Archive for December, 2010

I must admit to feeling a certain satisfaction in clearing my driveway of snow. If it hasn’t been a particularly deep snow, if the sun is warm on the growing stripes of black pavement, if the air is glittering with crystals, and if I’m not in a particular hurry, I sometimes dally over the task, chipping a bit of ice here, shoveling a last scrap of slush there.

I’ve been known to continue tidying, long past the point of dwindling returns, past the point where cars were in any danger of skidding. It’s simply that a dry driveway in January is a thing of beauty, a small triumph over winter.

One crisp morning, a few years back, I was nudging a stray snow crystal off my newly polished driveway, when a troubling observation intruded on my wintry calm.

We’d had about a foot of light powder, the kind that makes you laugh to shovel, so easily does it poof aside as you slice through. I looked down the street. Every single driveway was spotless, but the sidewalks were covered in snow. I, and each of my neighbors, had cleared the way for our cars, nearly down to the flake, but we had not touched the sidewalks.

Weirdly, although our cars couldn’t care less if they had to drive over a few patches of ice or a wee pile of snow, little old ladies, parents with strollers, and kids on bikes, in other words people using the sidewalks, care a lot about such things.

Why then, weren’t we all out there cleaning our sidewalks rather than fiddling over our driveways?

Here in Brunswick, the town is responsible for clearing sidewalks. So we don’t have to. That’s it. That’s the whole story. We take great care with the private snow that falls on our private driveways; we shovel it, blow it, sing to it. But touch the public sidewalk? Never.

What we do instead is we wait. Sometimes we grumble while we wait: when is the town going to clear the sidewalks?

While we wait, we cluck disapprovingly as we watch small kids walk home from school in the streets, perilously close to the traffic. We watch determined parents plow their strollers through the salty muck along the road sides. We watch our elderly neighbors give up their daily walks and disappear until spring.

Then, finally, hurrah! come the sidewalk plows, affectionately known as “sidewalk chompers” in our house. You gotta love these little guys, plunging through the high walls of heavy, compacted snow and ice thrown up by the street plows, leaping tall buildings in a single bound. Why would anyone labor to clear a public sidewalk when she knows the chompers are coming?

There are two reasons. First, the town can’t afford to send out the chompers after light snowfalls. Last Tuesday, for example, we got about a half inch of snow. Not worth clearing. Then people walked on it and compacted it. Then it got very cold. The result? A week of icy sidewalks.

Second, and far more importantly, the chompers often leave an inch or two of snow on the sidewalks. And guess what? This remaining snow gets walked on and compacted and turns into ice. Last winter there were several inches of ice on most of the town’s sidewalks for almost two months, making them useless for a good chunk of the population and hazardous for the rest. A quick 10 minute shoveling job by homeowners after the chompers go through would largely take care of this problem.

Clean, dry sidewalks in winter are a spectacular public good. Old people can get their daily exercise instead of sitting around getting weaker by the minute. Kids can walk to school away from traffic. Parents can safely push their strollers to the library. All those trips taken on foot keep cars off the road, making our towns safer, our kids and grandparents healthier, our air cleaner, and our streets less congested.

I walk and bike a lot – indeed, hardly a day goes by when I’m not roaming one or another of the town’s sidewalks. So, I find it deeply puzzling and even slightly disturbing that it took me years of living in Brunswick before it even crossed my mind that I might lend a hand with the sidewalks.

Diffusion of responsibility is partly to blame. The town is supposed to clear snow, so we simply check it off our to-do lists, which are plenty long enough.

But more than that, I think we’re out of training in feeling responsible for the public good. Most of us contribute to the public good largely by means of paying taxes. We pay for public services rather than providing them ourselves. Inevitably, this puts a distance between the checks we write in April and the services we expect to miraculously appear all the rest of the time.

In reality we are responsible for the public good all the time, whether through taxes, through volunteering to shelve books at the library, or by taking an extra few minutes to run our shovels or snow-blowers down the sidewalks. If not us, then who?

Since my snowy revelation I can’t say that I always run around tidying up after light snowfalls or sidewalk plows. Sometimes I’m super busy, sometimes my back hurts, sometimes I just don’t get around to the job before everything has turned to ice. Yet, understanding that I had at least some responsibility to help out with the public snow was a watershed change in my thinking. And, it makes me wonder what else I should be doing.

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