A Next Year’s Resolution on Sidewalk Ice & Pedestrian Safety

winter-deco-removal-2

Workers remove winter decorations on Hennepin Ave on March 26, 2014.

Tis’ the season we go from snowy sidewalks, to slushy, and then icy ones. And in many ways that’s a hopeful sign. A promise of warmth and fun, of walks around the lakes, Open Streets, Nice Rides across the Stone Arch, and everything else you can fit into 7 months of t-shirt weather.

So while you’re in a good mood regarding the impending change of season, I need you to make a promise. Make a Next Year’s Resolution to your neighbors that you’ll do everything in your power to keep them a little safer next winter.

That is to say: Clear your damn sidewalks.

These pavements are paved with ice sheets

These pavements are paved with ice sheets

This is a tale of a journey fraught with thrills, near-spills, and the eventual triumph of one man over mother nature and the neglectful property owners determined to put him on his ass. It was biblical. Thus sayeth the pedestrian: I am returned! And I will immediately take up my laptop to compose this message to my city.

It was a 5-block walk to the UPS store, followed by a routine pit-stop at the grocery store. A block from my house I turn up a section of west 26th street that I don’t typically walk during winter (Now keep in mind that 26th street is a one-way, two-lane, high-speed pedestrian-terror, even in the warmest of times. But that’s an entirely different topic). I came upon a woman, a full foot and a half shorter than me, and apparently a grizzled veteran of this stretch of 26th street, who shook her head in sympathy as I climbed over a crunchy snowbank. I slipped, then caught myself as I stepped back onto the edge of an icy patch of sidewalk. She smartly moved herself into the road–squeezing herself between parked cars and snowbanks to avoid the ice patch I had just traversed.

And then another 30-foot stretch of ice.

And another.

And yet another.

Sidewalk ice. In case you've never seen it before.

More sidewalk ice. In case you’ve never seen it before.

At one point I was trapped mid-block. Prudence told me to cross over another crusty snowbank (of uncertain structural integrity) and double-back across 26th street. So I did, eventually making it to the safety of Hennepin Ave, where I came upon a blind woman finding her way with a cane. She clearly knew what she was doing but I felt compelled to chase her down and ask if I could help. Before I caught up she had made it to her bus stop, so I walked on by.

I understand this story is no revelation. It’s entirely typical. But… blind people are walking our sidewalks! These sidewalks. In this condition. This blind woman can’t drive a car. Walking is literally her only choice–if only to make it a few blocks to the bus stop. That this is typical is a massive civic failure.

sidewalk-26st-3

I’ve got a million of ’em. Same stretch of 26th. One after the other.

I’m a youngish, tall, long-legged, athletic man (and, parenthetically-speaking between you and I, dreadfully handsome). I’m the type to shrug off the snow and the cold when others complain. If these icy sidewalks pose a serious hazard to me, what does it mean for the vast majority of people less physically capable? Like I said, blind people are walking our sidewalks. And people of shorter stature who can’t easily hop from one bare patch of pavement to the next. And the elderly, who I’m guessing more often than not just stay home to avoid this treacherous ice. And the disabled. And children walking back and forth to school. And drivers walking 3-blocks to and from their cars because of parking restrictions. And human beings of all stripes and abilities who just need to walk somewhere. If, in a perfectly walkable neighborhood (geographically speaking), we all have to get in a car to safely move ourselves 3 blocks to the grocery store, we’ve got a major problem on our hands.

I’m annoyed when this topic comes up strictly in the context of the disabled. This issue isn’t about the disabled. This isn’t about a special interest. This isn’t about advocating for the less fortunate. This isn’t about giving people special accommodation. This is about everybody. Everyone has the right to walk safely through their neighborhood.

