U.S. Department of Transportation
Federal Highway Administration
1200 New Jersey Avenue, SE
Washington, DC 20590

Skip to content
Facebook iconYouTube iconTwitter iconFlickr iconLinkedInInstagram


FHWA Home / Safety / Pedestrian & Bicycle / Guide for Maintaining Pedestrian Facilities for Enhanced Safety Research Report

Guide for Maintaining Pedestrian Facilities for Enhanced Safety Research Report

2.3.2 Snow and Ice Removal

Following a snowfall, snow and ice must be cleared from sidewalks, curb ramps and crosswalks to provide safe and accessible passage for pedestrians. Common challenges to pedestrian travel after snowfall include street plowing that pushes snow onto sidewalks or blocks crosswalks, clogged or obstructed drains that creates puddles at curb ramps, patches of ice that create slip hazards, and failure to remove snow and ice from sidewalks. Jurisdictions should have policy and action plans that address these key issues.

While the ADA guidelines specify that sidewalks have 36 inches of clear passageway, different municipal ordinances have varying degrees of detail for how best to achieve a safe clear zone for pedestrians after a snowfall. For example, some ordinances require the use of gravel, ash or salt on ice to prevent slip hazards, while others require the breaking out of ice or do not specify treatments. Some ordinances specify the maximum allowable height of snow banks and where snow cannot be piled to insure proper visibility of pedestrians. Some jurisdictions require snow removal from specific features such as fire hydrants, benches, driveways and curb ramps. Of the communities contacted, the most successful programs specify clearance expectations in detail by ordinance and in education materials provided to the public about their responsibilities.

Common Snow and Ice Removal Strategies

In the event of a snowfall, there are common strategies that communities employ to make streets and sidewalks passable to pedestrians. In regions where snowfall is infrequent most communities rely on the quick melting of accumulation or a "melt strategy." For example, the City of Atlanta, GA, has little snow removal equipment and sanding does not work well. Rather than remove snow and ice, the City recognizes that snow and ice will most likely melt before mobility becomes an issue. In parts of the country where snowfall is more frequent one of the most common strategies is to require by ordinance that residential and commercial property owners remove snow and ice from sidewalks that abut their property within a specific time frame. This allows city crews to focus on priority locations for snow removal such as in business districts, school zones, transit stops, bridges, intersections and other priority locations. Another common strategy for snow removal in business districts is the use of Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) or Special Improvement Districts (SIDs) where businesses encumber a tax that funds maintenance activities such as snow and ice removal from sidewalks by a hired contractor. The majority of communities surveyed reported that these strategies were successful. Even communities in low snowfall areas had measures in place to remove snow from sidewalks in downtown areas.

Several common strategies may be employed In the event that a sidewalk is not cleared of snow in a timely manner. Some communities issue a citation, like a parking ticket, that can increase in cost per day. Some communities will remove the snow and ice at the owner's expense plus issue a citation and/or administrative fee. Some communities use a proactive approach and formally or informally organize volunteers to remove snow from properties where elderly or disabled residents cannot remove snow on their own or cannot afford the cost of hired services. In larger communities, the latter strategy is often part of a larger snow removal plan. In some smaller communities, especially those that are located in warmer climates, volunteerism may be relied upon as an even more important strategy to remove way snow and ice from sidewalks.

The next section will highlight some of the outstanding practices discussed by the communities that were contacted.

Snow Removal Plans

A snow removal plan is a strategy for determining the priorities and actions a jurisdiction will take in response to a snow event. The development of an action plan is essential for a successful snow removal program. Often sidewalks are a secondary priority to snow removal on streets. However, plans that address sidewalks can provide important guidance on timeliness, techniques, priorities and coordination between jurisdictions and agencies to ensure that the needs of pedestrians are met. A successful plan acknowledges that pedestrian needs are important year round. Successful action plans have the following elements relating to sidewalk snow removal policies:5,6

Jurisdictions should include the most comprehensive information available when developing or updating a plan to include pedestrian zones. Two comprehensive guides for developing snow removal plans were reviewed for this study and are recommended in the development of a plan that specifically addresses pedestrian needs:

The City of Seattle has developed a Disaster Readiness and Response Plan that serves as a model for fully integrating the needs of pedestrians into a city's response to snowfall. 8 Depending on the severity of the storm, crews are deployed to provide three levels of service that include clearing snow from high priority sidewalks, bridges and transit zones . The city focuses on educating the public about snow removal requirements and uses local media, an interactive website with live snowplow locations, a blog and Twitter to update the public about snow removal progress. The city also distributes pamphlets to parents of school children containing information on winter preparedness.

