For what I hope will be the last time of the season, I was out shovelling snow this afternoon.
It takes me 15-20 minutes to clear the driveway and our stretch of sidewalk, so the chore is not too tiresome. Plus, it has been a weak winter in Denmark, as is often the case, and I think I can count on one hand the times I’ve had to shovel this year.
Still, as a homeowner its something you do – to make sure you can get your car out, so visitors can approach safely – and because you are obligated by law. As a general rule in Denmark, any stretch of paved sidewalk must be kept clear and passable by the landowner.
It is easy to see, however, that the obligation is taken quite lightly. Nowhere in the places I’ve lived or visited in the last few years do you see 100% compliance. Sure, many people do it, but pedestrians can never be sure of clear passage.
I may not be the first to shovel (that honour often goes to our next-door neighbour), but I do try to do my duty, and I am definitely not the last on the street.
Why the variance?
There are many excuses for the lack of compliance. Ruling out the weak and elderly (which I believe may be granted exemption), most would say they are too busy with work and tight schedules. It is a weak argument, however.
The small-business-owner across the street, for instance, has plenty of time for loud building projects and polishing his Tesla, but not once in our four years on the street have I seen their stretch of sidewalk cleared of snow.
Another reason could be that many people drive more. They are oblivious to the annoyance they bring down on pedestrians, since they rarely walk themselves.
Which brings me to the final reason: something has changed in our society in terms of solidarity. That’s a big word to use for a small matter, I know. But I believe it is an example of how we care less for what others think, and more for ourselves.
The lawful obligation to clear your own sidewalk most likely comes from a time when this was the common solution to such issues: it was natural for people to think of the better good of their neighbours and communities. The social contract mandated that you did your duty to keep things tidy.
That social contract seems to have changed, even while the legislation remains.
What should we do about it, then? A common answer would be nothing; there are bigger issues to worry about. They have a point. But the case still presents a mismatch which I cannot quite ignore.
There is the American option: do away with sidewalks altogether: no shovelling, no problem. Not very child-friendly, though.
There is the ‘fascist’ option: increase the penalty for non-compliance. Today you can sue for damages if you slip on a non-cleared sidewalk, but it rarely happens. You could have the police do rounds and enforce the law. Probably not the best use of their time.
There is a campaign option: through communication efforts you can remind people that this is important, and why.
Another option is to revise the legislation: acknowledging that we will never see full compliance, remove the obligation from the homeowners, make it a public responsibility, and send the bill back to citizens through higher taxes. Good luck with that.
Ignoring the reality
What amuses me, though, is a common objection to doing anything at all. Many people will respond by saying something like: “People know the rules, they just need to follow them.” While technically not incorrect, it also completely ignores the fact that currently people do know the rules, but they don’t follow them.
If the system is outdated, and the social contract dissolved, then an appeal like that will achieve absolutely nothing.
Bottom line: It is difficult to change a social tradition that has been in place for generations, even if and when it stops working.