On my short walk down 26th street, it seemed every block was covered in ice. But it wasn’t really every house on every block. See, it’s actually possible to clear the snow and ice from a sidewalk. I know this because some people actually do it. I salute these people–in my mind–every time I walk by their respective houses, casually peering through their windows (as non-creepily as I can) hoping for a glimpse of this heroic person or family, the proprietors of such a pristine sidewalk. Sometimes a sidewalk is so beautifully maintained that I’m struck with pangs of jealousy: “So this guy really thinks he’s something, doesn’t he? I bet he’s not half as amazing as his sidewalk implies.” Let me emphasize this again: if you’re one of the heroes, I salute you.

I've seen prettier jobs; but this property owner is still a hero.

I’ve seen prettier jobs, but this property owner is still a hero.

During my walk I tried to make a mental note of every sidewalk-posing-as-ice-rink so that afterwards I could Google map them and report each address on the section of the city website dedicated to sidewalk-ice scofflaws. But there were so many. I gave up. And besides: does the city really take prompt action on those reports? Are the penalties onerous enough to elicit compliance? I’m doubtful.

Do we need to do as Montreal does and add sidewalk snow removal as a municipal service? Increase the fines and/or the budget for enforcement? Or do we need to publish pedestrian trail maps of the city, a la bike trail maps, to indicate ice-free routes (call it Map of Minneapolis Heroes)? I don’t have the answers but I do know we need to do something.

As I write this, pedestrian safety is in the news in the context of traffic injuries and deaths. Pedestrian skeptics (I’ll call them) will find one reason or another to blame the pedestrian and excuse the driver in these cases. Stay out of my way. Stay out of the street. But what if the street is your safest option? The street should never be a sanctuary for pedestrians. There can be no comprehensive approach to pedestrian safety in Minneapolis that doesn’t address our seasonal sidewalk snow and ice neglect.

When the issue of sidewalk snow removal comes up–which is not nearly enough–I sometimes make the mistake of reading the comment sections. It’s Minnesota. It’s a fact of life. Get used to it. That’s true. Snow and ice is a fact of life here. We do just need to deal with it. But this goes for property owners too. The snow comes and it comes. Every year the snow comes, and we clear it from our roads. When the snow falls in southern states, as in Atlanta earlier this year, it’s a disaster. It’s different on Minnesota roads. The streets, the roads, the highways: they get our attention, as they should. We make it a priority to keep people safe as they travel on our roads. But for pedestrians, on sidewalks throughout Minneapolis all winter long, it’s snow-falls-on-Atlanta-style Armageddon.

So I beg of you, property owners, and City Council members with the power to compel them–before all the snow and ice disappears from sight and mind–make a Next Year’s Resolution that you’ll clear your sidewalks and help keep your neighbors safe on their travels.

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35 Responses to A Next Year’s Resolution on Sidewalk Ice & Pedestrian Safety

  1. Sean Hayford Oleary
    Sean Hayford Oleary March 28, 2014 at 9:43 am #

    As I have stated a number of times on Streets.mn, I believe property owners generally do a better job than a city is able to do. And that for cash-burdened Public Works departments, creating a massive new public burden for them to manage is unwise.

    This is the sidewalk along Portland Avenue in Richfield, three days after a major snowfall (‘scuse the driveby urbanism). People were walking in the bike lane the entire weekend to get to the bus. Even after the plows finally made it, the resulting sidewalks was worse than the ice traps you’ve pictured.

    Here’s a porkchop island in the Southdale district of Edina, also “cleared” by the city, with a 4-foot wall of snow. Both these cities genuinely care about and invest in Public Works. And they both have far fewer sidewalks to clear than Minneapolis would. Yet they’re still both atrociously bad. I can’t even imagine how this would play out on Minneapolis’s 1500+ miles of sidewalks.

    If we want to do something meaningful here, why not do more random enforcement? Minneapolis issues very few citations, and generally only if they receive complaints. Instead, why not pick areas of the city at random, and hand out warning tickets to every violative property?

    • John Edwards
      John Edwards March 28, 2014 at 10:32 am #

      You’re right. We need better enforcement with more onerous fines. If it’s cheaper to ignore the law, people will ignore the law.

