While the latest installment of DC’s record-breaking winter snow has passed over the area, the mountains of snow lining streets and piled on sidewalks appear to be here to stay for the time being. These problems, unusual this far south, are testing residents’ patience with their neighbors.
DC law states that residents are responsible for clearing the snow from sidewalks on their property, but the monumental task that this poses after two major storms has left some unwilling or unable to face up to the task. The Washington Post discusses the problem:
It was fully 48 hours since the flakes of Snowmageddon had ceased falling, but by midday Monday, many residents and merchants in Adams Morgan still had not cleared their portions of public walkways, disregarding the District’s law mandating that property owners clear snow and ice from their sidewalks within eight hours after the snowfall’s completion.
Through the Mid-Atlantic, rules regarding sidewalk shoveling vary from the mere expectation of courtesy to fines up to $100 for homeowners and business owners who do not do the right thing. While these municipal rules vary in how well they encourage citizens to maintain sidewalks, this issue might be better dealt with at a neighborhood rather than a city level.
In Understanding Institutional Diversity, Nobel Laureate Elinor Ostrom examines community-based efforts for solving collective action problems like sidewalks covered in snow. She suggests that shunning can be very effective in encouraging community members to follow rules. Imagine being publicly embarrassed at a neighborhood meeting for failing to shovel your walks in a timely manner.
Robert Nelson of the Mercatus Center explains in Private Neighborhoods and the Transformation of Local Government that the rise of private Neighborhood Associations is helping localities deal more effectively with such collective action problems.
In another snow-related economic conundrum, vehicle owners struggle to protect their rights to parking spaces that they have laboriously shoveled. In Boston, drivers can legally save their cleaned spots with lawn chairs or cones, but no such official rule exists in DC. However, an unscientific Washington Post poll found that 76% of respondents favored the right to reserve parking spots, effectively suggesting that the effort of shoveling is worth a guarantee of property rights.