Snow Removal by Adjacent Property Owners

The majority of jurisdictions contacted for this study require property owners to remove snow and ice on sidewalks that abut their property. Because the majority of sidewalks abut private property, and most communities rely on property owners to remove snow and ice, the success of sidewalk snow removal relies on a coordinated program for education and enforcement with the community. This is a common and economically efficient technique for snow removal as long as abutting owners are educated and held responsible for removal or the community is set to step in to remove snow and ice themselves when property owners fail to do so. Arguments have also been directed at this approach since it taps the resources of adjacent property owners for maintaining sidewalks when the street itself (in the same public right-of-way) is maintained by the community.

Model Programs

Depending on the region, snow removal can be a major seasonal effort for communities of all sizes. The following example programs engage the public in snow removal responsibilities through a variety of methods from encouragement to enforcement. Although the examples come from larger cities, these strategies can at least in part be employed in communities of all sizes.

Image 17: Chicago DOT's snow guide for residents.
Image 17: Chicago DOT's
snow guide for residents.

The City of Chicago has developed Chicago Shovels, "a tool to help connect the public with City winter resources and empower neighbors to come together to help Chicago navigate winter." 9 The program employs positive messaging coupled with action opportunities that stress the shared snow removal responsibilities between residents, neighbors and the city during a snow event. The program has several services accessible online to inform and assist city residents. The Adopt-a-Sidewalk Program is an online mapping and encouragement tool that allows property owners to take the sidewalk in front of their property and link it to social media. The intention is to help neighbors and neighborhoods organize and coordinate snow removal. The Snow Corps program pairs volunteers with low income residents who are elderly or disabled. The program also provides weather alerts so that residents can receive text messages, phone calls or emails about emergency or non-emergency conditions in the city. In addition, the city has developed a brochure that provides clear diagrams and instructions on where and how to remove snow and ice. This program is exemplary in that it uses real-time mapping and social media to education and enable neighbors to work together to perform their responsibilities.

The City of Cambridge, Massachusetts' website has a specific section for sidewalk snow removal which includes detailed information on how to make Cambridge walkable throughout the year. There is a video about how to properly clear snow and ice from the perspective of residents with mobility impairments. The website also provides detailed instructions on how to remove snow and ice and outlines the property owner's responsibilities. Much of the information is also provided in pamphlet form for those who do not have internet access and for easy distribution.

The City of Seattle sidewalk snow removal program provides a winter weather fact sheet online and in print in six languages.

Time frame

There are several common approaches to the time frame for when snow should be cleared from sidewalks. A common strategy requires snow to be removed within a certain time after a snowfall. The time frames specified for snow removal ranges from 2 to 72 hours after a snowfall. The majority of municipalities contacted require snow to be removed from sidewalks within 24 hours after a snow event. It is common and appropriate to require a shorter time frame in high pedestrian zones such as in business districts where pedestrians need to access transit and amenities. Another strategy is to set a time for when all snow must be cleared. The City of Boston combines these strategies by requiring all property owners to remove snow and ice within three hours of the end of the snow fall or three hours after sunrise.10 This is one of the shorter time frames of those contacted and is actively enforced with substantial fines for noncompliance. Ann Arbor, MI, requires that any snowfall accumulation before 6 AM must be removed by noon. Other communities such as Alexandria, VA, require different time frames depending on the category of storm. The larger the storm the more time allotted for snow removal. All time frames must balance the needs of pedestrians and provide a reasonable amount of time for property owners to remove snow.

Ordinances, Penalties and Enforcement

In most communities, property owners and residents are responsible for a large part of sidewalk snow removal. Communities can reduce risk of slip and fall claims and mobility issues when citizens are informed of their snow removal responsibilities, educated in good snow removal practices and encouraged to participate. Strong, efficient enforcement is a key to compliance with snow removal ordinances.

Requirements for snow removal from sidewalks are commonly outlined in the form of city ordinances. Within different ordinances, there are varying degrees of requirements, guidance, inspection and enforcement to ensure that sidewalks are cleared to the maximum extent feasible as required by federal ADA guidelines, or in the case of some communities beyond the minimum requirements. The best ordinances specify requirements such as removing snow and ice from drainage structures, curb ramps and crosswalks as well as sidewalks.

