Plowing: You’re Doing It Wrong

Let’s expand on Walker’s article about the bone-shaking paths we’re subjected to walking and riding in winter…

My question is: if a city has a plowing policy for paths, but not a “bare path” policy, is it worth it to plow the path at all?

I live in Fridley, and 2013-2014 is the first winter where the city has decided to plow the paths. Previously they would just plow what few sidewalks the city has. Neither the path or the sidewalk plowing are bare path, so I look at them both through the same lens.

I tried riding these partially plowed paths on a bike with studded tires. When the snow has not yet been compacted to ice (the bone-shaking Walker refers to), it is quite a bit like sand. Riding on sand is difficult. I’m not an accomplished cyclist, but I managed to make my way to the barber shop and back. I had to walk my bike up a slight incline once I lost my momentum. Starting to pedal on the slope was nearly impossible since all I did was spin the wheel, kick up snow, and dig myself further in.

Bare path plowing isn’t just for bikes. Being sure-footed goes a long way to avoid fatigue. In Fridley, most of the people I see walking walk in the street. Mississippi St. is Fridley’s main street and one of the few city streets with sidewalks. There the letter carrier prefers to walk in the road, which is a harrowing 4-lane, no-shoulder affair. He walks up every meticulously maintained suburban driveway to deliver mail to the door – there are no mailboxes on Mississippi St. He just prefers to avoid the city maintained/neglected sidewalk.

By maintaining a “bare pavement” street plowing policy while neglecting paths and sidewalks, the city is sending a clear message to pedestrians: don’t walk. Walking in the street sends that message right back to the city: If you’re not going to fully plow the area where I’d like to walk, I’ll walk where it is fully plowed.

Walkers Seeking Pavement

Desperately Seeking Pavement

I prefer the Minneapolis approach where the residential property owner is responsible for clearing the sidewalk. Residents get it. If you want your sidewalk to be usable, you have to clear the snow as close as you can to the surface. Then when the sun comes out, it can reach the surface to slightly warm it and melt what’s left.

So is the question really: is it better to have a half-hearted plowing policy or instead enlist the city’s most prevalent resource, its citizens, to help out?

Which is more effective, having the plowing crew of two dozen workers clearing the sidewalks or having thousands of residents pitching in? Like Chuck Marohn says, the top-down approach is orderly but dumb, employing citizens may be chaotic, but it is smart.




Justin Foell

About Justin Foell

Justin is an aspiring urbanist stuck in suburbia. He enjoys cycling, beer, yo-yos, computers, and other geekery. Closet railfan.

30 thoughts on “Plowing: You’re Doing It Wrong

  1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

    In general, I agree with you, Justin. Property owners tend to do a better job than the city, and it avoids using public resources to maintain something that can easily be maintained individually. In Richfield, we’re in a pretty similar situation, with relatively few sidewalks, and all of them being city-maintained.

    In that context, do you have something more of a problem of fairness, however. Probably 90%+ of Minneapolis homeowners have a sidewalk, and they all have to shovel it. (The only “unfairness” being corner lots.) In Richfield, only about 10% of streets have sidewalks: is it fair to ask those homeowners to be responsible for a piece of infrastructure that’s fairly essential to the function of our high-volume streets?

    Were Richfield or Fridley or any other city to embark on a more ambitious sidewalk campaign, I think the answer would be clearer. As it stands now, I’m not sure what the right answer is.

    The problem is even trickier as you get out into the modern suburbs, where multi-use paths are more common. They are often 10′ wide, and made of asphalt, much harder to shovel by hand. Even worse, the competing desires of access management and affection for driveway-in-front mean that many through streets have no residential frontage. Is a homeowner like this going to hop their fence or walk around the block to shovel the sidewalk that they technically adjoin?

    1. David LevinsonDavid Levinson

      In terms of fairness, existing sidewalk property abutters usually knew about the sidewalk when purchasing the property, so the obligation to shovel should be factored into land value. (i.e. if they don’t like sidewalks they pay less for land abutting sidewalks with an obligation, or more for sidewalk free parcels). New sidewalks created different situations.

      1. David LevinsonDavid Levinson

        In terms of shoveling to the pavement, I am not sure that is wise with ice formation. A small layer of packed snow is much better to walk on than a sheet of ice formed by melt/freeze on a shoveled sidewalk packed in between mountains of snow.

