The monster snowstorm that pummeled the Denver metro area just days before Thanksgiving strained Littleton’s snowplowing capacity, but advocates say poorly shoveled sidewalks can pose a threat to vulnerable people long after the roads are cleared.
People with mobility issues can find themselves effectively trapped by iced-over walkways, said Julie Reiskin, the executive director of the Colorado Cross-Disability Coalition.
“Shoveling sidewalks means everything” for people with disabilities, said Reiskin, who uses a wheelchair. “A lot of us don’t drive. We use buses, and in many cases after this last storm we couldn’t make it down the block, much less to a bus stop.”
Businesses and absentee landlords seem to be some of the worst offenders, Reiskin said.
“We notice businesses that keep them clear, and we patronize them year-round,” she said.
Reiskin said even some well-meaning shovelers simply scoop out a path as wide as their shovel blade, which doesn’t accommodate wheelchairs or people with walkers.
Shoveling the vast majority of sidewalks in town is the responsibility of adjacent property owners, said David Flaig, Littleton’s landscape manager.
“The law says you’ve got 24 hours after the snowflakes stop falling to get your walk shoveled, and that means all the way to the corner,” Flaig said.
The city is responsible for shoveling about five miles of city-owned sidewalks, many on bridges or around city buildings, Flaig said, but citizens are responsible for many dozens more.
“If you live on a corner, that includes the curb cuts,” Flaig said.
The Thanksgiving storm was especially gnarly because the following days didn’t warm up enough to melt the snow and ice, Flaig said, and while city crews could put down more ice, there are environmental concerns at work.
“We could salt everything like crazy, and it would work, but at the end the South Platte would be about as salty as the South Pacific,” Flaig said.
Snowplows may fling snow and ice right back up on curb cuts, Flaig said, but it’s still residents’ responsibility to make sure they stay clear.
Poorly shoveled sidewalks can spell trouble for blind people, said Dan Burke, the spokesman for Littleton’s Colorado Center for the Blind.
“We teach independence, and that means we’ve got to be out in all kinds of weather,” Burke said. “You can’t be a fair-weather employee. But when we’re out and the sidewalks are jammed, it pushes us into the street, which just isn’t safe. Also, we use curb cuts to know where crosswalks are, and if we can’t find them, it’s easy to end up headed off at a bad angle.”
Poorly shoveled sidewalks are bad news for the elderly, said Diane McClymonds, the executive director of TLC Meals on Wheels, which brings food to homebound seniors.
“It can mean the difference between being able to get to the doctor or not,” McClymonds said. “And in a big storm like this last one, many of our clients aren’t able to shovel that much snow.”
Seniors who can’t shovel their walks can sign up for help from the Snow Squad, a city-run volunteer group, said Sharon Jorgensen, who runs the Aging Well Resource Center.
The program always needs volunteers, Jorgensen said. Right now, she’s got 11 volunteer shovelers on the list, but last year she wound up with more than 80 seniors who needed shoveling help.
“It means everything to the folks on our waiting list,” Jorgensen said. “If you can help, get in touch. Your neighbors need you.”
Whether city code enforcement issued any tickets for unshoveled sidewalks after the Thanksgiving storm wasn’t immediately available, said Jennifer Henninger, the city’s community development director, but residents who encounter unshoveled sidewalks can report them to the city through the “SeeClickFix” phone app.
Reiskin, the advocate for people with disabilities, said reporting unshoveled sidewalks doesn’t help much in the moment.
“We’d really like to see cities doing their own enforcement, rather than putting the onus on people out on the street,” Reiskin said. “Reporting violators doesn’t help someone who’s stranded. We just really need people to take this seriously.”