Cambridge DPW Uncleared Sidewalk Reporting Tool: An Insufficient Step In The Right Direction

Cambridge DPW Uncleared Sidewalk Reporting Tool: An Insufficient Step In The Right Direction

  • Posted on: 29 December 2010
  • By: stannenb

In a recent post, I reviewed the Cambridge Department of Public Works from the perspective of customer service. The DPW has said that it wants to use the web more aggressively as a customer service tool. To that end, they are to be commended for developing a web form to accept reports of icy or uncleared sidewalks. Unfortunately, this web tool leaves a lot be desired.

  • You can’t find it. The tool is buried deep within the City’s web site and seems only to be linked from a page linked from the DPW’s “Snow Resources” page, which itself is deeply buried. The tool should be a link on the front page of the DPW’s web site and, arguably, the front of the City’s web site.

  • It’s hard to use. In an approach that can be characterized as too clever, the address reporting mechanism provides a drop down list of each of the 837 streets in Cambridge. Scrolling through this list to York Street isn’t easy. While the purpose of this is to ensure that all addresses reported to the DPW are valid, you can click “Enter” without filling out anything resulting in the following message:

    Your complaint about Icy Conditions at Enter a Number Select a Street has been reported to staff for inspection

  • There’s no feedback. The DPW uses a ticketing system to manage their internal workflow. That is, every report to them is assigned a ticket number in a computer system, and updates about the status of the problem should be added to the ticket until the problem is resolved and the ticket “closed”. Often, cities who use ticketing systems give problem reporters the ticket number and use a web site for people to inquire about the status of their report. There’s no such feedback offered in this tool, nor can you even provide an email address to get a response. Thus, this reporting mechanism is a black hole. If the sidewalk gets cleared, you don’t know whether your report had anything to do with it. And if it doesn’t get cleared, you don’t know whether your report was ignored or whether you should report it again.

  • It doesn’t leverage modern technology. Modern smartphones have Global Positioning System chips and thus know where you are. Modern web sites can, with your permission, query that location data and could substitute that location for the cumbersome 837 street drop down list. There are existing services such as SeeClickFix that would provide this function for the city.

Let's hope that this is simply version 1 of a service the DPW intends to improve.

Meanwhile, uncleared sidewalks may also be reported to the the snow hotline at (617) 349-4903, yet another number in the DPW's confusing list of contact points. The DPW web site includes no information about the operating hours of this phone number nor whether messages can be left if it isn't answered.


Good work Saul,

I've been using this tool consistently for three years and have noticed no correlation between addresses reported and either a ticket or a cleared sidewalk.

Another problem might just possibly be that the "fines" are unenforceable by any legal means. They cannot be made a lien on the property or business and don't even function as a civil fine like a ticket for jaywalking.

There was some order or another in City Council in '08 or '09 to ask the City Manager to "pretty please with a cherry on top" look into the enforceability issue, but, well, you see the result of that.

They continue to fail to clean the bus stops in the area's that are utilized more by the working class and forget about the people in the area's of Western ave, River street, Broadway,Prospect, Rindge ave, and concern themselves with area's like Concord ave to Blanchard road. Go figure! Ken Reeves and Craig Kelly must be on the crap list.

Who gets the citation when you live in a large condo association or an apartment building and the sidewalk is covered with snow and ice? Are citizens also required to put sand and salt down on their sidewalks? Do you have to clean the entire width of the sidewalk?

The city snow ordinance holds the property OWNER accountable for cleared and de-iced sidewalks. Legally, it isn't possible to hold anyone else responsible. So the answer is yes, a condo association should get the ticket. Does anyone know if this is happening? At the last City Council meeting, Councilor Reeves seemed to think there were condo buildings that were chronic scofflaws. Do City Councilors ever report sidewalk snow and ice violations? City Councilors might get a painless education on this issue if each one reported one address per week to the DPW website and another to the 24/7 phone message line: 617-349-4903.

As for Beth Walsh's question about whether "citizens are required to put down salt and sand on their sidewalks." The answer is property owners are obliged to "trea" ice within 6 hrs. of the time it forms (see DPW website) because ice is even worse than snow for people on foot. Avoid sand. Ice melter with calcium chloride or potassium chloride is best; sparingly applied in a timely manner, it is very effective.

Ms. Walsh's query re how wide a shoveled sidewalk path needs to be is very timely. A sidewalk should not be deemed "cleared" unless it is wide enough for two people to pass each other without turning sideways and sucking in their stomachs!

In my neighborhood, I HAVE noticed a very strong correlation between reported address and a cleared sidewalk. It's often not visible until the next storm. I'd say 90% or better of the addresses I have reported have resulted in cleared sidewalks -- assuming there is a test storm to see. And that includes a decade in which the FIRST ticket was a no-fine warning ticket.

For most people, I think the size of the fine isn't what motivates changed behavior. It is, instead, that someone notices.

I see from the list that 235 Franklin Street is listed with one $50 fine for not shoveling its sidewalk. As I reported this address (property owned by Hamilton Realty) every day for about three weeks, the single fine of $50 is a curious response from the DPW. After many phone messages left on the snow hot line, when I finally walked to Hampshire Street to report in person I was told that the snow removal hot line was not working, and that the only reliable way to report to the DPW was online. The snow removal problem at the 235 Franklin Street address was caused by the snow removal folks who plowed the parking lot clear by pushing mountains of snow on the sidewalk and leaving it there for three weeks. Although it was recently removed I think one $50 fine is not incentive enough to keep the walk way clear. Jeanne Cronin

This is the only place (Cambridge and Boston) where I've heard of getting a fine for not clearing the sidewalk in front of your property. Sidewalks are city property so the city should be responsible for clearing snow off them. Why have citizens accepted this law??? It's stupid. And I also think its lousy turning neighbors against each other by encouraging them to rat each other out about snow covered sidewalks in front of their property. Instead we all should approach city hall and protest this stupid law.