There are different strategies used for following through with snow removal requirements. Some communities have ordinances requiring snow removal, but there is little or no enforcement of the ordinance. Other communities enforce snow removal through warnings and citations. Some communities have the ability to place liens on adjacent property when fines are not paid. Other communities issue warnings and fines and then charge the property owner for the fine plus the cost of snow removal by city crews or hired contractors.

There are varying degrees of success among the communities contacted for this report where adjacent property owners are responsible for snow and ice removal by ordinance. Most communities reported that adjacent property owners were successful at removing snow from sidewalks abutting their properties. There were several common factors that tended to negatively impact the success of snow removal by adjacent property owners: the presence of rental properties, especially in areas near colleges or universities, and the presence of elderly or disabled households that require assistance to remove snow. Factors that tended to positively impact snow removal were enforcement mechanisms and the ability of communities to respond in a timely fashion to non-compliance to ordinances. In smaller communities, it is more common for neighbors to informally help their neighbors remove snow, where larger communities tend to develop snow removal assistance programs.

Proper and prompt enforcement is the key to a successful snow removal program. Some states have legislation that grants local jurisdictions the power to place fines accrued for snow removal non-compliance as a lien on property taxes. The state of Massachusetts has passed a bill that specifically defines snow removal from sidewalks as a finable offense. 11 Such a bill makes it more likely that municipalities will garner fees and residents will comply. Several jurisdictions within the state of Massachusetts have model snow removal enforcement fees structures and mechanisms.

Communities with strict enforcement of snow removal are more successful at having snow removed from sidewalks by adjoining property owners. Communities use police, public works staff, inspectors and, in one case, parking enforcement officers to issue citations to non-compliant properties. The City of Cambridge deploys inspection and enforcement of non-compliant snow removal much like a parking enforcement program. This is a successful program because it utilizes an existing enforcement mechanism and fine process. One strategy that is not as successful is the issue of warnings before citations. This process can elongate the time that the sidewalk remains impassable to pedestrians and creates additional work for the jurisdiction.

Most communities contacted respond to complaints regarding sidewalk snow removal. A few had formal snow and ice inspection programs as well.

Communities with fines that increased over time saw greater success in compliance because residents would rather shovel snow than face hefty fines. Like many communities in Massachusetts, the City of Boston has an aggressive snow and ice removal program that by ordinance fines property owners, managers or tenants for non-compliance on a recurring basis as long as they are delinquent on clearing sidewalks to city specifications. Each day that the snow is not removed is considered a separate violation. The fee structure is displayed in Table 6 and includes different fines for residential and commercial properties. Charges can accrue daily for failure to remove snow and ice and/or for the cost of crews to remove snow and ice per cubic yard. Fees range from $50 to $200 per category. Fees collected from the fines remain in the snow removal program to fund city sponsored snow removal at non-compliant properties. Recurring charges resulting in a lien on property taxes can be an effective strategy for encouraging property owners, managers and tenants to comply with snow removal requirements.

Table 7: City of Boston fines for non-compliant snow removal

Type of Property Failure to Remove Snow/Ice From Sidewalk Removal of Snow/Ice from Private Property to Street or Sidewalk
More than one cubic yard One cubic yard or less
Commercial Property $200 $200 $150
Residential Property
with More than 16 Units
$100 $150 $100
Residential Property
with 16 or Fewer Units
$50 $100 $50

Note: For all violations, each day that a violation exists is considered a separate and distinct violation

Another successful program is in the City of Rochester, MN. When snow is not removed by the adjoining property owner, the city will hire an outside contractor to clear the snow with the cost and an administrative fee billed to the property owner. If the fine is not paid, a lien will be placed on the property. This has been successful because citizens are sensitive to escalating fines.

Of the programs reviewed, successful enforcement programs treat snow removal enforcement much like parking enforcement: violators are promptly ticketed, and failure to pay the initial fee results in additional penalties. Mechanisms for enforcement are performed by parking officers, police or inspectors. Like parking fines, snow removal fines can be a predictable revenue stream.

Snow Removal in Business Districts

Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) or Special Improvement Districts (SIDs) are a common means for business districts to fund and perform snow removal from sidewalks in higher use pedestrian areas. Of the communities contacted, about a quarter have BIDs that perform maintenance activities including snow and ice removal from sidewalks. This is a good strategy for business districts that tend to have higher pedestrian volumes.

