A small snow plow clears a sidewalk in Halifax, Nova Scotia, in early February. Should we make sidewalk-clearing a government responsibility? (Andrew Vaughan/AP)
Columnist

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

I read your response to the writer who said Metro should not have shut down during the recent snowstorm.

I think it was absolutely the correct thing to do, in light of safety concerns. Also, by shutting down, Metro was actually doing a service to the community.

Had commuters taken Metro to their stops, where were they going to go after that? Sidewalks weren’t cleared, so they would have taken to the streets. This would have severely slowed down the snowplows and created additional risks for pedestrians — and more complaints, no doubt. In the big picture, closing down Metro was a service to the community.

Bob Reed, the District

DG: The original letter-writer and I, in my response, approached the issue from the point of view of transit operations and transit safety. Reed expands the field to include the safety of the streets and sidewalks.

I was thinking about his letter while listening to people testify at a hearing convened by D.C. Council member Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3) last week. The big theme in this post-blizzard assessment: We need to elevate the importance of pedestrian safety so that it’s on an equal level with driver safety.

Now, before proceeding with this theme, let me agree with the pedestrian safety advocates who testified and with the council members who attended: That was a lot of snow. It was one of the rare weather events of its kind in the history of the nation’s capital, and we owe our thanks to the bleary-eyed road crews who worked for days to dig us out of that mess.

Because an event like that is so rare, we don’t invest in the equipment and the workforce that can get us back to normal in a day or two, so when we do have a blizzard we push the existing resources to the limit, and then ask for more out of them.

But because the event was so extreme, it made it easier to spot the areas where we might need to adjust our thinking, and that’s where this council hearing proved most valuable for the District and the entire region.

The key point was expressed by Joe Reiner of All Walks DC, a pedestrian safety group: “Shoes and sidewalks are not yet considered part of the transportation system in D.C.”

People had plenty of examples of sidewalks and intersections where snow and ice were piled up, making foot travel not just difficult but downright dangerous. One of the examples that stood out, because it was illustrated with a photo, was a Florida Avenue NE underpass where snow covered the sidewalk.

It didn’t snow beneath the underpass. The snow was pushed there during the cleanup. A pedestrian on Florida Avenue has to go pretty far to reach an alternative route, which meant that some people made the risky move of walking in the Florida Avenue vehicle lanes to get under the bridge.

The District and the region’s other local governments generally don’t clear snow from sidewalks. They make it the responsibility of residents and businesses to clear them. Should government take over that responsibility?

When I was growing up in Montreal, it was routine to see a tiny municipal snow plow clearing our residential sidewalk before we left for school in the morning. But the municipal budget was based on the expectation of a very snowy winter.

In the Mid-Atlantic, making sidewalk-clearing a government task may be more of a financial burden than taxpayers are prepared to handle.

Something short of that? Many who testified at the hearing praised the volunteer actions of neighbors with shovels and of the civic-minded people who are part of the city’s business improvement districts.

Perhaps the District and other local governments could provide some support, organization and inspiration for such efforts to keep sidewalks clear in winter, the way they do for private efforts to remove litter from our highways.

Lost, and found

It’s rare that I get to leave you with a happy ending, but I have one here.

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

Can you imagine what it’s like to get off a Metro train and arrive at your car in the parking lot, only to discover that you no longer have your keys?

This happened to me on a Friday afternoon. I did dash back in and asked at the kiosk whether anyone had turned in some keys. No one had. I was back outside to start calling friends for help when suddenly the Metro employee I had spoken to came out with a big smile and asked me to describe the large and heavy ring that had fallen off my carabiner — for the first time in 45 years of using one — hooked to my purse.

He had just received a call from a Metro staff member at Shady Grove Metro, to whom a young woman had turned in my keys, saying that she thought a woman had dropped them when getting off at Rockville.

Two Metro staffers received big hugs from me that day. I can send only a virtual hug to that unknown woman, too.

Linda Silversmith, Rockville