, Newburyport, MA

March 5, 2013

A walk in the park? Not when it snows

Warren P. Russo

---- — Newburyport is often touted as a walking city, but is it really?

During yet another wintry weekend, I decided to put this oft-voiced claim to the rubber test, because if the city were walkable in wintertime, it would be walkable anytime.

Committing to the task heart and sole, and donning my best New Balance sneakers, I trekked 7.2 miles in 70 minutes, from Plum Island through Newburyport proper for a full, first-hand experience. Down the Plum Island turnpike I strode at a lively pace, making a left turn at Ocean Avenue to Rolfes Lane, then right onto High Street and on to Storey Avenue, all the way to the I-95 juncture.

Here’s what I found along the way:

Most of the sidewalks — where there even are sidewalks, that is — are in abominable shape. They’re buckled and broken, ragged and ripped, muddy and mucky and not very inviting to walkers.

Dirty old snow and ice remain from snowstorms past, rendering many of the sidewalks completely impassable. Consequently, I was forced to pursue alternating paths, from sidewalk to street, back and forth, over and over again.

Homeowners with brick walkways seemed to have done the best job of clearing them. Perhaps they are proud to compliment their homes with the fine appearance presented by their well-maintained red brick sidewalks.

In startling contrast, walkways bordering the two cemeteries along my route were the absolute worst, being largely uneven dirt affairs covered with mounds of filthy snow and edged with slippery mud. They are truly a disgrace for all seasons, but I suppose that’s about all that one can expect when the occupants can no longer be fined for not maintaining their sidewalks.

Nevertheless, it’s a pleasant walk, or at least it would be if more motorists knew that it is perfectly legal to cross over even a double yellow stripe to give walkers a wider berth, instead of speeding past with a margin of inches.

Due to the mostly blocked sidewalks, I was compelled to continue my brisk walk out in the street. Using the High Street bicycle lane much of the time due to the vast areas of unremoved snow along the curb, I experienced many close calls with motorists who seemed to want my walk to end at Anna Jaques Hospital.

One hesitates to contemplate the possibility that these close-call motorists are entirely bereft of common sense, but that is certainly the impression they present.

Otherwise, who in their right mind would think that driving a two-ton automobile within striking distance of a pedestrian is preferable to briefly moving over the center line to give walkers a wide berth? Last time I checked with the Newburyport Police Department, moving over the center line to avoid sideswiping a pedestrian is not only not a ticketable traffic offense, it is the proper procedure.

So why do so few motorists fail to swing wide when passing pedestrians? Ignorance of the law may be one excuse. Just plain ignorance may account for the rest. In any event, having once been struck by the exterior mirror of a passing pickup truck, I can attest that it is not a pleasant experience for the walker, and it may well be an expensive one for the driver.

Oddly, the smaller the vehicle, the more likely their drivers were to brush back a walker by passing too closely. Meanwhile, larger vehicles — especially commercial trucks — generally gave this pedestrian a wide berth. Might there perhaps be some correlation between vehicle size and cranial capacity? One wonders.

Snow removal, or rather the lack of it, remains a contributing hazard. Yet, when you think about how long New England has been inhabited, you might wonder why we haven’t conjured up a more creative solution by now, instead of the old Yankee strategy of simply waiting for the spring thaw. Sure, it’ll all melt eventually, but what do we do in the meantime?

If one were to gauge the city’s prosperity by the countless shiny new Land Rovers filling driveways, and no doubt garages all over Newburyport, one would think that there would be excise tax money aplenty for the city to do a better job of snow removal.

Some towns use a small Bobcat plow to clear their sidewalks, while in other communities an industrial-size snowblower moves accumulated snow from curbside into dump trucks, but Newburyport apparently has neither. New York City strategically positions its two pricey melting trucks in Manhattan, their heated beds rapidly turning truckloads of snow back into water and sending it down the sewer in a matter of moments. No, we’re not likely to see one of those in Newburyport, either.

Can we get able-bodied welfare recipients to earn their EBT cards — along with some self-esteem — by shoveling snow in return for their support? It worked during the last Great Depression; perhaps it would work during this one.

There are, of course, many solutions, but perhaps Goethe said it best: “Let everyone sweep in front of his own door, and the whole world will be clean.”


Warren P. Russo lives in Newburyport.