I had a short exchange with @CityofSgf on Twitter yesterday regarding the condition of sidewalks in Springfield — something I’ve covered in two recent posts (here and here). The city has been working hard to clear he roads. I think they’ve done an excellent job given the magnitude of he storm.
@CityofSgf acknowledged that the sidewalk situation is a problem. Property owners are supposed to clear them. And you see how well that works. So I was asked: What would you suggest?
Let’s start with culture: The vehicles have been taken care of. Now what about people?
Is that an unfair question? People drive vehicles. Isn’t ensuring the smooth and safe operation of vehicles on streets the same as taking care of people?
No, but we act as if it is because of our car-centric culture. In other words, it is common sense that streets should get highest priority because most people drive cars. Vehicles are not just the backbone of our transportation system in Springfield, they are in fact the entire system given the numbers of drivers versus transit riders, bicyclists, and pedestrians.
Those clear streets, however, didn’t help the old woman I saw yesterday waiting for the 12 S. National bus on Elm. She was perched precariously on a mound of snow between a cleared street and an icy sidewalk. Doesn’t she count?
While the majority was able to negotiate the streets fairly quickly by car — even during the storm — a minority is still having a difficult time traveling in Springfield because the sidewalks are mostly blocked. These are, for the most part, our most vulnerable citizens.
Is it not partly the measure of the moral fiber of a society in how it takes care of its most vulnerable citizens?
Let’s acknowledge reality: The city doesn’t have the money or the manpower to clear more than 570 miles of sidewalks within the city limits. This is why Springfield has an ordinace urging property owners to keep sidewalks clear. The city also doesn’t have the money or the manpower to enforce this ordinance.
As I see it there are two situations here — one of which can be corrected now and the other will require a change of culture (actually both require a change of culture). Let’s take the “easy” one first. Take another look at these photographs I published recently:
The first two are most important. Notice that in order to create those snow piles at the sidewalk intersections the plow had to specifically face the sidewalk and push the snow into that position. The impressions of the plows are easy to see/read.
In both cases shown, and given the position of the plow, the snow could have been pushed a bit farther down the side of the street to leave the sidewalk intersection open. Yes, it is possible that doing so might have blocked a parked car or a parking space. But it seems to me a far more moral choice to allow a chance at using the sidewalk. Further, these piles might kill any personal incentive a property owner might have in clearing the walk. What’s the point of shoveling 40 feet of sidewalk that’s blocked at both ends?
Now let’s examine the more difficult problem: changing the culture, i.e. encouraging all of us to think about people first.
There was a scene in the television show Mad Men in which the Draper family is on a picnic in a park. As they leave they throw their trash on the ground — a shocking display of littering. Only it wasn’t shocking — back in the early 60s. Littering was just what people did.
And, yes, some people still litter today — but nothing like 50 years ago. What changed? The culture. How did it change? A few people cared enough to try to change it.
Who with power and prestige in the City of Springfield will step forward and try to change the culture? Specifically: Who will begin the hard work of making failure to shovel a sidewalk the moral equivalent of littering?
(Note: Some people will not be able to shovel. So I assume a change in culture would also bring with it resources to help our friends and neighbors.)
Changing the culture is the only way I can see that the sidewalks will ever be cleared. And no one is going to care until someone powerful cares first. I’d use the anti-littering campaign as a model. There are college students in this town awaiting the opportunity to make PSAs, write press releases, make photographs, and do as a public service all the things necessary to begin changing the culture.
So, @CityofSgf, that’s what I want. An effort by someone that says that all of Springfield’s citizens deserve the chance to move around this city even when the weather is bad.