      2. Nathanael

        “(i.e. if they don’t like sidewalks they pay less for land abutting sidewalks with an obligation, or more for sidewalk free parcels). ”

        People actually DID that in the town where I live. And they campaigned loudly to prevent the expansion of the sidewalk network!

        This is ENTIRELY because of the IDIOTIC ordinances trying to force people to shovel & maintain the sidewalks which happened to run by their property. It creates a large anti-sidewalk lobby, which becomes very powerful.

        Ever wondered why there are so many areas without sidewalks? It’s because of these DUMB 19th-century ordinances, which created a strong anti-sidewalk lobby.

        Make sidewalk maintenance a city responsibility. Make sidewalk clearing a city responsibilty. Raise taxes for it — the taxes will be far lower than the actual cost of individuals doing the sidewalk clearing, thanks to economies of scale, and we’ve seen this in practice.

        Then people will be much more willing to have sidewalks installed.

    2. Nathanael

      Trying to force citizens to do plowing often simply doesn’t work. We’ve seen this in a lot of smaller towns in upstate NY. It failus particularly badly in two areas:
      (1) commercial districts
      (2) districts with large empty lots, or sidewalks facing blank wals or fences

      The thing is, if the city does the plowing — and the city SHOULD do the plowing — the city has to take the plowing *seriously*.

      The municipality does take sidewalk plowing that where I live, both in the city and in the town (you’d call it a “township”). This half-assed plowing is no good.

      1. Nathanael

        (Sentence got messed up.)

        The municipality does take sidewalk plowing seriously where I live, both in the city and in the town (you’d call it a “township”).

        This half-assed plowing you describe is no good.

      2. Justin FoellJustin Foell Post author

        Nathanael, it’s been my experience that on average, citizens take more pride in clearing sidewalks than cities, especially suburbs that cannot afford it.

        If most cities were to take it seriously, I’d agree with you. I’d like to see some examples of cities doing a good job and find out what their budget for sidewalk clearing is.

  2. Jennifer

    I live in Mendota Heights, or as I like the call it, The City With No Sidewalks or Streetlights, and I do not have a sidewalk (or a streetlight), nor do many of my neighbors. I have a very large corner lot so shoveling/plowing it would be a burden to me, but I would still welcome that burden over the current burden of not being able to feel safe about letting my son ride his bike anywhere. We live at the intersection of two county highways and to get anywhere we have to cross at least one of them.

    Shared use Ped/Bike paths would be a huge benefit to our city and I’d even go so far as to say I’d pay more taxes to have them! Sidewalks encourage mobility and human-powered transportation. Keeping them clear is just a responsibility that goes with home-ownership.

  3. Joseph TottenJoseph Totten

    Wondering if Minneapolis would be able to find a way of better checking sidewalks for having been shoveled. 311 is nice, but it’s been clear that an exact address had to be given, allowing a house to either side would be fantastic. Also, the places that should be the most walkable single family neighborhoods should be around the U of M, lots of students walking to class. But students either don’t want to shovel or don’t have it written into their lease, several sidewalks around are entirely unshoveled.

    1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

      Agreed that these should be a priority for enforcement. Remember that it is the property owner who is responsible in the eyes of the City, not necessarily the resident. Although as a matter of practice, I’m inclined to think any able-bodied person whose sidewalk is not being cleared by their owner should just pick up a shovel…

      1. Nathanael

        I’m all for volunteerism, sure, and I sometimes clean stuff off when the responsible parties don’t, and I have free time.

        But the *responsibility* for clearing the sidewalks should fall on the city government. Property owners should simply pay taxes for it.

        If you’ve ever actually compared the “pay taxes for the city to shovel everyone’s sidewalks” vs. “each property owner hires someone separately” options, you’ll see that paying the taxes is a lot cheaper. There are economies of scale in sidewalk clearance.

  4. Alex

    I’m not sure I agree that clearing to bare pavement is the best method for pedestrians in all cases. It seems to me that sidewalks cleared to the bare pavement are more susceptible to icing over in freeze/thaw cycles. In that case a relatively level packed snow sidewalk offers much more traction. Of course that’s of no use if the packed snow is really uneven, so I think this approach works better only on wider sidewalks that aren’t exposed to full-day sun (in which case they get icy anyway).

