Sunday, 10 January 2010

Snow Clearing, Obama and People Power

Not wishing to be the only blogger in the village not jumping on the gritting bandwagon – although worried that, given the icy conditions, I might slip and hurt myself in the process of leaping on board - in which case, according to some, my difficulties will have just begun as I try to figure out who to sue - I have decided to join Chris Hutt, BristolKRS, Bristol Blogger and even Charlie Bolton as well as the local Twitter community in commenting about Bristol’s preparation for, and attitude to, snow and/or ice.

We are in good company with even President Obama complaining about local schools closing due to the weather;

"As my children pointed out, in Chicago school is never canceled," …..He said that in their old hometown, "you'd go outside for recess in weather like this. You wouldn't even stay indoors."

(OK, he might have been talking about Washington DC not Bristol but give me some leeway here).

All joking aside, the issue seems to be boiling down to who is responsible for the pavement being cleared of snow and/or ice?

Staying with the North American angle, my wife used to live in a semi-rural community in Connecticut. A key item kept in the garage was a snow plough ready to be attached to the front of a 4WD Pickup truck to clear a route to the nearest cleared highway. There were no concerns about pedestrian access because nobody walked anywhere. In the nearby township where pedestrian access was required, local ordinances put the responsibility for the clearing of sidewalks firmly in the hands of individual property owners (both commercial and domestic). Once snow had reached 2 inches or had begun to freeze over, you were responsible for clearing the sidewalk adjacent to your property within 24 hours. There was even a local “rat on your neighbour” phone number you could call if somebody didn’t do their part of the sidewalk. Penalties for failing to do your bit could be a hefty fine plus being charged for the cost of the local authority clearing it for you (via a private company – who could also be booked directly by businesses and residents).

My own experience of the American attitude to snow on the pavement is due to the dominance of Microsoft in my line of work which meant that for quite some time myself and several of my European colleagues spent so much time in the Seattle area that it became more cost-effective to lease a property in the city rather than pay hotel bills. As a result I became familiar with the operations of Seattle’s Department of Transport (SDOT). SDOT was very keen on communicating information (they now have a blog and also use twitter and facebook) about Winter Storms. They publish a downloadable map showing what roads would be treated and the level of treatment for those roads – all lanes cleared from kerb to kerb, one lane each way, or sanding on hills to aid tyre grip. As in Connecticut, individual property owners are responsible for clearing sidewalks including providing access to bus stops next to their part of the sidewalk and also ensuring that drains were kept clear.

In Seattle, this concept of individual citizens and businesses being at least partially responsible for their bit of the sidewalk has moved on to the idea of having a greater say in how it is used - for example for adjacent parking. In Seattle, if you have a driveway, you can pop down to SDOT and pick up a pot of “Official Traffic Authority” yellow paint with which you can paint the kerbside for 5 feet either side of your driveway to prevent cars parking there.

But that is only a small example of individual empowerment – you can also download “The Parking Tool” which is part of a much broader set of guidelines allowing communities to guide decision making on parking provision within their neighbourhoods. As long as a majority of residents and businesses in the neighbourhood can agree on a neighbourhood plan it can then be put forward to SDOT for implementation.

The “Parking Tool” is, in turn, just one small element of Seattle’s neighbourhood approach whereby funding from Seattle’s budget is matched by neighbourhood matching funding (which can be in the form of volunteer hours or donated materials not just cash) via four funds to implement initiatives determined by the local community. In the 20 years since its inception, the scheme has seen $45m transferred from the city to local districts with another $68m generated by the community themselves. 3,800 projects have been involved engaging some 80,000 volunteers donating 560,000 hours.

Back home, the Bristol Liberal Democrat cabinet have started out on a project for deferring funding and the guidance of local decision-making to Neighbourhood Partnerships – so far, it is small steps along an uncertain path. If it is successful, perhaps next winter we might not be worrying about who is responsible for clearing the pavements of snow because we will be the ones with the power to make decisions about what is allowed to happen upon our own local streets, and with power comes responsibility.

Or as Obama might have said "Can we fix it? Yes we can" (Or was that Bob the Builder?)


  1. The principle of householders clearing their own pathways is a good one and I think many of us already try to do this.

    But what happens to those (the elderly, disabled etc) who cannot do this?

  2. Fascinating contribution.

    Lots of ideas, with signs that we may be on the right track with neighbourhood partnerships, local empowerment, publishing maps of our gritting priorities and encouraging people to think of their neighbours.

    On the issue of "yellow paint" for driveways, we have agreed that residenst will, where it is safe, be given such a choice as part of the Residents Parking Scheme.

    I see that yesterday's Consumer Guardian (hat tip The BB) confirmed that local people carefully clearing paths and pavements could be liable was definitely "urban myth".

    The council however does appear to have a duty to ensure, "as far as is reasonably practicable", that safe passage along a highway is not endangered by snow and ice. (hat tip HarryT)

    Thanks all for the continuing information and suggestions.


  3. I can't speak for other parts of Seattle, but in the part where we lived even those homes which were unable to clear their own homes had their sidewalks cleared by other members of the community.

    Essentially there were enough people involved that were willing to do that "little bit extra" for the benefit of neighbours who could not clear the snow themselves.

    For example, our property was often unoccupied during the Winter months but we never not a notice warning us for not clearing our snow so presumably our neighbours just got on with it.

    In return, we made a point of donating towards one of the neighbourhood projects.