw County--compiled by the Washtenaw Biking and Walking Coalition 

Ann Arbor's Pedestrian Safety and Access Task Force  SnowBuddy   Common Cycle Winter Repair Workshops