    • John Edwards
      John Edwards March 28, 2014 at 10:49 am #

      Another thing on enforcement. Apparently it takes 3 complaints before any action is taken: https://www.facebook.com/lisabendermpls/posts/10152328274828685?comment_id=30253298&offset=0&total_comments=9

      Do we give people 3 chances to move their car when parking restrictions are in effect? They get towed the first time. One violation should be enough if safe sidewalks are as much a priority as safe roads. The way we currently do enforcement is just asking people to ignore the rules.

      • Matt Brillhart March 28, 2014 at 11:01 am #

        3 complaints? That is absurd.

        Then again, I never did get around to even complaining once about the triplex on the NE corner of 28th & Grand that (I think) did not shovel once all winter long. It’s a heavily trafficked enough sidewalk that the goat paths actually became passable after a while, but it was never once cleared in any meaningful way.

        One complaint should be all that it takes for action. I wonder how many sidewalk “inspectors” the city has out after a heavy snowfall? Should parking enforcement personnel also be checking sidewalks? It couldn’t hurt. Then again, if they don’t live in the city, they wouldn’t understand why it’s important at all.

        Everyone download the Minneapolis 311 app for your smartphone! Use it to report potholes, grafitti, and yes, sidewalk complaints!

        • Matt Brillhart March 28, 2014 at 11:04 am #

          *NW corner, not that it matters. I’ll be watching vigilantly next winter and reporting them.
          **I have a minor in geography (and live on another leg of that intersection). Good grief.

        • John Edwards
          John Edwards March 28, 2014 at 11:18 am #

          I’m sure that the complaint rate is tiny. You feel annoyed, but it’s cold and you’re in a hurry, so you keep walking.

          There’s an excellent comment from that link to Lisa Bender’s facebook page that I really identify with:

          “Firstly, 311 doesn’t work well for this particular use. The smartphone app wants me to stop in the middle of my walk (in the cold!) to get the gps of the location, rather than allowing me to tag it later — reporting my neighbors to the city while standing in front of their windows feels really uncomfortable. When I call, I am asked to give the street address (which can be very difficult to find, not to mention making me late or keeping me in the cold longer). And often, there will be entire stretches that aren’t shoveled, which means that I would like to report five or six properties at a stretch. Secondly, the complaint-based system means that there’s huge delays inherent in it: 24-48 hour grace period, complaint 1 (city verifies?), complaint 2 (city verifies?), complaint 3 (city verifies?), THEN shoveling by the city. Are these complaints send via mail? That adds a day as well. We’re looking at at least a week. And if the quality of the snow removal by Mpls parks is any indication, it still may remain dangerous and difficult to walk.”

    • Ed Kohler March 28, 2014 at 4:04 pm #

      It sounds like we can choose which department we’d rather pay to deal with snow. Should we fund public works so they can run proactively run Bobcats down our sidewalks, which sounds pretty darn efficient to me than having every home buying shovels and snow blowers. Or, should we spend money enforcing poor snow clearing?

      As someone who runs throughout the winter in Minneapolis, I’m confident that the city can do a better job clearing walks than citizens. It only takes one non-compliant property to screw up a block. And that’s as a runner. Think about what less able bodied people have to deal with due to our reliance on an unreliable system.

      • Sean Hayford Oleary
        Sean Hayford Oleary March 28, 2014 at 4:40 pm #

        I suppose it depends on how you view the efficiency. The vast majority of Minneapolis’s land is residential, without immediate access from the front door to the sidewalk. (There is usually a front lawn and walk; even in an urban rowhouse environment, there is a stoop.)

        Since homeowners are already clearing (or arranging to be cleared) their front walk, back walk, stairs, and likely driveway, why not ask them to clear another 35-50′ linear feet while they’re at it? That seems a lot more efficient than stopping at the property line and waiting for the city to come do it.

        I’d also note that snow is not the only thing where we expect homeowners to step up. We also expect them to maintain plantings in their boulevard, to water them, and to water trees as needed. Homeowners have an interest in these things happening, and it’s far more practical for them to do so than the City.

