The Value of Snow Emergencies

If you’re like me, you’ve heard people complain about Minneapolis or St. Paul’s snow emergency rules, that they’re complex and burdensome. In reality, these complexities may be a pain a handful of times a year they apply, but they allow for better cities all year long.

If you speak Minnesotan, you know that a snow emergency is an event that triggers different rules for how people park vehicles on streets. There are four basic ways cities get their streets plowed after big snow events:

  1. Staggered snow emergency
    Different streets or parts of streets are plowed during different time windows, requiring people to move their vehicles parked on streets during the snow emergency. Example: Minneapolis
  2. All-or-nothing snow emergency
    Cars are not allowed to be parked on city streets once a snow emergency is declared. Example: Richfield
  3. Perpetual War on Winter Terror
    Many cities prohibit parking at the mere thought of snow – generally prohibiting overnight parking on streets all winter long. Example: Edina
  4. Go figure it out yourselves
    Example: St. Paul alleys

I’m here to convince you that staggered snow emergencies are the best for cities.

For the sake of comparing our options, I’m going to combine “Perpetual War on Winter Terror,” cities that prohibit overnight parking all winter, with all-or-nothing snow emergencies since more onerous parking rules will exacerbate the outcomes described below.

All-or-nothing snow emergencies are an equity fail

Where's the ramp?

But where do I park?

As low-income people are increasingly displaced from the core cities to suburbs, they face additional challenges during snow events. The working poor are shunted into disparate and car-dependent neighborhoods, despite being less able to afford cars and all their associated expenses (including off-street parking) in the first place. And there are a growing number of households with more than two working adults, and likely more than two cars, sharing small homes or apartments.

A fellow streets.writer and Richfield resident has noted how the ticketing and tow trucks feast on parked vehicles near low-income apartments in his neighborhood. “If you can’t do the time, then don’t do the crime,” right?

It’s not so simple, especially for communities that already struggle to adapt to a car-dependent land use in the suburbs. It would be elitist for wealthier suburbanites  who have garages for their cars, work traditional schedules, and are better-informed of such events by news organizations simply because their first language is English, to dismiss the effects of a complete ban on street parking on a population that has few of these advantages.

Regardless of the reasons, we need to look at the outcomes. And it looks like the outcome of forcing all cars off the street for a given period of time is harmful to those who can least afford disruption in their lives.

All-or-nothing snow emergencies force more off-street parking

Apartments in Apple Valley

Apple Valley will have the surface parking, with a side of apartments.

There’s a reason cities like Minneapolis and St. Paul have staggered snow emergencies. We’re dependent on our street parking. But that’s a good thing! The alternative is to depend on off-street parking, which costs everyone more and harms the places we all enjoy. And we’ve already paid for excess pavement widths, right? We might as well use it for parking – even if there’s not enough demand to justify charging people for it.

How does this look in practice? While Minneapolis and St. Paul have seen a rapid replacement of surface parking with valuable buildings to house people and businesses, cities with all-or-nothing snow emergencies have extremely high minimum parking requirements. Parking spaces required for every dwelling, every bedroom, every thousand square feet of restaurant, every linear foot of church pew, and on and on. (Seriously, go check out the minimum parking tables in any city’s zoning code, for a laugh.) If cars can’t be parked on streets overnight or during snow emergencies, we need to ensure cars have homes – and homes away from homes. Could that be so bad?

All-or-nothing snow emergencies result in less valuable cities

This Dinkytown surface lot was replaced by 140 apartments.

This Dinkytown surface lot was replaced by 140 apartments.

If more land is consumed building surface parking for cars – whether due to consumer demand or municipal zoning mandate – then less land is available for buildings and other higher-value land improvements. It’s quite simple. Of course, snow emergency and winter parking policy seems to be strongly correlated to the prevailing land use. Restrictive street parking policies do not necessarily cause the suburban development pattern. But they are an indicator of how much private land is devoted to parking instead of other uses.

Here’s a simple look at 38 cities of 10,000+ population in Hennepin, Ramsey, and Dakota counties. Cities with “Perpetual War on Winter Terror” parking policies are generally all second ring and beyond. And also Edina.

First ring suburbs are the ones who generally allow overnight parking, but have a snow emergency policy requiring all parked cars off the streets until cleared. Only Minneapolis and St. Paul appear to have a staggered parking policy for snow emergencies.

Average city value per acre for each type of snow emergency, alongside population density.

Average city value per acre for each type of snow emergency, alongside population density.

Staggered snow emergencies avoid many problems

There are three periods to a Minneapolis snow emergency, and each one involves removing well under half of the total available street parking at any given time. It may seem like a pain to move a car a few times. It may seem like a pain that our streets aren’t fully cleared until the third day after a snow event, and even then they aren’t cleared as well as many suburbs.

You can still park on the street during a Minneapolis snow emergency. Luxury.

You can still park on the street during a Minneapolis snow emergency. Luxury.

But the staggered system is better than requiring all parked cars to be off the street at any given time, since we are then afforded the opportunity to develop with less off-street parking.

