Sidewalk Snarls: Knoxville Can Keep its Streets Clean on Snowy Days—Why Not its Sidewalks?

By all accounts, winter is upon us. As such, it should come as no surprise that we’re going to have snow from time to time. Over the past month, the city seems to have done a pretty good job of looking after our streets downtown, and making sure they are treated and cleared for traffic as soon as one flake falls atop another. And it’s not just the municipality. During our last visit by the now infamous Polar Vortex, I even witnessed some private property owners getting in on the action by clearing snow from parking lots. But on both counts, regard for some traffic seemed to be getting overlooked.

I recognize that in these parts, snow is an event. In some places I’ve lived, it was simply a matter of fact. But in Knoxville, despite the predictability that we’re going to see at least some snow from time to time, we don’t really get enough to form any familiarity with it. We know that we’ve got to keep the streets cleared. But that’s largely where the protocol starts and ends for us. For most of the city, that’s all people care about. But most of the city doesn’t have the sidewalk traffic that downtown does.

In places where snow is a more regular feature of winter, dealing with it encompasses more than just making sure vehicles aren’t impeded. The drill is pretty much the same everywhere. Unlike the streets, the responsibility for keeping the sidewalks clear falls on the businesses or residents of the section that is adjacent to their premises. And the same convention exists in Knoxville. But stroll around the city when it’s blanketed in white, and it becomes apparent that not everyone gets this obligation.

Take a walk up Gay Street after a snow, and you’ll find cleared patches of sidewalk that have been swept, shoveled, and salted. Take a few more steps and walking up Gay Street may take on a little more literal sense, as you’ll need to step onto the street itself if you want to avoid trudging through ice and snow. A few weeks ago, I saw more than one pedestrian take to the pavement because, unlike the adjacent sidewalk, it was relatively clear. It becomes obvious pretty quickly which building occupants are taking responsibility for their frontage, and which aren’t.

So for those of you who haven’t quite grasp the concept, I’m going to perform yet another of my tireless public services and acquaint you with the drill. Let’s all open up our Code of City Ordinances and turn to Section 28-8 where you can follow along with me: “It shall be the duty of every person occupying any dwelling house or other house upon any street of the city, or owner thereof if the house is unoccupied, to remove or cause to be removed from the sidewalks in front of or upon the sides of his premises all ice, snow or mud, grass, weeds and other foreign substances which may accumulate thereon, and it shall be the duty of every police officer to enforce this section.”

As for my downtown neighbors, both residential and commercial, I’m not going to start naming names and calling out the slackers. You know who you are. But then what about those sections of sidewalk that front the city’s own property? After all, the City of Knoxville owns a number of parking garages and lots that are surrounded by sidewalks downtown. During my last snowy walk, I found that nothing had been done along these sections to address pedestrian safety in what is ostensibly one of the city’s most pedestrian-oriented districts. If the city isn’t going to follow its own rules, then we probably shouldn’t expect the private sector to fret over their responsibilities either.

Consider that following a snow that closes schools, there are still thousands of residents downtown who remain viable business patrons who usually walk to stores, restaurants, and other local amenities. Yet a few weeks ago, several of those businesses curtailed their hours due to, among other things, a lack of business. A few of those rely almost exclusively on foot traffic. And if the sidewalks had been clear, they might have benefitted from the increase in number downtowners who found themselves unexpectedly at home due to a snow day and fighting cabin fever.

In the suburban world, people expect to park in front of their destination, and maybe sidewalks aren’t such a big deal there. But downtown, where it’s not unusual to see more pedestrians on the sidewalk than drivers in cars along a block, there needs to be more attention given to seeing that foot traffic is accommodated at least as well as vehicular. I don’t think there’s any worry about wearing out a snow shovel around here. But that doesn’t mean folks shouldn’t keep one around and use it when called for.

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