        The strongest I would ever want to see Minneapolis go is something more in-line with Edina’s snow policy: City clears MSA and CSAH routes (ie, sidewalks that are necessary for core transportation), but homeowners are responsible for sidewalks on minor streets (ie, where sidewalks are important, but less of a critical safety feature). That said, as I noted above, Edina’s clearing is far from universally successful.

        • Ed Kohler March 28, 2014 at 7:31 pm #

          I agree with you in theory, but in practice it’s not working. Perhaps the reason why is that the investment in clearing one’s walk benefits others more than oneself? I have a corner house, so quite a bit of sidewalk for a city lot. If I don’t clear it, all I need to do is make it to the edge of my lot to get where I’m going while screwing over everyone who passes by my house.

          I don’t see how maintaining lawns and trees is on the same level as helping blind people and less able bodied people navigate sidewalks with dignity.

          Municipal plowing of sidewalks along bus routes would be a great start. We could do a far better job making the city usable for people who don’t or can’t drive than we’re doing today. Relying on absentee landlords along bus routes in nice in theory, but, again, in practice just doesn’t work. And, as I mentioned earlier, I’d rather invest in getting it done right and in a timely manner rather than through reactive fines.

  2. Michael Roden
    Michael Roden March 28, 2014 at 10:33 am #

    There is a good point made that safe sidewalks are not only important to disabled pedestrians, they are important to everyone. It reminds me of the reasoning behind the Americans with Disabilities Act – it’s for the disabled but is also immensely helpful when an otherwise able-bodied person finds himself on crutches. Maybe enforcement could strengthened with legal justification from the ADA – but I’m no lawyer.

    • John Edwards
      John Edwards March 28, 2014 at 11:36 am #

      I like the idea of a super-litigious Ironside coming to the rescue.

    • Ed Kohler March 28, 2014 at 7:33 pm #

      They’re also helpful to people pushing strollers or carrying babies.

      We don’t have people build their own ADA compliant curb cuts. Why do we expect ADA compliant shoveling from volunteers?

      • Eric Anondson
        Eric Anondson March 28, 2014 at 8:58 pm #

        I’ll be honest, for some mysterious reason, most strollers are walked perfectly down the center of the street in my neighborhood. Completely avoiding the sidewalks.

        Don’t get it. Always get glares as I drive by them like I’M the doing the risky behavior.

        • Ed Kohler March 28, 2014 at 9:10 pm #

          I’m one of those stroller down the middle of the street dads. Over the winter, the reason is curb cuts. Hauling a stroller over uncleared curb cuts seems less safe than walking on a flat surface. Where am I less likely to slip or tip the stroller?

          I don’t find it unsafe to be in the streets (residential) because I’ve never encountered a situation where someone didn’t appear to notice a guy pushing a stroller down the middle of the street. People do give me looks suggesting that I’m being unsafe while they’re simultaneously slowing down and paying attention. An organic form of traffic calming.

  3. Erik March 28, 2014 at 10:41 am #

    “Do we need to do as Montreal does and add sidewalk snow removal as a municipal service?”

    Quite frankly, yes. Montreal also actually removes the snow from the road and piles it in some city-owned field. Not only does this negate the need for the even side parking ban, it also prevents thawing and refreezing.

    http://blogs.mprnews.org/newscut/2014/02/can-canada-teach-us-how-to-remove-snow/

    I think there could be some real value (cost/benefit) in a city program that would clear sidewalks along non-resident streets. Homeowners and apartment landlords would still be responsible for clearing on side streets.

    • Jamie March 30, 2014 at 12:11 pm #

      I love this. Thanks for sharing that article. What I think I love most is not just the clearing of snow, but that Canada treats that melted water. They store snow in the lot across the street from our house and it melts into a pile of trash and god-knows-what-else chemical wise. 🙁 Not great.