Prioritization (level of service)

Of the communities contacted most prioritized clearing snow from streets over sidewalks immediately after a snow event. This is likely because most jurisdictions rely on property owners to remove snow from sidewalks. Few communities have a prioritized system in order for sidewalks to be cleared by city crews. After streets are plowed, many communities report that sidewalk clearing is focused on areas near schools, transit stops and business districts. The City of Alexandria, VA, prioritizes sidewalks in the following order: 1) schools, 2) high transit use areas, 3) city faculties and 4) bus stops. Other communities such as Perry, GA, prioritize bridges for snow removal.

Sidewalk Snow Clearing by Municipality

Snow removal from sidewalks abutting public lands is often a shared responsibility between the jurisdiction, county, state, transit and private agencies and institutions. Responsibility can often be a point of confusion that may lead to uncleared sidewalks. Clearly defined responsibilities are important to a successful snow removal program. Many communities deploy crews or hire contractors to clear snow and ice from sidewalks adjacent to public lands or buildings. Often this is shared responsibility between Parks Departments and Public Works Departments. Some smaller communities require school, fire and police staff to clear snow from sidewalks around buildings. A snow removal plan that outlines clear responsibilities and assigns those responsibilities through written agreements are important when coordination is required between agencies, institutions and organizations.

Some jurisdictions take full responsibility for snow and ice removal from streets and sidewalks whether required by state law, local ordinance or city policy. However, this is not a common practice and there is a considerable level of effort and cost associated with such programs. In regions where snowfalls are frequent, this may require the use of seasonal staff or contractors, investment in equipment and strategies to make costs associated with snow removal more predicable due to fluctuations in snowfall year to year.

The City of Burlington Public Works Department is responsible for all snow and ice removal from all city streets and sidewalks. The city has a unique "Snowfighting Program" that tasks city crews with snow removal from all city streets and sidewalks despite an ordinance that assigns removal of snow to property owners. 12 The plan was enacted to provide flexibility due to unpredictable weather, ensure geographic equity in snow clearing, and address the challenges of snow removal in dense areas of Burlington. The snow removal program includes temporary parking bans that are determined on a case-by-case basis per parking zone. Parking bans are posted on a city blog, and residents are alerted via email and by flashing lights that are turned on by 3pm. Due to narrow street widths the city has found that snow removal costs and hazards decrease significantly when parking is removed from the streets to allow for street plowing. Crews remove snow and ice from roadways and then clear sidewalks up to 24 hours after a snow event. The annual cost for these activities was $734,000 in 2012.This appears to be an exceptional practice that ensures the compliance of city standards to snow removal; however, this practice is costly.

The State of New Hampshire requires state and local jurisdictions to perform all sidewalk related construction and maintenance activities including snow and ice removal at no cost to the adjacent property owner.13 This places the responsibility of clearing all snow and ice from sidewalks on municipalities. The state law grants municipalities the flexibility to determine a course of action such as a snow removal action plan for prioritizing snow removal activities within a reasonable amount of time. As a result, communities in New Hampshire are encouraged to have a snow removal plan that outlines the requirements of "reasonable removal of snow, ice and debris." Due to the challenges and cost associated with snow removal efforts, jurisdictions in New Hampshire are often challenged by these requirements. When municipalities are not responsive to snow removal or do not have an action plan in place, they increase their exposure to litigation.

The Halifax Regional Municipality (HRM) in Nova Scotia, Canada, maintains 400 miles of sidewalk with an operating budget for sidewalk snow removal of $4.2 million dollars and average snowfall of 81 inches per year.14 In an effort to make the cost of snow removal more predictable, a performance-based contract was developed that required contractors to provide costs for snow removal based on performance standards rather than the number and intensity of snow events.15 Performance expectations such as final sidewalk condition and time frames for snow and ice removal are required in each contract. Contractors are also tasked with inspection, complaint tracking and conditions monitoring. Per the contract, the City assumes liability for slips and falls unless gross negligence is documented on the part of the contractor. The Halifax Regional Municipality has seen cost saving of CAN$4,600 per kilometer of sidewalk. The benefit of this strategy is consistent, competitive costs for snow removal no matter how many snow events occur over the contract length.

Jurisdictions that are tasked with snow removal from sidewalks often assume higher levels of efforts or cost in exchange for more consistent and potentially convenient snow removal programs. Two strategies were found to streamline this process: parking restrictions to expedite simultaneous plowing of streets and sidewalks and the use of performance based contracts to balance the costs of annual sidewalk snow removal.

