CEDAR RAPIDS — Last week, Donna Prat had to trudge through the streets to get to the emergency room because the sidewalks were so covered in snow and ice she couldn’t use them.
“When I got home, I still couldn’t get on the sidewalk because the snow was so compact and packed so high,” said Pratt, who lives on Fifth Avenue SE. “You have to be a billy goat to get around. I think people are just petered out from shoveling.”
Prat, who is in her 60s, doesn’t have a car and lives close enough to the ER that walking made sense. Still, the condition of the sidewalks there and elsewhere around the city has been frustrating. Prat is concerned about the dangers faced by people with disabilities or the elderly trying to get to their bus stop, work or somewhere else.
Corridor property owners have struggled to keep sidewalks and curb cuts clear under pressure from relentless storms this winter, posing potentially dangerous obstacles for people who depend on clear pedestrian paths to travel.
The Cedar Rapids Police Department recently posted a picture on Facebook of an officer pushing a person in a wheelchair through a snowy street near a UnityPoint dialysis clinic. The city of Iowa City took to social media to share a video of a man in a motorized wheelchair getting stuck on an uncleared sidewalk, wheels spinning in the snow and ice.
In an article last week, Strong Towns, a national progressive group promoting financially strong and resilient cities with an interest in alternative modes of transportation, pointed out that many communities that promote being pedestrian-friendly often have difficulty “walking the walk” once winter rolls around. The article calls attention to the “double standard” of laws and resources devoted to maintaining clear streets compared to clearing walkways for pedestrians.
Cedar Rapids has had 164 sidewalk complaints this winter, up from 136 last winter. Most of the time, the property owner complies upon receiving a letter from the city, according to city officials.
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April Wing, who oversees the city’s Americans with Disabilities Act compliance efforts, urged property owners to clear their sidewalks and curb ramps as quickly as possible.
“Overall, it’s been a struggle to keep anything free of snow,” she said. “Especially people with walkers and wheelchairs, we want to be sure they are able to get to the store, to the bus stop and just get around. ... We are asking everybody to do the best they can with the elements ... to keep things as clear as possible in between snowfalls.”
Iowa State code 364.12 states, “The abutting property owner is responsible for the removal of the natural accumulations of snow and ice from the sidewalks within a reasonable amount of time and may be liable for damages caused by the failure” to do so.
Cedar Rapids city code slightly differs, leaving out the term “natural accumulations.” It requires snow be cleared within 48 hours of the end of a storm and says snow left behind by plows must also be cleared by property owners.
“Our local ordinance states that property owners are responsible for the sidewalk ramps at curbs — similar to needing to clear their driveway out when a plow comes through,” said Emily Breen, a spokeswoman for the city’s public works department. “The curb ramps are especially important to maintain during the winter, as they are so critical for transportation for those in wheelchairs. We ask property owners and businesses to clear their sidewalks and sidewalk curb ramps to help ensure the community remains walkable during the winter.”
The word “natural” in state code is an important one because it means property owners are technically not required to clear snow banks created by plows, even if they are blocking walkways or curb cuts, said Stan Laverman, Iowa City senior housing inspector.
“We rely on people’s good will,” he said. “It’s not an enforcement mechanism.”
In Iowa City, property owners must clear sidewalks within 24 hours after the end of snowfall of 1 inch or more.
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Iowa City has received 927 complaints so far this year and has issued 197 orders for people to clear their sidewalks, Laverman said. Pedestrians have an expectation sidewalks are clear so they can get to work or elsewhere, he said. Homeowners often respond that it is difficult to remove snow and ice, especially if you get behind and a layer of ice forms, he said.
“It’s hard to get the ice layer up when people are walking on top of it,” Laverman said. “People did get behind, and we ran low on ice melt. It’s been difficult.”
If snow is not cleared from edge to edge of the sidewalk within 24 hours of a storm, Iowa City can begin the violation process, which could culminate in a $100 administrative fee and the city hiring a third-party contractor to clear the snow, he said. Five property owners have received $250 citations for accumulating three or more snow removal violations, he said.
But crews are short staffed and have also gotten behind, he said.
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