  4. cdElle March 28, 2014 at 11:06 am #

    CM Lisa Bender addressed the topic: https://www.facebook.com/lisabendermpls/posts/10152328274828685?stream_ref=10

    “The city is working on new strategies to ensure sidewalks are cleared, though it is still the property owners responsibility and is complaint-based via 311. (you call 311, the city sends notice to property owner. a second complaint means another notice. a third complaint, we send a contractor to clear and it is assessed to the property owner).”

    I used the site (http://www.minneapolismn.gov/snow/shovel/snow_snow) and it took approximately 10 days for the case to be closed. Now I learn it will require two other complaints. So best case, a month or more for effective resolution? If someone went the whole winter without shoveling at all, what’s the worst he could get? Two fines?

    Shouldn’t the burden be on the offending party, not pedestrians writing down address after address with ungloved fingers in 10 degree, or colder, weather? It needs to be a serious fee and cleanup on the first offense. Make it a serious burden to disobey the rules on par with having your car towed. People comply with parking restrictions during snow emergencies for a reason.

  5. Michael Roden
    Michael Roden March 28, 2014 at 11:19 am #

    This could be a crowd-sourced thing, especially within the streets.mn community. If there is a sidewalk or anything else that seems egregious, 311 it and then tweet out for others to do the same.

    • John Edwards
      John Edwards March 28, 2014 at 11:27 am #

      Would be nice if the 311/app system was just a backup, not the first line of enforcement. If me and 12 of my friends report the same address on the same day, wouldn’t that just register as a first offense?

    • Adam Miller
      Adam March 31, 2014 at 11:19 am #

      I could have spent my whole day on Saturday reporting sidewalks from my morning walk. But I didn’t.

  6. Michael Roden
    Michael Roden March 28, 2014 at 11:21 am #

    Also, simply tweeting the city sometimes gets great results. I got a quick DM response from St. Louis Park a couple times this winter.

  7. Philip March 28, 2014 at 11:49 am #

    Just to clarify, only one complaint needs to be filed for the case to be handled. There is absolutely no point of reporting a property that already has an open case. The number three comes from the amount of inspections that are conducted. First inspection a notice is sent. Second inspection, a warning letter. Third inspection, contractor is sent out to clear. This needs to be changed. Perhaps only one inspection is necessary, sending a violation notice that states that a contractor will be back in, say, five days and if the walk hasn’t been cleared, the property will be fined.

    • John Edwards
      John Edwards March 28, 2014 at 12:00 pm #

      Thanks for clarifying.

  8. Evan Roberts
    Evan March 28, 2014 at 11:52 am #

    This is something that might usefully be brought up through the Pedestrian Advisory Council that Minneapolis has.

    The disparity between parking violations (towed the first time!) and this is a good place to start the discussion.

  9. Eric Anondson
    Eric Anondson March 28, 2014 at 1:51 pm #

    Two mantras I’m always reciting around my friends and family, “If you’re incapable of parking an SUV, don’t buy one” and “If you are incapable of promptly shoveling a sidewalk, don’t buy a home with a sidewalk”.

    They all give me crazy glares.

  10. Bill Lindeke
    Bill Lindeke March 28, 2014 at 2:31 pm #

    The city should have an app so that people can just send in a picture of a really icy sidewalk, and it automatically ‘geo tags’ the address. This sounds like a job for a ‘hackathon.’

    This is really difficult, though. You basically have to go out every day and chip away ice for a month or so. Shoveling snow is one thing, chipping away ice or making sure that sidewalks are clear is another step up in routine maintenance.

    Not impossible, but difficult. Until we start valuing that kind of behavior, it’s not going to happen.

    • Eric Anondson
      Eric Anondson March 28, 2014 at 3:26 pm #

      The near perfect thing I can think of would be a special purpose implementation of The Findery. Placing geotagged notes public for all to see, but this would be, for noting violations in need of city enforcement.

      • Bill Lindeke
        Bill Lindeke March 28, 2014 at 3:57 pm #

        Someday we’ll have a streets.mn hackathon, after we do the streets.mn open data brainstorm gathering.