Snow Removal Assistance Programs

Many municipalities have programs to assist low-income elderly or disabled people with sidewalk, walkway and driveway snow removal. Snow Angels,16Snow/Ice Busters,17, Snow Buddy,18 and Shovel our Snow19 are just a few names of programs throughout the nation. These programs are for residents who cannot physically or financially perform sidewalk snow removal. For those in need, an application is often required to demonstrate eligibility. Some jurisdictions provide an online questionnaire to match volunteers with those in need of help, such as the City of Chicago's Snow Corps program. Snow removal may be performed by city sponsored contracted services, city crews, neighbors, youth or volunteers. Assistance programs, whether highly organized or informal, not only help elderly or disabled citizens and ensure snow removal will be performed consistently, but are also good community building and service opportunities.

Snow Removal from Shared Use Paths

Shared use paths are generally treated differently than sidewalks after snow events. Some communities deliberately do not clear pathways to allow for cross-country skiing. Of the communities surveyed with paths, about half required path clearing within a specified time frame in their snow removal plan. However, shared use path snow removal was not generally a high priority for jurisdictions unless complaints were received. Because shared use path maintenance responsibilities are often shared, snow removal may be performed by public works departments, parks departments, non-profits, volunteers or other agencies. For regional paths this can create a patchwork effect when adjacent jurisdictions have differing snow removal policies. Unless shared use paths are used for winter recreation, a plan should be put in place that clearly defines responsibilities for snow removal on shared use paths. Of the communities contacted, the cities of Minneapolis and Madison had responsive snow removal programs for paths operated by city crews.

5 Amsler, Duane E., Sr. P.E. "Snow and Ice Control." Ithaca: Cornell Local Roads Program. 2006. Accessed January 23, 2013. http://www.clrp.cornell.edu/workshops/pdf/snow_and_ice_control-web.pdf.

6 Scott, Marcia and Brandon Rudd. "Winter Maintenance of Pedestrian Facilities in Delaware: A Guide for Local Governments." Institute for Public Administration, University of Delaware. February 2012. Accessed January 23, 2013. http://www.ipa.udel.edu/publications/SnowRemoval.pdf.

7 Ibid.

8 Seattle Disaster Readiness and Response Plan, Volume II. April 2007. Accessed January 23, 2013. http://www.seattle.gov/emergency/library/SDRRP_VolumeTwo_linked.pdf.

9 "Chicago Shovels." The City of Chicago, Illinois. 2013. Accessed January 23, 2012. http://www.cityofchicago.org/city/en/depts/mayor/snowportal/chicagoshovels.html.

10 "Snow Removal from Sidewalks." The City of Boston, Massachusetts. 2013. Accessed January 23, 2013. http://www.cityofboston.gov/snow/removal/snowremoval.asp.

11Municipal Fines, Massachuestts Session Laws ch. 40U. 2010. Accessed January 23, 2013. http://www.malegislature.gov/Laws/SessionLaws/Acts/2010/Chapter26.

12 "Burlington DPW FY12 Snowfighting Program." City of Burlington, Vermont. December 2011. Accessed January 23, 2013. http://www.burlingtonvt.gov/uploadedFiles/BurlingtonVTgov/Departments/Public_Works/Streets_and_Sidewalks/FY12%20DPW%20Snowfighting%20Program.pdf.

13Sidewalk Repair and Maintenance. New Hampshire State Title XX ch. 231 § 231:113. http://www.gencourt.state.nh.us/rsa/html/XX/231/231-113.htm.

14 Halifax Snow Information Site. Halifax Regional Municipality. 2012. Accessed January 23, 2013. http://halifax.ca/snow/.

15 Hayward, G. "Implementing Performance-Based Sidewalk Maintenance Contracts." Journal of Public Works and Infrastructure. Volume 2, Number 2. November 2009.

16 "Snow Angels." City of Pittsburgh, PA. 2013. Accessed January 23, 2013. http://www.pittsburghpa.gov/servepgh/snowangels.

17 "Snow Busters." City of Aurora, CO. Accessed January 23, 2013. https://www.auroragov.org/LivingHere/GivingBack/SnowBusters.

18 "Ice Busters." City of Boulder, CO. Accessed August 15, 2012. http://www.bouldercolorado.gov/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=175&Itemid=1703#icebusters

19 "Winter Guide." City of Brookline, MA. 2012. Accessed January 23, 2013. http://www.brooklinema.gov/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=193&Itemid=877.

Return to Top

Previous | Table of Contents | Next

Page last modified on February 1, 2013
Safe Roads for a Safer Future - Investment in roadway safety saves lives
Federal Highway Administration | 1200 New Jersey Avenue, SE | Washington, DC 20590 | 202-366-4000