Shovel it: How two ideas plan to impact sidewalk snow removal this winter


A woman walks in the street after snowmageddon 2011. The City administration wants to avoid forcing people to walk in the street. Photo by Jim Watkins.

Mayor Emanuel announced on Tuesday, in a press release, a new website and effort to address snow shoveling and removal problems. The complete effort is packaged nicely on It has many features, and I’ll focus on three (only one of which is available right now):

    • Plow Tracker – When there’s a snow storm, the position of every snow plow will be tracked and published on a map. See Plow Tracker in action.
    • Adopt-A-Sidewalk – Claim a portion of the sidewalk that you’ll shovel, and share your equipment with neighbors (coming soon).
    • Snow Corps – Become a volunteer to shovel the sidewalk and door path to seniors and people who are disabled who call 311 to request a volunteer.

There’s another effort to improve how Chicagoans shovel their snow. It’s called City of Big Shovels. From the site:

City of Big Shovels is a grassroots campaign to celebrate the snow shoveling chops of Chicagoans who keep the the City walking through the long, tough winters, and to put the “Snow Flakes” who don’t get the job done on notice.  Submit your photos of well shoveled walks and victorious shovelers – the “Snow Angels” who keep our City walking safely and comfortably.

Snow shoveling can be a testy topic in the City of Big Shoulders, so I’ll first list the snow shovel laws.

The laws

A Chicago resident (or property owner) is required to remove snow from the public way. It’s in the Municipal Code of Chicago under “Use of public ways and places”, ordinance number 10-8-180:

Every owner, lessee, tenant, occupant or other person having charge of any building or lot of ground in the city abutting upon any public way or public place shall remove the snow and ice from the sidewalk in front of such building or lot of ground.

The ordinance also talks about the minimum path width to shovel, what to do if it’s frozen, and how fast you must do it. The Illinois legislature passed a law that partially indemnifies property owners who removes, or attempts to removes, snow or ice from injuries their actions may have caused (745 ILCS 75 Snow and Ice Removal Act).

The Chicago Shovels campaign, though, is not one about enforcement of these laws. It’s more about “socializing” a need.

Why Chicago Shovels?

The Plow Tracker will be of little utility to many citizens. The map design needs modification to make it easier to read, and the information it provides – the location of every plow – is not very useful (for example, you cannot derive which streets are plowed or not plowed). But it may have some impact:

  • It may assuage residents, informing them that Streets & Sanitation workers are outside plowing streets.
  • Knowing that workers are actively plowing streets in one’s area may reduce the number of calls for service to 311 or aldermen’s office.
  • The data from the GPS logs in the plow trucks could be used to find ways to enhance service, and to find instances of policy violations (like a worker not following the road hierarchy of priority, or even speeding).

The New York Times reported that “the snowplow tracker, which city officials expect to debunk the belief that routes are politically motivated, is but one element of a new computer package focused exclusively on snow”. According to the same article, the tracking data is monitored at the City’s “snow command center” where “supervisors also track the slickness of bridges, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration weather maps and driving conditions captured by 1,000 cameras mounted around the city”.

Two other features of Chicago Shovels may have a large and good impact: Snow Corps and Adopt-A-Sidewalk (AAS). While it is not yet live, the website describes some of the aspects of AAS. It is based on the Adopt-A-Hydrant website for Boston residents. There, people sign up to claim a hydrant in their area saying they will remove snow around it after a storm. If the one nearest you is claimed, you could claim a different one. From the press release: “Users adopt a sidewalk near their home or business by claiming it on an interactive map. Chicagoans will over time be able to see who is shoveling where, and have an option to connect with their neighbors to help keep their sidewalks clear. ”

I think the Adopt-A-Sidewalk map could be enhanced by highlighting bus stops and allowing people to adopt the sidewalks leading up to the bus stop. The City’s bus shelter provider, J.C. Decaux, shovels around the sheltered bus stops. The map could also be turned into a game by awarding prizes to residents and recognition to businesses who adopt the most sidewalks or have a high “performance rating”. I heard through a friend that a resident in a public planning meeting thought that such neighborhoods could achieve such ratings which would be used in prioritizing infrastructure projects in that neighborhood.

Snow Corps, on the other hand, is for connecting people who can and want to shovel snow with people who cannot. I’ve gathered from the Frequently Asked Questions page that residents who are 60 or older, or have a physical disability, will be able to call 311 and request that a volunteer come shovel the sidewalk and a path to the front door. The City will find a nearby volunteer (who signed up) and ask them to shovel at the requester’s home (note 1).

How does City of Big Shovels work?

