Ice, Mud, or Puddle!


Damned if you do…

Welcome Minnesotans to another round of Ice, Mud, or Puddle! Just when our tundra homeland relents on its annual attempt to kill us with skin-peeling winds and lung-piercing temperatures, it turns the entire state into a swirling cauldron of glare ice, inescapable mud, and bottomless puddles. Pretty much every block has a stretch of sidewalk where the boulevard snow acts as a dam, creating a vast reservoir of water deep enough to foster a population of Asian Carp, and the only options for crossing are: on the left, an area of snow that has been tromped into an uneven escarpment of slick ice! Or, on the right, a strip of rutted, sticky mud straight out of Passchendaele!

Minneapolis promenade

Whenever I come to such a Hobson’s choice of a sidewalk (no matter whether you choose ice, mud, or puddle, you still get your feet wet), I always look over to the roadway. Of course, some roads are just as poorly drained or icy as a sidewalk, but the vast majority of them are dry and ice free. This is no coincidence, as we all know, since we as a society have decided to pour unimaginable amounts of money into the extensive drainage systems and enormous organizational effort required to keep the roads drivable (but nonetheless complain about it). Meanwhile, despite the more enlightened municipalities making minimal attempts to ensure adequate pedestrian space in their streets, the amount of funding for the pedestrian realm is a Loring Pond compared to the Lake Agassiz that gets spent on the part of the street dedicated to roads.


Loring chain of lakes

So, annually as necessary, I think about what could be done. Why aren’t sidewalks built with a cross slope from the centerline, as many roads are, so that water drains to either side and presumably leaves at least a narrow space to walk through? Why not use more heat-absorptive materials, such as asphalt, so that the ice melts more quickly? We already have this huge expensive network of drainage tunnels for roads, why not maximize our investment by using them to drain sidewalks as well? How much does plowing for parking spaces exacerbate sidewalk flooding? Could the issue be mitigated by banning parking and using that space for snow storage rather than the boulevard? If that’s not radical enough, how about replacing our existing residential streets with shared spaces streets so all modes benefit from the high drainage and clearance priority for cars?


Why not? We end up walking in the street anyway…

Soon the problem will be obviated by the relentless wobbling of the earth, which will expose the Burger King wrappers and pigeon shit that compose the pedestrian realm of the City of (sidewalk) Lakes to more and more solar energy and gradually bake away all of this impeding moisture (gravity will assist in this process). Until then, get ready for the season of wet socks, ankle casts, and futile searching for galoshes (most Americans today buy SUVs instead). If you need something to take your mind off it, how about posting more ideas for better spring sidewalks in the comments?

Daylight moonscape, Minneapolis

Alex Bauman

About Alex Bauman

Alex enjoys blogging on his iPhoneDroid while stuck in traffic on his 90 minute daily commute to Roseville from bucolic Staggerford.

14 thoughts on “Ice, Mud, or Puddle!

  1. Joseph TottenJoseph Totten

    Maybe not a crown, but a consistent slope of 1% would help with most of the smaller puddles, larger puddles need to be connected to storm drains when the catwalks would be replaced, and thus the removals are already happening.

  2. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

    Most sidewalks do have a cross slope to one side or another. The only reason they’re not draining is that there are big piles of snow on either side.

    Asphalt would definitely be a poor choice for sidewalks, as it needs to maintained much more than concrete. It would be seal-coating every few years, mill-and-overlay ideally every 10 years, all requiring large equipment, difficult to squeeze between boulevard trees and retaining walls. Or more likely, they simply aren’t maintained at all. Asphalt is also more difficult to manually shovel. The only redeeming factor for it as a sidewalk is that it’s easier on joggers’ joints.

    Meaningful shared space would be great, but unfortunately, we have so few examples of it… the most common good example is probably the suburban cul de sac.

