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What's This?

It’s a problem in just about every city that gets snow—sidewalks become treacherous unshoveled messes in the winter. In many cities—including Louisville—the responsibility of clearing the sidewalk falls on the property owner or tenant in the building fronting the street. And in Louisville, that responsibility is sometimes upheld and oftentimes neglected. Even today, as more winter weather bears down on the region, countless sidewalks remain unshoveled hazards for pedestrians.

Louisville law says that you have to shovel the sidewalk in front a house you own or rent. Or you have to shovel in front of your business, whether you own the building it’s in or not, or whether the building is set back 400 feet from Broadway or if it comes right up to the sidewalk on Bardstown Road. And you have to clear the sidewalk in a timely manner—in Louisville that means within 24 hours. Here’s Louisville’s ordinance governing sidewalk shoveling:

§ 97.113 SNOW REMOVAL (A) It shall be the duty of all persons and corporations owning or occupying property abutting a public street in Louisville Metro to remove within 24 hours thereafter such snow as may fall on the sidewalks in front of their property. Where the property is unimproved or unoccupied this duty shall devolve on the owner or the agent for the property. Where property is occupied by others than owners thereof, this duty shall devolve on the owner or the tenants and either may be proceeded against for the violation.

If you don’t shovel your sidewalk, you’ll get slapped with a fine ranging from $25 to $100—or more likely you won’t. Louisville doesn’t actively enforce sidewalk shoveling, rather opting to inspect sidewalks and potentially issue fines only when a complaint has been filed. But it appears that even when a complaint has been filed, Metro Louisville has only issued letters of warning, according to a Courier-Journal report on a recent Metro Council hearing.

Take a look at these snow-covered sidewalks around Louisville, the story continues below:

According to the newspaper, Vanessa Burns, director of public works, told the council, “We need to figure out a way to get people to be more responsible.” We’d suggest enforcing the existing ordinance and issuing fines to people who do not follow the law—lots of them. Compare, for instance, what would happen if we issued parking tickets in the same way: There would be rampant parking abuse. It’s partly due to the threat of a parking ticket and its associated fines that keep street parking in check.

And it’s not okay that Louisville pedestrians are treated as second class citizens during winter weather. With all the effort expended to clear streets and highways across town—no small undertaking—people who don’t rely on cars to get around need equal protection—and right now the system is failing.

Ordinances like Louisville’s are common in other cities. According to Bloomberg Business:

Most cities have the authority to levy fines for not shoveling your sidewalk after a snowstorm. In New York, the fines can be $100 or more. Boston charges at least $50 for each day a sidewalk remains covered by snow. Fines in Philadelphia run from $50 to $300, while Washington just enacted a law(PDF) fining residences $25 and businesses $150 for an unshoveled walk.

That's me clearing the sidewalk in front of a townhouse where I once lived in Brooklyn.
That’s me clearing the sidewalk in front of a townhouse where I once lived in Brooklyn.

There seems to be a great deal of confusion about who is actually responsible for clearing sidewalks. For instance, Rebecca Matheny, executive director at the Louisville Downtown Partnership, sent out a letter this morning to downtown businesses reminding them to keep their sidewalks clear:

As in the past, the Louisville Downtown Partnership will have our personnel clearing the crosswalk areas of intersections within the Downtown Management District. The Public Works Department of Metro Government will be responsible for keeping streets clear and passable by plowing excess snow into the parking lanes. Per Metro ordinance, private property owners will be responsible to keep the sidewalks in front of their businesses clear and safe.

Beyond the sidewalks, it’s important to note that if there’s a TARC stop in front of your building, it’s your responsibility to keep that clear as well. Jon Reiter, communications manager at TARC, told Broken Sidewalk in an email, “the responsibility of shoveling and ice removal around [TARC] stops falls to the property owner, similarly to how it operates with sidewalks.” At the Metro Council hearing, Councilman Tom Owen noted the danger of snow and ice piled up at TARC stops—he rides the bus himself. He suggested the council take up the issue in the next budget.

But the need to create a safer experience for pedestrians and transit users is imminent with up to a foot of snow expected to fall in the Louisville area. Mayor Greg Fischer today issued a plea to citizens to do their part, urging people to clear a wide swath of sidewalk so citizens using wheelchairs and walkers can pass. “We also need citizens to help us remove snow from around the nearly 5,000 TARC bus stops,” Fischer said in a statement. “During the last snow, many TARC stops became a hazard because they were icy and frozen.” He added that various Metro agencies, TARC, and inmates from Metro Corrections have formed the “TARC Dig Out Team” to target high-traffic bus stops.