I asked the founder of City of Big Shovels some questions about the role that the campaign will play (note 2). In few words, it’s partially about naming and shaming businesses that don’t shovel their sidewalks. The project has two categories for shovelers: Snow Angels and Snow Flakes.

While you can’t “narc on neighbors”, the site will “highlight some common ways Chicagoans shirk their civic duties”. For example, “shoveling a narrow path from your gate to your car”.

How do you think City of Big Shovels may change how snow shoveling is done here?

“Big Shovels appeals to Chicagoans’ latent sense of winter pride. It dreams of a Chicago where we don’t just shovel because we have to, but because we love to, because we love Chicago as much in July as we do in Febuary. By celebrating those who embrace winter walking in and gently mocking those who think feet should hibernate for 4 months we will help foster a Chicago where every sidewalk is clear and everyone can walk year round.”

Who do you think are the “big” violators of the snow shovel ordinance, and
snow shovel “etiquette”? 

“I think the biggest problem is that there is still a common misunderstanding that sidewalk show shoveling is not required. Some of this is willed ignorance to be sure, but alot of it has to do with a lack of education and enforcement. The result is that on nearly every block there are a handful of unshoveled patches. Sidewalk snow shoveling is like a chain; one weak link and it falls apart.”

Big violators, in my view, are the City of Chicago, itself, and the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC). See my exploration and photos below.

What’s the difference between the City’s campaign, Chicago Shovels, and the Big Shovels idea?

Chicago Shovels fills one of the big gaps for sidewalk snow removal, that being the need help people with disabilities, the elderly and others who might need some snow shoveling  assistance. This site provides a centralized place where volunteers can sign up to help those in need. At Big Shovels we’re all in favor of cracking down on snow shoveling scofflaws. But there has to be a safety net for vulnerable populations in winter.

Michael Jordan dunking with a snow shovel

The Big Shovels website features funny photos of Michael Jordan (above), President Obama, and the Picasso, holding snow shovels.

Snow flakes

I nominate the following “snow flakes” – you should nominate your own in the comments or by emailing Big Shovels.


The sidewalk on this overpass at Ohio Street and Milwaukee Avenue remains uncleared after three days since the last snow event on February 7, 2011. 

City of Chicago. It has jurisdiction of all sidewalks in the municipal limits, and has a responsibility to maintain sidewalks, as well as to clear the snow from those without abutting property. What am I talking about? Bridges and highway overpasses. While the City takes good care of the downtown river bridges if often neglects other bridges as well as overpasses on the Kennedy, Dan Ryan, and Congress Expressways. Many of these overpasses connect to Chicago Transit Authority ‘L’ stations. The city should lead “good neighbor” efforts and shovel these connections.


University of Illinois at Chicago. I’ve witnessed UIC staff pushing snow off the sidewalk and into the bike lane along Halsted Street.


These guys. And anyone else who pushes the snow into the street, especially when you’re cycling by.

Snow angels

Workers at downtown office buildings are up early in the morning clearing snow for the hundreds of thousands of workers, sometimes working through a snowstorm to continually keep the sidewalk available for walking (some will even shovel around the bike racks). I’d also like to point out the Special Service Areas (essentially a business improvement district) that pay for snow removal in their boundaries: I don’t know which ones do it, but thank you to the businesses who are members!

What impact do you think these projects will have on keeping sidewalks clear? Who are the snow angels and snow flakes in your area? Will you be signing up for the Snow Corps?


(1) The matching between volunteers and people who need snow shoveled will be handled by the four-person staff of One Good Deed Chicago: three AmeriCorps VISTA workers, and the Mayor’s chief service officer Jenné Meyers. She adds: “We’ll respond to 311 requests, and also work with the Department of Family and Support Services and the Mayor’s Office of People with Disabilities to make sure we are handling them in an appropriate fashion. This is a new system and I’m sure there will be some bumps, as we only have so many volunteers (currently 50+) signed up so depending on the demand, we might not be able to meet every request. We are working with 311 to make sure the operators communicate that to the folks making the requests so we are managing expectations.” Sounds like a good plan and 50 volunteers in 48  hours is a decent number.

(2) Ben Helphand received a $1,000 grant from the Awesome Foundation’s Chicago chapter to start City of Big Shovels.

The Mayor’s Office has a video on YouTube to go along with this announcement. It features John Tolva, the chief technology officer, and Kevin Hauswirth, the city’s social media director; they talk about the technological and social media aspects of the Chicago Shovels campaign. The video shows a screenshot of the Plow Tracker website which oddly shows a plow as being in West Chicago. Hauswirth implies a comparison to the Chicago Transit Authority’s Bus and Train Trackers, which is incomparable because residents can’t use Plow Tracker to control the outcome of the service being provided but they can use transit trackers to adjust their commute or spend a couple extra minutes indoors (making informed decisions).

