Mitchell Chapman: Pittsfield could really use a SnowBuddy

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PITTSFIELD — As a local pedestrian, my winters face one common, constant foe: Neglected, unloved and unshoveled sidewalks.

Pittsfield is like many cities and small towns its size in the regards that it passes off the responsibility of shoveling its sidewalks to property owners, which leads to a patchwork system in which many sidewalks are safe for walking, but too many inevitably aren't, putting pedestrians at risk, especially the elderly and the disabled. Property owners that don't comply face a first-time warning, then fines of $25 and $50 that can pile up fast over the course of the winter ("Sidewalks a slippery subject in Pittsfield," Eagle, Feb. 2).

For many American cities and towns, this kind of system is the default template for dealing with sidewalk snow removal. Truth be told, pedestrians aren't a huge priority unless you live in a walkable city like Boston or New York City. Tight municipal budgets give preference to clearing roads, while pedestrians are left out in the cold to fend for themselves, often against oncoming traffic when sidewalks are covered in mountains of snow and ice.

The model Pittsfield employs for sidewalk snow removal is lose-lose in many ways for pedestrians and property owners. Pedestrians have to risk their safety, even if they are fit enough to scale what can be treacherous terrain, which they'll encounter even if nine out of 10 of the sidewalks in a particular area are cleared. If you are elderly or disabled, going outside alone can be deadly depending on the conditions.

For property owners, not everyone might have the means to clear the sidewalk attached to their property effectively, especially if they are physically not able to do it because of their age or because of a medical condition. On top of that, people will naturally miss snowfalls when they are out of town. Property owners can easily see themselves buried under fees that further prohibit their ability to hire help clearing walkways they are responsible for, which only further perpetuates their property being in noncompliance with Pittsfield's snowfall policies.

Thankfully, Pittsfield's model of sidewalk snow removal is not the only one, and it might be worth considering other ways of keeping these pedestrian spaces cleared.

PAY TO CLEAR

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The Twin Cities have a model in which owners of unshoveled properties are eventually fined $150, which is spent toward hiring a contractor that removes snow from the sidewalks, which can be a bit pricey, but is superior to Pittsfield's model in which property owners are fined and sidewalks remain unshoveled. And while $150 might seem like a lot to pay someone to clear a sidewalk, it is a flat, predictable rate, the contractors are professionals and sidewalks are guaranteed to be in compliance once the work is done — all of which are not necessarily assured when property owners have to hire help on the local freelance market.

In fact, for those who struggle to clear sidewalk snow, it might be worth looking into creating a voluntary system run by the city that property owners can opt-into, in which they pay a flat, predictable rate, and have their sidewalks cleared by city-approved contractors. This would not only clear walkways without raising taxes, but it might be more cost effective for those who would otherwise be habitual offenders to the sidewalk policy.

Abandoned properties are still a conundrum even in this pay-to-clear model, as with these properties, there is simply no one to hold accountable. But thankfully, there is a better model being developed all the way in Ann Arbor, Mich.

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NEIGHBORS HELPING NEIGHBORS

Ann Arbor is a city more than twice the size of Pittsfield that has a similar municipal policy making sidewalk snow removal the responsibility of property owners, with offenders incurring fees that some community members struggle to keep up with. In response, several neighborhoods in the city banded together to create the nonprofit SnowBuddy, which runs a sidewalk snow clearing service that uses a financial model akin to public radio; its services are free to all members of the areas it serves, and it runs entirely off donations and volunteers. Most of the money raised goes toward insurance and $43,000 commercial Ventrac tractors, key to the operation, that are outfitted with plowing attachments, which are much more efficient at tackling sidewalk snow than traditional shovels and are more mobile than snow blowers.

"What might take a homeowner, say what, 10 or 15 minutes, to clear with a shovel, we can take the Ventrac tractor and it takes us about 10 seconds," SnowBuddy founder Paul Tinkerhess said in an informational video. "So [it's] a much more efficient use of everyone's time."

The neighborhoods SnowBuddy currently services are tight-knit suburban communities very similar to those found in Pittsfield and Dalton, and as such, it is no stretch of the imagination to think that a SnowBuddy-like service could work in the Berkshires. SnowBuddy's community-based approach to sidewalk snow removal guarantees that 100 percent of neighborhood sidewalks are cleared, regardless of the property owner's ability to pay and physical ability to volunteer — even abandoned lots are covered — and it is held together by a keen neighbors-helping-neighbors attitude that is also prominent in the Berkshires.

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It's also relatively cost-effective, as it was able to launch a pilot program off of $18,000 in donations, and when fully operational, its budget swelled to $30,000 to cover the 12 miles of sidewalk that it maintains throughout winter. Not surprisingly, after SnowBuddy took off, the neighborhoods it serviced saw people return to its streets.

"If you clear those paths, people will use them even more," Tinkerhess said.

CREATIVE SOLUTIONS

Sidewalk snow removal has long been a problem in the Berkshires, especially Pittsfield, where stories of pedestrian danger are well-documented, and calls to clear sidewalks are a popular topic for concerned citizens and city officials.

But it is not an issue with no clear solutions, as other northern cities have innovated and made great strides the Berkshires should take note of. Pittsfield is not alone in its struggle to guarantee safe winter walkways, and it is by listening to the creative solutions of other communities that we open the door to creating our own.

Mitchell Chapman is an Eagle page designer/copy editor and freelance writer.


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