With this snow, we’re calling on Metro Louisville to actively enforce the sidewalk snow removal ordinance in key locations across the city, including Downtown Louisville and top commercial corridors like Bardstown Road or Frankfort Avenue. This is first a matter of basic safety, second a matter of business as it’s important to keep the local economy up and running even in the wake of heavy snowfall, and third a matter of common decency.

The only way to get everyone to shovel his or her sidewalk is to enforce the ordinance that was created for this very purpose. A $25 to $100 fine is the tough-love teaching tool that has become necessary to ensure that sidewalks are actually cleared. And perhaps those fines can be saved to an account that funds the TARC Dig Out Team in future years—or even develop a higher-minded strategy for keeping sidewalks clear.

[Note: Images of snow-covered Louisville sidewalks courtesy Debra Richards Harlan.]
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Branden Klayko

Branden Klayko

Founder and Editor at Broken Sidewalk
Branden founded Broken Sidewalk in 2008 while practicing architecture in Louisville. He continued the site for seven years while living in New York City, returning to Louisville in 2016. Branden is a graduate of the College of Architecture at Washington University in St. Louis, and has covered architecture, design, and urbanism for The Architect's Newspaper, Designers & Books, Inhabitat, and the American Institute of Architects.
Branden Klayko

12 COMMENTS

  1. Thank you! Laws are only as good as their enforcement. I hope Mayor Fischer goes beyond issuing a plea to do our civic duty and starts enforcing the fines.

  2. He might’ve contacted some of our local businesses like Kroger, YUM, banks…… These are among the worst offenders. Parking lots and drive throughs seem to get first class snow removal. The sidewalks leading up to them, nada. And these corps often have a bus stop right out front they could clear. Mid City Mall I’m pointing at you ……….
    But he just road a Walmart elephant to triumphant cheers over the Alps of sustainability with a ginormous parking lot and crap access for pedestrians and handicapped. He just will never get it, the little prince on the hill.

  3. I think the city should add a service to the community and have snow blower crews clear the public right of ways. Even though the sidewalks are technically privately owned, they are really public right of ways of equal importance to a street and clearing them would be much more efficient and in line with the public interest if done so by the city.

  4. There are already too many laws. Clearing snow from the sidewalk is the civil, courteous thing to do. There does not need to be a law and regulation codifying snow removal in pedantic detail. When a city needs to enforce these laws, its more of a tacit acknowledgement that its residents are not generous people. Or, perhaps, residents in Louisville, a car-first city, don’t understand the value of having clear sidewalks. This type of enforcement and micro-managing only breeds resentment. Change comes from within. Promotion and education (without coming across as patronizing) on this topic leads to better results. Lead by example. You would be surprised what a good amount of peer pressure can do. Or turn the other cheek, and shovel your neighbors sidewalk as your clearing your own.

    Business don’t remove the sidewalk because they are saving pennies. They are not clearing it because they do not see any value in clearing the side walk. Mid-city mall is supposedly in the most walkable neighborhood of Louisville, yet probably about 80% of patrons drive there (even if they live only 3-4 blocks away).

    Did you shovel your sidewalk in Brooklyn because you were afraid of the fines, or because everybody else in the street was doing it? Or maybe you were more empathetic, because you were walking everywhere and understood the value of a clear sidewalk. Or maybe it was just fun, being young and out and about and having a few fun snow days with friends and neighbours. I’m willing to bet the threat of fines was the least of it.

    Louisville is not a city for walker and bikers. A big part is because the vast majority of people here do not walk and bike. We need to convince people to walk and bike more, or somehow find a way to empathize with walkers and bikers (something like, “you may not walk, but your sons and daughters do”). Then, they will clear their sidewalks. What is counter productive is fines. Tough-love is fine for children. Renters, home owners, and business operators are not children.

  5. You’ve made some good points, Thomas, but I still believe we should enforce the existing laws on the books – no need to create a new one here. While it’s certainly an ideal that everyone will do his or her part in clearing the sidewalk, peer pressure or not, it’s simply not going to happen on its own.

    In my case, I shovel snow for multiple reasons. Partly I enjoy it, knowing that people walk and need clear passage. In that neighborhood where the photo was taken, the entire neighborhood comes out on snow days to shovel together and neighbors help the elderly people who can’t do it on their own. It’s a really nice community bonding experience. There are also high school kids that roam around shoveling for a few bucks. Fines do play a small role in it, as there are certainly times I would rather just stay inside and be warm, but the threat of a fine helps with that final push.

