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Syracuse using data to keep sidewalks clear

City of Syracuse

When Ben Walsh ran his first mayoral campaign in 2017, over 25% of Syracuse residents didn’t have a private vehicle.

“When you think about a quarter of our population not being able to drive, it forces you to recognize that many of those people are relying on our sidewalks to get around the city,” he said.

When he took office in 2018, making sure the sidewalks were clear and maintained became a top priority for Walsh. He collaborated with Corey Driscoll-Dunham, the city’s Chief Operations Officers, to develop a program to achieve their mutual goal of transportation equity.

“The important thing for me is not, you know, to force everybody to get on the sidewalk,” said Driscoll-Dunham. “The important thing for me is if someone is walking in the street, and not on the sidewalk, I don't want it to be because the sidewalk isn't clear.”

By the end of Walsh’s first year in office, the city launched its sidewalk snow removal program. The program started off with the Department of Public Works clearing close to about 40 miles of sidewalks.

So, how do they determine which sidewalks to plow? Walsh said there are a number of factors considered when curating the snow removal maps.

“We use data points like proximity to schools, proximity to employment, actual usage data, and all of that helped us develop our preliminary maps which we've been able to build upon since we first started the program,” he said.

Both Walsh and Driscoll-Dunham pride themselves on the city’s data-driven approach. Driscoll-Dunham says using such a concrete approach not only helps organizationally but it makes it easier to field questions and complaints about the program too.

“If you're not able to provide people with the reasoning behind decisions that are being made, and if you're not transparent about it, then folks can fill in their own ideas of how streets might have been selected,” said Driscoll-Dunham.

Fast-forward to the summer of 2021, when the Common Council passed Walsh’s proposed Municipal Sidewalk Program. The program, which is initially funded by federal stimulus money, puts the onus on the city to fix and maintain sidewalks with the goal of a more walkable city.

This does include snow removal, but Driscoll-Dunham emphasizes that both programs are supplemental and that homeowners are still responsible for clearing snow from the sidewalks outside their property.

“The primary responsibility for clearing snow and ice from the sidewalk is still on the property owner,” she said.

Clearing Syracuse’s sidewalks result in a little more than basic wear and tear on the equipment, which may deter contractors from working with the city.

“Following sidewalks is one of the most abusive processes there is as far as snow removal goes because the sidewalks are extremely abrasive,” said Doug Henry, the owner of JSK Outdoor–the company that plows the city’s sidewalks.

Henry said that not only are the city’s sidewalks narrow, often only four feet wide, but they can be very uneven which presents a huge threat to his equipment.

“There's a seam every four feet so your machine your equipment has to take some sort of impact every four feet,” he said.

Driscoll-Dunham says hopefully the Municipal Sidewalk Program will help with this since one of the objectives of the program is to make smoother more uniform sidewalks.

“You can clear snow a lot better when it's a flat sidewalk, that's all the same size,” she said.

Despite some hiccups that are still being worked out, Syracuse’s snow removal efforts have been admired by other snowy cities like Buffalo that are struggling to keep their streets and sidewalks clear.

“Now that we have our own sidewalk program in place, we're increasingly hearing from other communities, whether it's Buffalo or Albany, and we want to be a resource to them, just like Rochester and Ithaca were a resource to us,” said Walsh.

So what’s next for Syracuse? Driscoll-Dunham and Walsh say they plan to continue to expand the sidewalk snow removal and municipal sidewalk program to clear over 100 miles of sidewalks.

Similar to the map the city has for snowplows, Dunham hopes to have an interactive map up and running sooner rather than later to track which sidewalks have been cleared and when.

Madison Ruffo received a Master’s Degree from the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism, where she specialized in audio and health/science reporting. Madison has extensively covered the environment, local politics, public health, and business. When she’s not reporting, you can find Madison reading, hiking, and spending time with her family and friends.