Matt DeLillo and his girlfriend just wanted to see a movie. But when they pulled into the parking lot of a Warwick cinema on a February evening, they found snow piled high in the handicap parking spots and mounds of snow and ice blocking the path to the front door.

They turned around, went home and put on Netflix — again.

For DeLillo, who uses a manual wheelchair to get around, canceling a movie night isn’t a life or death decision. But scenes like these play out countless times in the winter months in cities and towns across Rhode Island for DeLillo and thousands of other people with mobility challenges — the elderly, people with disabilities, people trying to take their young children out of the house.

Across Rhode Island, where our streets are often covered in snow and ice for nearly half the year, cities and towns mandate residents and businesses keep sidewalks clear. But in the state’s most populous cities, those laws are rarely enforced.

From the beginning of this year to the middle of February, the city of Providence — home to about 190,000 people — issued fewer than 121 tickets to people and businesses who failed to clear the public sidewalks of snow and ice.

The city of Boston, with about four times the population, issued 19 times the citations — nearly 2,300.

In Rhode Island’s other major cities, the picture is even bleaker, according to an analysis of data obtained by The Public’s Radio through multiple public records requests. Warwick, Cranston and East Providence failed to fine a single person or business during that period, which included a late January blizzard that left snow piles upwards of 20 inches. Pawtucket, with just 75,000 people, cited 103 people or businesses for failing to clear their walkways.

“When something as little as snow makes it so I can't do something, it reminds me that I am disabled,” said DeLillo, who works at the Ocean State Center for Independent Living helping people with disabilities get access to services. “I'll go days, weeks, however long at a time, and I'm just living my life, everything's fine and good. But when something like that comes up, it reminds me that I am different — that life for me is not fair, it's harder than it is for other people.”

Written in law, but rarely enforced

All five of Rhode Island’s most populous cities — Providence, Cranston, Warwick, Pawtucket and East Providence — have laws on the books that require businesses and residences to keep their public sidewalks clear of snow.

In Cranston, for example, businesses that fail to clear their sidewalks 24 hours after snowfall face a $250 fine. In Providence, anyone who hasn’t shoveled within eight hours of daylight faces a fine of up to $500. East Providence is more lenient, as it requires a written warning for the first offense, followed by fines of $25 and $75. Warwick requires only residents on a small number of “priority sidewalks” to keep them clear.

Through public records requests, The Public’s Radio collected and analyzed all warnings and citations issued by these cities since 2016, and all the snow removal complaints received by these cities during that time period.

Warwick and East Providence have not issued a single citation for violation of their snow removal ordinances since at least 2016, according to the records. Cranston has not issued a citation since December 2019.

Providence is not able to track the citations it issues for violations of its snow removal ordinance, which it files under an “other” category of citations that can include violations like improper recycling or overflowing trash barrels. The city issued an average of 273 “other” citations each year from 2017-2021.

Each of these cities has received many — often as many as hundreds of — complaints about unshoveled snow making public walkways nearly impassable. At times, city inspectors or police officers have warned people they are in violation of the city’s ordinance. East Providence, for example, issued 164 warnings in the wake of the late-January blizzard, three full days after the snowfall ended, but zero citations.

“Why aren't they ticketing?” DeLillo asked. “How come I can get a speeding ticket or I can get a parking ticket seven days out of the week, but you're not going out and ticketing people for not shoveling their sidewalks? If it's written in law and you have the power to enforce it, why are you choosing not to for three years? You haven't handed out a single ticket? I could hand out 500 in a day.”

Resources vs. snow

In Providence, the city’s Public Works director says that while the city tries to ensure high-traffic areas are clear, it’s largely up to Providence residents and businesses to clear the pathways for their neighbors.

“It's the residents who need to understand that maintaining the sidewalks has a big impact on just the walkability of the city and safety for everyone,” said Leo Perrotta, director of Providence’s department of Public Works. “And it's not a big ask that we're presenting for them — just to shovel the sidewalk, make it clear, make it passable, whether it's for schoolchildren, whether it's just for people catching the bus, regardless of who it is.”

Enforcement of sidewalk snow removal is up to a small team of city environmental inspectors who are responsible for warning residents of violations and issuing citations. But during storms, the inspectors first supervise the city’s road plowing efforts. So by the time they could be out enforcing the city’s snow ordinance, according to Perotta, many have been working nearly around the clock for days at a time. He said that lack of resources is likely one reason why Boston is able to issue so many more citations than Providence.

“I don't know what Boston has in terms of manpower,” Perrotta said. “Do they have an army of 50, 75, 100 people? I know what I have, and I have six. And they're also charged with operating snow vehicles and doing snow removal, or inspecting.”

Pawtucket, however, appears to punch above its weight in snow ordinance enforcement. Emily Rizzo, spokesperson for Mayor Donald Grebien, says it’s part of the city’s snow removal plans.

“We’re cognizant of the fact that people walk in Pawtucket,” Rizzo said. “A lot of kids walk to school, a lot of neighborhoods are walking neighborhoods. And in our downtown we want to: one, clear the roads to allow access and two, clear walkways so people can be a patron of businesses or go to school.”

The spokesperson for the mayors of East Providence and Cranston did not reply to requests for comment. The mayor of Warwick declined an interview through a spokesperson.

Little visibility, despite a blizzard of complaints

Snow- and ice-covered walkways are not a problem only for people with disabilities.

“Please clear the overpass on (Pawtucket Avenue in East Providence),” one February complaint to the mayor’s office reads. “Kids are walking to the high school in the street and it’s dangerous.”

Providence received a complaint that an apartment complex failed to shovel its walkways despite being home to multiple school bus stops. “I ask that you do everything possible to protect the well-being of the students,” the complaint reads.

Navigating winter streets with a stroller or a toddler is often impossible, leaving caretakers of young kids in a bind. And elderly people, too, are left to fend for themselves when businesses and residences fail to clear the sidewalks.

Tina Pedersen, founder of Real Access Motivates Progress, an organization that advocates in Rhode Island for people with disabilities and mobility challenges, says this reflects a larger problem: people with disabilities are often overlooked.

“They think that the disabled community, the elder community, that we don't eat anything, we just stay in our home,” Pedersen said. “But we still need food, we still need to access our life. A lot of us work. A lot of us have jobs; we need to get out. But the mentality is those who need that extra accessibility just don’t go out in that (weather.) It's not feasible. It's not real life.”

Pedersen uses a wheelchair. She says local governments have a responsibility to provide access to all citizens, regardless of their physical challenges.

“The bigger problem is, nobody's holding them accountable,” Pedersen said. “That's the biggest thing: nobody is out and about enforcing it. So no one cares. No one's raising awareness. Well, no one's listening to those raising awareness to the people doing this.”

Federal law requires cities and towns to provide accessible pedestrian access for people with disabilities. Municipalities that fail to provide this access run the risk of a lawsuit seeking damages under the Americans with Disabilities Act or an investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice, according to Robert Dinerstein, a law professor and director of the Disability Rights Law Clinic at American University’s Washington College of Law.

“Accessibility is the $64,000 word here,” Dinerstein says.

It’s not reasonable for anyone to expect sidewalks to be cleared immediately after the snow stops. But hours or days after the snowfall, all public ways have to be accessible. The city ordinances that require people to shovel are designed with that necessity, and federal law, in mind.

“You can’t delegate away your response, your legal responsibility,” Dinerstein says. “You, the governmental entity — you are the one who has to make sure this happens.”

Equal access, even in winter

Michelle Machado knows all too well what it’s like to have snow upend her life. She helps people with disabilities stay in their homes as a nursing home transitional coordinator at the non-profit Ocean State Center for Independent Living. She uses a walker or a wheelchair to get around in her own daily life.

Being barred from businesses and homes is just a normal fact of her life every winter, she says. She has arrived in parking lots to see her spot shoveled out but her pathway blocked. She has tried to visit businesses that have failed to shovel their entrance ramp. She serves on a number of state committees related to elderly services and has even had to cancel outreach events after arriving and finding the sidewalk outside the venue packed with snow and ice.

Meeting a friend for dinner in Providence in early March, she was blocked by an unshoveled sidewalk in front of the restaurant.

“So I literally walked on the side of the street near a car that was parked,” Machado said. “And then she walked on the outside to make sure that the oncoming traffic wouldn't hit me. But that's the fear.”

While battling snow is a constant in the northern U.S. and Canada, cities approach the problem in vastly different ways. Cities like Syracuse and Rochester, New York, clear hundreds of miles of sidewalks as they do roads and Boston is testing a program that pays city workers to clear certain stretches of widely used pathways.

And enforcement of snow removal laws varies widely in cities across New England. Boston, with its 2,647 snow removal citations issued in 2021, remains a major outlier. Worcester, which has a larger but similar population to Providence, issued 129 violations through the middle of February to Providence’s 121.

Somerville, Massachusetts, which has a similar population to Cranston and Warwick, issued 345 citations, while the Rhode Island cities issued zero.

New Britain, Connecticut, which has a similar population to Pawtucket, issued just 8 citations to Pawtucket’s 103. Fall River issued 106, New Bedford 15.

That doesn’t change what these cities owe their residents, Machado says.

“All we want is, we want greater access and we want the same rights that everybody else has,” Machado said. “Because we are adults, we are contributing members of society. And we deserve that. We deserve the same recognition. Because we've worked hard to get here.”

This story misidentified the location of a movie theater. It is in Warwick, just across the line from East Greenwich.

Jeremy Bernfeld is senior editor for investigations at The Public’s Radio. Email him at