By Allen Cowgill
West Highland resident and longtime transportation planner Jim Charlier said there’s a reason Denver doesn’t plow residential neighborhood streets.
“The brown cloud was really ugly,” he said.
Charlier told The Denver North Star that in the 1980s and 1990s, Denver had a serious problem — a massive, thick layer of polluted air covered the skyline.
“If you came over the lip of I-70 coming down into Denver from the mountains, in the ’80s and ’90s when you came over in the winter time, you didn’t see the city at all, you just saw a big brown rug,” he said. “(Pollutant particles) and ozone do pretty significant public health damage,” he said. “People die sooner, children get asthma.”
Charlier said a study was done in the 1980s that uncovered a brown cloud mostly made of particulate matter 10 pollutants (PM10). Since December, Denver residents have seen a lot of snow hitting the streets and sidewalks with various levels of plowing and shoveling.
A second study was done in the 1990s to try to uncover the source of the brown cloud, which found 90% of it was from dust drivers kicked up while driving their cars down the road, and it was often worse after a snowstorm when a temperature inversion would trap all the polluted air around down.
“That was an aha moment,” Charlier said. Based on those findings, many cities in the Denver metro area moved to a new snow management plan that would “save money, use less fuel, and would reduce the brown cloud emissions.
By the mid 1990s in some cities, you started seeing residential streets weren’t being plowed in the winter. Leaving the snow on the street meant that there was no dust for drivers to kick up during temperature inversions after snowstorms that would trap the brown cloud around Denver. Charlier said some of that history has been lost.
“People don’t remember how we got where we are. They don’t remember how much good the current policy has done,” he said.
Although Charlier said there is room for improvement for Denver’s snow removal policies, especially when it comes to clearing sidewalks, he hopes that people will be able to tolerate parts of the current snow removal policy and occasion big storm like this once per year that results in less than ideal conditions for streets, so that the brown cloud doesn’t return.
Denver’s Department of Transportation and Infrastructure (DOTI) is responsible for plowing city streets with a fleet of 170 employees with commercial drivers licenses, driving 70 large plows that clear any of Denver’s collector and arterial streets.
During larger storms, DOTI also uses a smaller fleet of 36 pickup trucks to plow the residential side streets. These smaller vehicles are only able to scrape off the top layer of snow, but they help residents get to the more well-plowed streets and prevent ruts from forming after large storms.
The city has two teams of eight people taking care of pedestrian bridges and protected bike lanes. The Dec. 28 storm that hit resulted in around 8 inches of snow falling in North Denver and left streets covered in snow and ice for quite some time afterward.
The volume of snow was a bit of a surprise for the city.
“Headed into Wednesday night, we were looking at a forecast of 1-5 inches of snow, coming in as rain first,” DOTI Communications Director Nancy Kuhn said. “That is not a forecast we’d typically respond to with the residential plows. We ended up getting quite a bit more snow than was forecasted.”
“It was also an unusually wet, spring-like storm,” she continued. “We sent some residential plows out on Thursday and Friday but the snow on the residential streets got packed down quickly, so the residential plows were not all that helpful at that point.”
The Jan. 17 storm had a forecast of 6-11 inches, so DOTI deployed the residential plow fleet throughout the city. They brought in extra city staff and had the residential plows running for four 12-hour shifts, Kuhn said.
Denverites and businesses are responsible for shoveling their own sidewalks as well as the curb ramps adjacent to their property per city law. Businesses have four hours to remove the snow while residents have 24 hours to clear their sidewalks after the snowfall stops. Residents can report non compliant shoveling complaints to 311 or pocketgov.com.
Denver’s Community Planning and Development Department (CPD) is responsible for enforcement of the sidewalk snow removal policy. Between the two recent snow storms, CPD Communications Director Laura Swartz said the department received 2,479 complaints.
City inspectors showed up at each of those properties, and at 710 properties the snow had melted or the property owner had already shoveled their sidewalk. At 1,733 properties, the resident received a notice from city inspectors that the snow needed to be cleared from the sidewalk by the next day, and business owners received a notice that snow needed to be cleared within four hours when inspectors would come back to verify it.
The notices proved to be very effective, Swartz said, adding 35 properties did not clear their sidewalks after receiving the notice and thus received a $150 fine at the follow- up inspection.
One property received a second fine of $500. Residents with disabilities or are elders who are unable to shovel or can’t afford a service to shovel for them can sign up to get a Snow Angel, or volunteer to shovel their sidewalk, by calling 720-913-7669.
Editor’s note: After the February edition of The Denver North Star was printed, DOTI officials said because of the snow forecast for Feb. 15, they intend to plow residential side streets.
“The big plows will deploy to the main streets when snow starts to accumulate,” DOTI stated in a news release The residential plows will work a 3:00 a.m.-3:00 p.m. shift on (Feb. 15), taking a single pass down the center of each side street. The small plows do not bring streets to bare pavement but can be helpful in creating a path to the main streets and preventing deep ice ruts from forming. The residential plows do not carry deicer.”
“The snowfall that’s predicted could result in challenging travel conditions and residents are encouraged to plan ahead and allow themselves extra time to reach their destinations tomorrow.”