  5. Dave P

    I’m not sure where you got that photo in Minneapolis, but I can promise you the sidewalks rarely look like that. Especially in the areas which actually need them. It seems like folks who live on major thoroughfares are less likely to shovel their sidewalks.

  6. Matthew

    Putting the responsibility on residents is only as effective as the enforcement.Around downtown Hopkins there is an abundance of sidewalks, but with the poorly enforced city ordinance that residents keep them clear we have mixed results. Many people do keep the walkways clean, but many also do not. It seems a lot of corner lots are in this second bunch, and I’ve learned just how difficult it is for a stroller or my Kindergartener to navigate the mounds of snow at many street corners.

    I like the residents-as-caretakers ordinance, but it has to be enforced.

    1. Nathanael

      It’s unenforceable and makes people angry.

      Top down is orderly and smart.

      Trying to force individuals to coordinate to do this… is authoritarian and dumb.

  7. Justin FoellJustin Foell Post author

    I agree with David Levinson that the “fairness” issue is well known issue to home owners and purchasers.

    As far as the ‘burbs are concerned (Savage, Richfield, Fridley, et al) they’re textbook examples of poor land use. Many of the suburban sidewalks and paths, like the my photo from New Brighton and the path in Savage, are along roads where there are no properties that could be held responsible for maintenance.

    Minneapolis, being an “old” city, has a taxable property and property owner wherever you find a sidewalk – funny how those go together.

    Dave, I agree with that image… my photo was from 44 Ave S, walking south from the 50th St. LRT station. There were a few guilty parties that left their sidewalks in an icy condition, but the majority were spic and span.

    1. Dave P

      We can agree to disagree, but living in Minneapolis the ‘maintained by the people’ picture is not as rosy as you paint it. Check out Dinkytown, NE, North or Uptown. I’ll give credit to the South side where I live, it’s decent, but nearly every corner I’m climbing an ice mountain as the resident didn’t have the energy to clear. Not to mention bus stops, yikes… Bring your best glacier gear.

      The other problem you are missing is non-homesteaded properties, hence worse sidewalks in some of the neighborhoods I rent above. You think a landlord who neglects his property is going to be out shoveling, paying someone to shovel or just ignoring a fine that’s not likely to come in the first place? Hence why some of the rental heavy neighborhoods I mentioned and major thoroughfares are generally worse. i’d love the city to take care of arterials and bus stops, because at the moment, it’s not happening in many places. Homeowners clearing on side streets works for the most part.

      Alex and David also have a good point about packed snow. The best winter bike riding I had (until the last dump ruined all streets, paths and sidewalks in the city) was riding on Minnehaha parkway. The city left a small, even buffer and traffic was light enough that it froze and stayed level. Constrast that with the well maintained Greenway, which was severely rutted due to heavy traffic and tough to have sure traction.

      1. Nathanael

        “Maintained by the adjacent owner” doesn’t work in the long term because of the nature of paths.

        If even one property owner doesn’t do the work, suddenly the entire length of sidewalk becomes impassible due to that barrier. The same would be true of streets; if we relied on property owners, pretty soon “that one guy” would break the street grid.

        This is core city services material. It’s hard to do right but there’s no option other than doing it right.

    2. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

      That is an extreme generalization of “the ‘burbs” versus “the city”. The reality is that almost all of the older suburbs and inner-ring cities use a form that’s substantially similar to Minneapolis — relatively deep and narrow lots, on standard-sized blocks, with a continuous grid. In fact, the Met Council classifies them as completely different as well: Richfield (and several other first-ringers) are classified as part of the “urban center”, Fridley is “urban”, while Savage is “suburban edge”.

      Although there certainly is some deviation from the standard urban form in Fridley, it is still a far cry from late 20th-century development in Savage, Lakeville, etc. Which is, for the sake of sidewalks, a very hopeful thing. On stroads like I linked to from Savage, the City is permanently beset with having to clear that path/sidewalk. On most roads in Fridley, Richfield, Columbia Heights, wherever, there is generally a property owner who could be tasked with the sidewalk clearing.

      1. Nathanael

        And suppose the property owner is not physically capable of the cleaning? I suppose he has to hire a service, which comes out and just clears the 20 feet right in front of his house? Wasteful, just as having multiple private garbage haulers is wasteful.