Updated 1340h to add the answer about matching volunteers to recipients in note 1. Updated 1947h to add my idea about a possible Adopt-A-Sidewalk enhancement. 

19 thoughts on “Shovel it: How two ideas plan to impact sidewalk snow removal this winter”

  1. I was always annoyed by parking lot owners who’s plow their lots, but leave the sidewalk untouched.

    I know this isn’t Guess Where Chicago, but the photo at the top of this is Hyde Park Blvd. at 56th looking south to the Museum.

    1. In past winters, this has often been a problem by the city-owned 95th St. park and ride lot between Longwood Dr. and the Metra station.  After I started complaining to the alderman, the sidewalk started getting cleared on both the 95th St. and Longwood Dr. sides.

      1. For a different article not related to snow plowing, I was going to try and inventory the parking lots owned by Metra, CTA, RTA, Pace, and the City. It could be used as a tool to report on instances when the sidewalks around these parking lots are not shoveled.

  2. I’d actually like to see the city plowing sidewalks in commercial districts.  They actually make plows specifically for sidewalks.  The current system mostly works but it always seems like a few refuse to comply.

    1. An increase in the space that the City will shovel probably means an increase in costs for taxpayers. I’d like to push more Special Service Areas (business improvement districts) to manage this effort, whether through direct purchase of snow shoveling services, or a shared shoveling program (I don’t know). 

      I think shoveling the overpasses first is extremely key. 

      I’ve updated the Adopt-A-Sidewalk section to include my idea for what else can be adopted. 

    2. Sidewalks in front of strip malls on major streets are some of
      my biggest peeves in terms of poor or non-existent snow removal – on
      streets like Western, Ashland, 95th….  You get the idea. 

      What makes it even worse is that some unshoveled areas (along strip malls and elsewhere) are around bus stops.  The JCDecaux crews that shovel the bus stops are working from the street side, but adjacent sidewalk areas, which people need to walk to/from the stop may be buried in snow, so then some of them end up walking in the street to get to/from the stop.  I saw that a bunch of locations on Western and a few on 95th during Snowmageddon.

  3. I had the same initial thought about the Plow Tracker not being very useful. Just seeing a bunch of little truck icons dance around a map doesn’t really get you anything. 

    Do you know if the city plans on releasing the raw GPS data for each truck? It would definitely be interesting to track routes to see what streets get priority, and which ones don’t.

  4. Sidewalks in front of strip malls on major streets are some of my biggest peeves in terms of poor or non-existent snow removal – on streets like Western, Ashland, 95th….  You get the idea.

  5. The city (any city) that plows their streets should plow their sidewalks, not to mention bike lanes. To do otherwise is to favor people in vehicles over people on foot and people on cycles. Sure, it will cost more, but so? What would it add to the snow removal budget? 5%? 1?

    1. Thank you for pointing this out. 

      The City’s actions, in this respect, don’t line up with its stated priorities. I’m talking about the priorities it laid out when it adopts the Bike 2015 Plan, the Pedestrian Plan, and all the other plans that say, “More people should be walking, and more people should be cycling, and more people should be using transit” because it leads to healthier lives, safer lives, and increases the livability of the city. 

    2. A lot more than 1-5%.  First off you’d have to purchase a fleet of small sidewalk plows and then you would need the additional people to drive them.  Probably not practical city wide but may be something to look into in certain areas.

      1. I don’t think the Special Service Areas use machines. I don’t think the city needs to plow all sidewalks, that’s what residents and businesses should be doing (not just because the ordinance says so, but because it makes more sense to share the work). But, as I pointed above, there are thousands of feet of sidewalks where the only adjacent property owner is the City or the State. 

        You can use machine brushes instead of plows. 

  6. Well, first real snow and the city of chicago’s Plow tracker doesn’t work. Doesn’t seem the plows are either. But the mayor wants us to clean our snow, I say lead by example. Hopefully this clown will be gone like M. Biladik years ago. He didn’t know how to plow snow either. If they would hire people from the midwest instead of the political idiots they put in charge, well we all know what would happen, the streets of Chicago would be a better place all around. Instead, the unions probably didn’t lke the fact that the average citizen could see where the trucks were and what they were or more importantly, were not doing. Heck, it took the Florida panthers an hour to go 1 mile for a hockey game at the United center. Another reason to get these idiots out of office. please vote everyone!

  7. Hunter Parking around Harrison, Wells, Financial is the worst, they hardly ever clear the sidewalks and with the new inter-modal transit hub its time they get on the ball!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *