Chicago organizations push for city to clear dangerous icy sidewalks

A bus stop along Milwaukee Avenue is covered in black ice this January after a weekend of snowfall. (Raphael Hipos/MEDILL)

By Raphael Hipos
Medill Reports

Many residents of Chicago are walking in the streets or taking a fall due to ice-clogged sidewalks as a result of the recent snowfall and freezing temperatures.

Ellen Credille, 71, said the snowfall on Jan. 9 rendered the sidewalks in her neighborhood difficult to traverse. She added that her arm still hurt due to a fall she suffered last winter.

“It was really scary,” said Credille, who lives in Rogers Park. “I had snowshoes on, they didn’t help me at all. As I got off my front door, our walkway didn’t have a lot of snow on it, but it had really smooth ice. And I was slipping.”

Social media is abuzz with people telling stories of slipping due to black ice, and many residents have come to expect falls during this time of year.

“I traditionally fall at least once a winter. And that’s something in the past that I sort of just accepted as part of life,” said Megan Kirby, who lives in Edgewater. Kirby was recovering from a broken ankle and said she didn’t leave her apartment for two days due to how treacherous the sidewalks were earlier this month.

In response to the danger faced by people such as Kirby, a local organization has mounted a campaign to get the city to start clearing sidewalks.

Better Streets Chicago is a grassroots organization founded in 2020 that seeks to improve the city’s streets for people who walk, bike and use public transit.

A sidewalk along Milwaukee Avenue covered in ice in January. (Raphael Hipos/Medill)

Through its #PlowTheSidewalks campaign, which began last year, the group said it hopes to raise awareness about the perils of uncleared sidewalks. It also hopes to make their clearing a municipal service.

“This is an exciting project for us, because this is something that is so tangible for people during the winter in Chicago, and it’s a problem every year,” said Kyle Lucas, one of Better Streets Chicago’s co-founders.

Formerly known as #WalkableWinters, the campaign was renamed during a soft relaunch earlier this month. According to the campaign organizers, the new name was chosen to make it more inclusive.

Under the city’s current system, it regularly clears snow from roads. However, the clearing of sidewalks falls to the responsibility of adjacent private property owners, even though the sidewalks are public property. Individuals who don’t comply can be fined by the city, and citizens can report uncleared sidewalks by calling 311.

Despite this, many individuals have said their reports to 311 have gone unaddressed.

“It’s really been hit or miss,” said Loren Johnson, 33. “311, it just feels like it goes into a black box and then there’s no way to track it or really follow up on it.”

“There’s just a huge disparity in the way that the city handles clearing snow for drivers versus how it clears snow for everyone else,” Lucas said. He added that uncleared sidewalks were particularly dangerous for elderly individuals as well as people living with disabilities.

It’s this particular danger to disabled people that led to a partnership being formed with Access Living in December. Access Living is a Chicago-based service organization that advocates for people living with disabilities.

Bridget Hayman, communications director for Access Living, said winter makes it particularly challenging to navigate the city. Hayman, who uses a wheelchair, said that on the occasions the CTA clears the snow from a bus stop, ice and snow on the sidewalks leading to it still renders it inaccessible.

“I’ve had to rely on the kindness of strangers to get me out of those situations when I’ve quite literally gotten stuck on a sidewalk,” Hayman said.

The campaign is meeting with elected officials and community organizations to get them to sign on to the campaign.

Joseph Schwieterman of the Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Development said it would be logistically complex and expensive for the city to try to clear icy sidewalks.

In response, Laura Saltzman of Access Living said there will be a cost to this program, but the fact that obstructed sidewalks are a main accessibility issue should make it a priority for the city.

Saltzman, who is a transportation policy analyst at Access Living, said the campaign is trying to initiate a pilot program to show people how effective municipal sidewalk clearance can be.

The campaign is also reaching out to elected officials and community organizations to gather support for the initiative.

Lucas cited suburban Forest Park and Toronto, Canada, as examples of municipalities that clear their sidewalks of ice.

The campaign is circulating a petition, which can be found here. It is also circulating a form where residents can submit instances where snow or ice prevented them from using sidewalks.

Lucas said people are welcome to volunteer and reach out to the campaign.

“If they send us an email, or fill out our form on our website, they’ll receive information about different meetings that we have, or opportunities to go and engage with the community,” he said.

Raphael Hipos is a graduate student at Medill, where he specializes in social justice. You can follow him at @RLHipos