        This sort of “individual responsibility” system is STUPID. We tried it in the 19th century for lots of things. My locality used to use it for sidewalk maintenance and repair, and just got rid of it in favor of plain old taxation and city services.

        The right way to do this is for the city to do it, and for the city to do it right. This may require assessing a fee or tax to every building in the city which benefits from the sidewalks; if so, do it.

        1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

          If a property owner is unable to clear snow (and has not made other arrangements to have it cleared), I’d have to wonder how exactly s/he lives in Minnesota. I think your efficiency argument is a good one, but I’d look at it the other way: since a homeowner already has to clear stairs, walks, and possibly a driveway, what’s another 40-50′ linear of straight, narrow concrete? It makes more sense for the homeowner to clear that in the course of cleaning their private property than it does for them to stop at the ROW line and have a city employee come out and do a rushed job with a specialized vehicle, possibly days after the fact.

          1. Nathanael

            So, your argument makes sense for single-family houses with long walks and long driveways and big yards, but it makes no sense whatsoever for urban rowhouses, let alone small commercial buildings.

            1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

              In the case of almost any rowhouse situation today, snow clearing is likely to be a task of the HOA. The only exception that even comes to mind is something like the old brownstones around Elliot Park or Stevens Square. I wouldn’t necessarily oppose a city-cleared special district. But the vast majority of Minneapolis is single-family homes on moderate-sized lots, and I don’t see any reason to beset the city with a new task of clearing every sidewalk in such areas, especially when municipalities that do that (like Fridley and Richfield) often see their sidewalks in even worse shape.

              As for small commercial buildings: it’s just yet another reason to advocate for building design that prioritizes the sidewalk, and has an entrance directly off the sidewalk. When a business owner has a financial interest in a clear walk, s/he will take care to see that it is clear. I generally find that sidewalks around small commercial nodes (say, 56th and Chicago or 38th and Cedar) tend to be slightly better cleared than residential walks.

  8. Gabe Ormsby

    I’m torn on the owner vs city responsibility question. There is a lot of economy of scale a city would enjoy (one school the next block over has “a guy” who does their walks with a truck, and occasionally it looks like he just goes all the way around the block while he’s at it.) And centralizing responsibility would make the complaint/redress channel that much simpler.

    Either way, one thing the city could do would be to assume responsibility for sidewalk-to-street cutouts, especially on the corners–Currently the property owners’ responsibility. These are a major point of friction because the owners who do make it a point to clear that access early are perpetually having it plowed back in by the street plows, and often the new berm is more compacted, harder, heavier snow that’s more difficult to shovel out. Corner properties get the worst of this–It’s essentially pointless to try to keep street access clear in a winter like this where plows have essentially decided to use that very same area–where pedestrians go to cross the streets–as snow storage. A homeowner with a corner lot would need heavy equipment to clear that area where sidewalk meets street.

    1. Justin FoellJustin Foell Post author

      Sean – I should have stated the design differences as “traditional city” – standard grid, alley access for cars, and sidewalks versus “post WWII suburbia” – twisting roads, cul-de-sacs, driveway access for cars, and few sidewalks. Some older suburbs began with the traditional model for which I’m advocating. There’s a traditional neighborhood in Fridley (Hyde Park), but it is now a tiny enclave within the normal suburban development pattern.

      Dave – I agree about the rental properties. Cities could be more proactive about enforcement on rental properties, but it’s probably a balancing act of whether or not it’s worth it to police the sidewalks. I don’t think having a “rental nazi” – like some cities have employed – is the right answer. Better to have the rentals widely spread out amongst the homesteaded properties.

    2. Nathanael

      It should be a city responsibility, period.

      Where I live, they established “sidewalk benefit districts” for the maintenance of sidewalks — people with property in those districts pay an extra annual fee at tax time for sidewalk maintenance. (This way people who have no sidewalks at all don’t pay for sidewalk maintenance.)

  9. Adam MillerAdam

    Hm. Citizens clearing there own sidewalks is great, as long as it happens. I went for a walk around Whittier and Lowry Hill a few days after one of the recent snows. The sidewalks were not in good shape, and even where they were clear, they often were often blocked at the intersections (I thought about tweet at the rich people on the hill to get their servants to do a better job).

    Which is not to say that I necessarily disagree.

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