    • Jim Ivey March 28, 2014 at 5:21 pm #

      Bill, we already have that app. It’s called SeeClickFix (rebranded in St. Paul as “Saint Paul Connect”). You click a button to report an issue, take a picture, pick “Snow and Ice Sidewalks”, and then submit. It uses the GPS in your phone to provide location, though I always recommend manually dragging the indicator closer to the exact location.

      Here’s an example of an icy sidewalk submission from earlier this year: https://seeclickfix.com/issues/844526.

  11. Eric Saathoff
    Eric S March 28, 2014 at 2:36 pm #

    We got a strong message from our USPS letter carrier that we weren’t doing a good job last winter and have since made a nice path for him.
    I would think there would be more reports from the people who have to go to these houses every day for their work. It is a serious work hazard if people are not clearing the snow and ice. This would slow them down, of course, and the USPS has no money or time to spare as I understand it…

  12. Brendan March 29, 2014 at 7:39 am #

    So someone has to stick up for the homeowners…

    Truly clearing the sidewalk would have been a herculean task this winter. We had an early incident of freezing rain that transitioned to deep wet snow, followed immediately by a cold snap. Meaning the snow just superglued itself to the sidewalk. Then it stayed subzero for, what, 4 months? You could have gone out with heavy equipment and attempted to chisel it off, but you would have removed as much concrete as snow.

    For most of the winter, everyone’s sidewalks were covered in hard snow – not so bad to walk on. Its only when the weather warmed (slighly, recently) that it turned to ice.

    I note that the roads looked just like all those sidewalk pictures up until a couple of weeks ago. And no amount of city plows, salt, and car movement would remove it. The only reason the roads look good now is the movement of cars over warming ice. Pedestrian footsteps aren’t as effective.

    Now, there have certainly been some warm days in the last couple weeks when an ice chipper would have cleared some of those sidewalks. So shame, shame, shame. But there really wasn’t anything to be done earlier in the winter. No amount of city-funded plowing, bobcats, 311 calls, city crews, or citations would have cleared those sidewalks.

    For the record, my sidewalks are clear. Now. And for the record, I went out and shoveled within a day after each snow event this winter, but my sidewalks still looked terrible at various points.

    • John Edwards
      John Edwards March 29, 2014 at 10:13 am #

      The kinds of sidewalks I’m talking about in my piece are the corner units where the front is clear, but there was plainly no attempt to clear the area to the side of the house. The snow fell, sat unmolested except by feet, turned slushy, then into a lumpy sheet of ice. For some reason west 26th street near Hennepin was particularly egregious.

      If you’ve ever walked a few blocks in winter you know what I’m talking about. 50-90% of the lots on a block are cleared–not necessarily to perfection, but a good, honest effort was made. It’s clear that most people are trying. As Ed Kohler said above: “It only takes one non-compliant property to screw up a block.”

      I’m not nit-picking the sidewalks of all property owners. Just the minority that doesn’t give a shit.

  13. Scott Engel March 29, 2014 at 10:21 am #

    This is the top priority for the Mpls Pedestrian Advisory Committee (PAC) and we’ve been working on it for years. Dylan Thomas wrote an excellent article in the Southwest Journal a few weeks ago: http://www.southwestjournal.com/news/news/snowbound-sidewalks-vex-pedestrian-advocates

    Readers of this post need to contact their City Council Member and the Mayor to demand that more resources (staff & funding) are dedicated to this issue.

    Scott
    (PAC Member, 12th Ward)

    • John Edwards
      John Edwards March 29, 2014 at 11:23 am #

      Thanks for your comment Scott. I sent an email to your CARAG email address. I hope everyone will contact their council member before the snow and the ice is forgotten. We need urgency on this issue right now.

  14. John Edwards
    John Edwards March 29, 2014 at 6:16 pm #

    Returned to the scene of an icy sidewalk that I reported over 2 weeks ago on the city website. City says status “closed” but it appears untouched. I’m sure warmer temps will resolve it in no time though. Saw a jogger try to gingerly cross it, slip, then retreat to the street. This is why nobody bothers to report.

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