    1. Alex BaumanAlex Bauman Post author

      It seems that asphalt is a common choice of sidewalk paving in the Scandinavian countries (or maybe just Norway?):

      My understanding is that while it needs more maintenance, it’s cheaper to do that more frequent maintenance. Not sure how that balances out. And from what I’ve seen, it’s actually just as easy or easier to squeeze into places due to its igneous nature.

      Not saying asphalt is the answer, but maybe it should be tested in an urban setting?

      1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

        I’m not saying the material isn’t flexible, I’m saying the equipment needed to lay the material well/cheaply is inflexible. Concrete sidewalks are generally finished by hand — you need the truck nearby, but a person can easily load a wheelbarrow and wheel into a tricky spot.

        Good catch about Norwegian sidewalks. I lived in Norway for two years, and did a semester abroad in Denmark, so I’ve had my share of Scandinavian sidewalks. Norway does indeed use asphalt for most sidewalks (although minor residential streets tend not to have sidewalks, and downtowns often have more elaborate/expensive pavers). That said, they also have fewer obstacles on the street side — boulevards are rare, as are boulevard trees. And the maintenance situation varied a lot. It seemed that in general, they were less concerned than Americans about pavement quality. (I don’t mean that as a criticism… I think we tend to waste too much money in the War on Potholes.)

        Denmark uses precast concrete tiles, at least in Copenhagen and its suburbs. I’m not sure why, but poured concrete just does not seem to be a paving surface there — for sidewalks, streets, or highways.

          1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

            Interesting re: Paris. And yes, you can color concrete to roughly the color of asphalt, although it would presumably be more expensive. There’s a good example of asphalt-colored concrete on the Hiawatha bike trail as it enters downtown.

            Remember that there is a trade-off between snow-melting and the urban heat island effect. White is less effective at melting snow, but during the summer, it’s preferable that it doesn’t absorb as much heat.

  3. Janne

    I notice that you’ve got at least one if not two Minneapolis Park Board sidewalks pictured. It’s my observation that other than a few select MPRB locations, they are some of the worst-cleared spaces AND some of the most poorly maintained sidewalks.

    I think in particular of the tiny triangle park at Hennepin S and 24th, where the sidewalks are totally sunken and sloped. They are the worst of the lakes I commonly walk through, exacerbated by the lack of maintenance. I can only assume MPRB doesn’t get sidewalk inspected, unlike homeowners, so they never fix their unwalkable/unrollable sidewalks.

    I also think of Mueller Park, between Bryant and Colfax just south of 25th, which is always the last place in the neighborhood to be plowed. That makes for some really treacherous ice. And how the plowing never actually follows the trails in Loring Park, again pushing bikes and pedestrians into deep mud.


      1. Froggie

        Aside from the freeways proper, MnDOT contracts to the city of Minneapolis…hence, for example, why the traffic signals on Hiawatha, Olson Hwy, and Central Ave are all city-spec instead of MnDOT-spec.

    1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

      You really think the City of Minneapolis is skipping over just MPRB sidewalks when they do their routine sidewalk inspections? I could see that there’s maybe oversight on parkways (although I know the City helps pay and maintain the roadways itself), but I can’t imagine there would be any different treatment on park land that adjoins City streets (like Smith Triangle that you mention).

  4. Walker AngellWalker Angell

    Maybe we should get some of these (I’ve seen path width versions):

    How quickly does the ground thaw enough to soak up some of this? Would pavers or other permeable surface work very well? Would consistently plowing extra width beside paths work (eg, plow 12′ for 10′ paths)? Netherlands and Sweden do include drains in all or most of their cycletracks.

  5. minneapolisite

    I hopped off my bike on the way to the Loring Greeway and was taking a nice walk through Loring Park when I came upon the Loring Chain of Lakes: I had to hop back on my bike a little sooner than I was planning to: it was a good 2-3 inches of water and I had to peddle gingerly to ensure no splashing. My advice to pedestrians is to always have a bike handy to cross these pesky pools without getting a drop of water in your boots (Shoes? What’s wrong with you?).

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