Shoveling snow in Seattle: “You must be new here”


The second snow storm to hit Seattle in five days–and, unlike the first one, real–dumped about six inches where I live. It’s already being called Snowmageddon. Breaking out my trusty old snow shovel, last used maybe a decade ago, I started clearing my sidewalk. A couple walking along in the street, where vehicles had flattened the snow to some degree, took note. “You must be new here,” the man laughed as I flung aside yet another load of the white stuff.

As I am New To Seattle, that was a correct surmise. Here’s mine. He meant Seattleites are not in the habit of clearing their sidewalks after a snowstorm so that pedestrians don’t have to–like this fellow–walk in the street.

Later, driving–carefully–around Magnolia, the neighborhood where I live, maybe one house in 25 seemed to have the makings of a cleared sidewalk. That means 24 in 25 did not. Several nearby residents have told me they don’t even own a snow shovel.

Yet this is a town that prides itself on “Seattle Nice.”

As it turns out, clearing one’s sidewalk is more than a matter of civility and good neighborly behavior. It’s the law. Poking through the website of the City of Seattle, I found Section 15.48.010 of the Seattle Municipal Code. It’s entitled “Snow and Ice Removal,” and it was added in 1961. Here is the complete text:

It is the responsibility of the owner or occupant of private property to remove snow and ice on the sidewalks abutting his or her property in a timely manner and, if practical, prevent its becoming or remaining in an icy, ridged, uneven or humped condition or in a condition which is potentially hazardous to users of the public sidewalks.

That seems reasonably straight-forward. However, judging from what I am seeing, it has the effect of periodically turning Seattle into a city of law-breakers. And this is a town in which police strictly enforce anti-jaywalking laws, sometimes by beating up the jaywalker.

From chatting up folks around Seattle, I gather the mindset is that it doesn’t snow all that often and that when it does, it will warm up sufficiently that snow and ice will melt on their own. That also was the philosophy in Albuquerque, where I lived for 12 years. But there was one big difference. Albuquerque gets full sun 310 days a year–and, at an elevation of 5,000 feet and up above sea level, a very bright full sun. Frequently during the winter, the temperature gets up into the 50s. So Monday night snow–rarely more than 1 inch–is usually gone by mid-morning Tuesday. In the winter, Seattle doesn’t get that sun, or that warmth. So I imagine that natural snow-removal period is a little longer. In any event, it’s prevented me from taking my daily constitutional around the neighborhood for several days running.

True, when it comes to cold weather and snowfall, Seattle isn’t, say, Buffalo, Chicago or even my native New Jersey. But it’s a lot colder and snowier than Houston and Los Angeles, two other areas where I’ve lived. On average, something like 8 to 11 inches of snow fall here each year, which means a couple of blasts a season. Seattle has had several major snow events in recent years. This includes a storm the week of Thanksgiving 2010 that shut everything and a 2008 storm that seems to have led to the ouster of the mayor.

Perhaps Seattleities, conflicted about their climate, are in denial. Or perhaps they know something. Surprisingly (to me, anyway), I can’t find any provision in the Seattle Municipal Code specifying a punishment for failing to clear one’s sidewalk. The part of the code covering this obligation, “Miscellaneous Acts,” states civil penalties for other offenses, but not non-snow and ice removal. I suppose that might be treated as a minor class 3 civil infraction, which specifies a maximum penalty of $50.

But Seattle has what I consider a simply appalling ability to remove snow from even major streets (a KOMO News Radio report I heard this afternoon detailed some of the few plow trucks hereabouts moving around with their plows raised, doing no good whatsoever). So I have to think any effort by the City That Doesn’t Clear Its Streets to ticket Someone Who Doesn’t Clear His Sidewalk would get laughed out of court.

Maybe with the same mirth I heard on the street as I labored at my civic duty.

UPDATE ON 1/20/2012: Near the swift completion of his appointed round, my mailman this afternoon estimated only 7% of the sidewalks on his route had been cleared. He told me how much he appreciated my efforts. Now that made my day!

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6 Responses to Shoveling snow in Seattle: “You must be new here”

  1. Pingback: Snow buries Seattle’s image, too | New To Seattle

  2. Pingback: Next Snowpocalypse, Let’s All Clear Our Sidewalks, Mmmkay? | The SunBreak

  3. NewToSeattle says:

    For exercise, I normally take a long brisk walk every day. But thanks to impassable sidewalks (and the city’s failure to plow snow on streets) I couldn’t do this the past two days.

  4. eskercurve says:

    I, too, find it irksome that Seattleites don’t shovel their snow. While they are right in that it is raining now and all that hard work is “for naught” in their mind, in my mind, it is far from a useless endeavor. Clearing the sidewalks allows foot traffic, which enables business (what businesses do open due to the state of the roads). And it is just plain neighborly. I don’t want my neighbors slipping and falling on wet ice because I was too lazy to shovel. Coming from Chicago, it is expected that you do this, and if you’re extra nice, throw some salt down too. Only if a person is elderly, disabled, or absent from home (hopefully in warmer climates) should the snow ever not be shoveled. Just today I walked from my house to my gym and zero inches of the sidewalk was shoveled. Zero. That’s three blocks of ice and snow to get my workout. Luckily I didn’t slip and fall.

    Anyway, if the perception is “it’s just going to melt anyway” that would fall in line with a sort of Seattle defeatism that I’ve picked up on here. The more likely explanation I think is laziness enabled by the ice “melting soon anyway.”

  5. NewToSeattle says:

    Like Newt Gingrich’s economic stimulus plan to have children clean schools?

  6. Kelley says:

    Well, Bill, it seems your earlier prediction of a “no storm snowstorm” missed the mark, though it’s nice to see you’ve weathered your comeuppance with a sunny smile (puns- ugh).
    You might suggest to the city fathers (or, this being Seattle, maybe I should say City Fathers, Mothers, Non-Gender-Identifed Others) that to enforce this law might prove to be an effective economic stimulus plan, sending hoards of snow-day school children into their neighborhoods armed with snow shovels newly purchased at Home Depot (Fred Myers? Is that still around?), offering to clear their neighbors walkways before the folks with the ticket books arrive. Heck, a whole new municipal bureaucracy is born! That should set some leftist hearts a-twitter.

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