    This community approach, though, works best in the neighborhood setting like this. As I suggested in the article, I believe the city should focus its enforcement efforts on key commercial corridors that see the most pedestrian traffic—Bardstown Road, Baxter Ave, Frankfort Avenue, Downtown, Nulu, West Broadway, Key portions of Russell, Shively, UofL area, etc. If Louisville can patrol so vigilantly for parking violations, there’s no reason such a program wouldn’t work for snow violations, either.

    The other issue at play here is liability. Matheny said somewhere that her organization doesn’t shovel downtown sidewalks because of liability issues—if they shovel someone else’s sidewalk they in turn become liable if someone slips and falls on that sidewalk. If that liability issue could be changed to allow Business Improvement Districts or Neighborhood Associations to handle sidewalk snow, that would open up many other potentially better possibilities for snow removal. These sidewalks are generally not privately owned—they are the public right of way. But, of course, BIDs won’t exist everywhere, which is why enforcement of current laws is still my preferred alternative. Enforcing a law that’s been on the books for a long time isn’t treating people like children, it’s requesting that they fulfil their civic duty to keep people safe.

  6. If places like mid city can pay to ensure their parking lot is clean, they can pay to ensure the walking shopping TARCing public can leave the building. Ditto Krogers. I helped several older folks hold on to me as we slid to the icy encrusted crosswalk in front of their property to attempt crossing the street to the bus stop . I helped several folks in wheelchairs as well, including one fellow who couldn’t get to his drugstore for his refill. Even the school across the street with three frontages cannot be bothered to do diddly . SnowStat or ClearLouisville……. Photo Op!

  7. As a pedestrian in an urban neighborhood, I am here to tell you that is WAY past time for Metro to enforce this ordinance. However, the way Metro wants to go about doing this, as announced last week, is to require pedestrians to notify MetroCall of specific addresses, then “someone” from Metro (?LMPD, ?PARC, ?Public Works) will inspect the sidewalk at said address to determine whether or not to issue a “warning” to the owner of the business. So, don’t expect much to happen.

  8. You know how things really happen? The mayor calls for fines and calls attention to the problem. People online start whining – excusing themselves and blaming others – getting snarky, self-congratulatory, accusatory, lawyeristic, etc, etc. The mayor gives an award to a little kid who shames the whiners by just… well, shoveling his and 6 neighbors’ sidewalks. People pick up on the vibe, go ahead and shovel. Neighbors see the example, get the idea, and because of shame or responsibility or whatever, shovel too. Last snow I shoveled and the neighbors on either side did. That’s all. This time, most of the block is done. People like Jesuis (I use my real name), who live with a hair up their wazoo, don’t really understand the way humans work. It’s fascinating and complicated. Living throwing blame and not just acting and looking inward – that can make things happen.

  9. How can you fine a home owner for not shoveling a sidewalk when the city does not provide snow removal on your street. I’m still having to pay taxes on recycle pick up and the city does not pick up on snow days. I don’t get credit for that do I?

  10. I’ll be blunt: it’s bonkers to ask individuals to do this. It dates from the 19th century, I think. We used to be expected to shovel the street in front of our house too. But nowadays, this is the sort of thing we pay taxes for — the city should have a small fleet of sidewalk plows and should plow the sidewalks.

  11. I’m a volunteer board member with the Clifton Community Council and believe me, I’m already gearing up for winter 2016. We publish a quarterly newsletter and I reserved space for the “clean the sidewalks’ story for the Winter issue today. I grew up in the northeast where we shoveled our sidewalks because we knew we could be sued. I don’t care if it’s carrot or stick in anyone else’s opinion, one slip and fall on a dangerous sidewalk in front of a business or a privately owned home is a lawsuit in the making. I’m appalled that people in Louisville don’t know what the code reads and/or foolishly wish that Metro has the funds to do the work they’re responsible for under the law. The law must be enforced [or changed] and I applaud BrokenSidewalks for making this a story in March. As a senior pedestrian without a car in Clifton, I intend to do everything humanly possible to engage my neighbors in a ‘safety challenge’ this winter. Not only does Clifton have the largest blind population in the United States, we are becoming a neighborhood for younger people who bike and walk because they want to a) lower their carbon footprint and b) put the money they’d pay for a car into their mortgage. This is the future that’s already here. Louisville needs to get on board.

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