There’s a high opportunity cost for nicely-cleaned streets the morning after a snowstorm, and that’s urbanity. Because Minneapolis and St. Paul allow cars to remain parked on some of our city streets at all times through snow emergencies, we are then afforded the opportunity to intensify our land use and develop with less off-street parking. This policy helps us build denser neighborhoods, with more demand for a mesh of walkable businesses and services. This policy also helps cities grow their tax base per acre, and reduces their per-capita infrastructure liability (future taxes).

All that for a little mess a few times a year? What a good deal for cities. Suburbs should adopt this model, and have a staggered parking policy during snow emergencies.

35 thoughts on “The Value of Snow Emergencies

  1. Eric AnondsonEric Anondson

    Excellent perspective.

    If you’ve ever spent time at the impound lot you will get the impression the city targets the less wealthy.

    1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

      I think this really hits the nail on the head:

      “It would be elitist for wealthier suburbanites who have garages for their cars, work traditional schedules, and are better-informed of such events by news organizations simply because their first language is English, to dismiss the effects of a complete ban on street parking on a population that has few of these advantages.”

      I don’t believe the city “targets” the less-well-off out of any specific, malicious intent; rather, the reality is that low-income folks are vastly more affected by these policies.

  2. Rosa

    This is great and I totally agree! I didn’t even realize there were all-out snow emergency places. What do people do? What if you have out of town guests that day? Can they have zipcar at all?

    Two things that would make our staggered snow emergencies easier for everyone (including visitors to Minneapolis, who can sometimes be found wandering the streets asking locals “Which side of the street is even? What time do they start towing?” on a snowy morning):

    1) would be signage – maybe once a block add a sign to an already-existing sign pole that says “this is an even-side street for snow emergencies” “This is an odd-side street for snow emergencies!” or “This side plowed first!” “This side plowed second!” Lots of short blocks don’t have many addresses on them and they can be confusing.

    2) pre-set, scheduled, one-side-parking rules every year. Mayors hate to call a one-sided parking ban and put them off way too long, long past the time when the streets are barely passable because of both side parking and built up snow banks, and then when the ban happens it’s a horrible surprise and everyone is scrambling for parking. If it was every year from November-March people would plan around it better. Maybe decide to store the car elsewhere, maybe decide not to have one, maybe get used to parking farther from home. Probably not get into screaming arguments or near fist fights on the street the first week of the parking ban.

    1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

      For Richfield, at least, you’re expected to cram things into the driveway. Most places have room, although they may lose circulation space. For example, I have a two-car garage on an alley, but the ~20×25 driveway does let you squeeze in three cars if you really have to (obviously those in the garage become parked in).

      You’re also allowed to park on the lawn, temporarily, until the street is cleared. Not sure if that policy is common elsewhere. Presumably PWOWT cities don’t allow to park on your lawn all night, all winter long.

      But obviously this does little to help apartment-dwellers, whose only choice for off-street parking is what the complex provides.

      1. Rosa

        Do people park in their driveways so they block the sidewalk, to cram the cars in? I see that all the time in other places we visit and it’s SO obnoxious.

        And I really didn’t know Minneapolis suburbs ever had no night parking rules. I thought that was just for racist white flight suburbs around Chicago and Milwaukee, to keep the “urban” people out.

        1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

          Well, Richfield has relatively few sidewalks, but I certainly have seen that on streets that have both front driveways and sidewalks. I believe they could theoretically be ticketed, but obviously in a snow emergency, the city has many pressing things they’re attending to.

          In Northfield (which practices perpetual war on winter, but also has quite wide boulevards), I’d frequently see folks use the driveway apron — between sidewalk and curb — as a parallel parking spot. It looks awkward, but it does allow free flow of pedestrians on the sidewalk.

      2. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

        Speaking of that last point- I think it’s also overly simplistic for people to say “apartment dwellers can park in the apartment’s parking lot” because apartment complexes probably have the equivalent of snow emergencies too. Right? I’ve never lived in an apartment with an off-street surface lot, so I’m not sure how those things work – maybe someone else can chime in? But my guess is that apartments are kicking their residents out of their parking lots to plow them at roughly the same time cities are kicking parked cars off of the streets.

        1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

          I have friends in those situations. Most apartment lots are done with small vehicles that just plow around what’s parked. You’re not expected to move your car, in most cases — although obviously they would do the best possible snow removal if all cars were gone.

          The bigger issue is that people either have to pay extra for those parking spots, or it’s a mixed household with multiple working adults that’s only allocated one or two spots.

        2. Eric AnondsonEric Anondson

          Apartment snow clearance is a thing. There is one near me where the renters move out to the street when plow day happens, but since it is a senior rental, the cars may end up staying on the street for days to weeks.

    2. Mathias

      For Rosa’s point #2:

      This is exactly how the denser neighborhoods of Fargo operate during the winter. From Nov 1 through April 15, you can park overnight on either the avenues or the streets, which alternate throughout the week. There are even signs for it. The system works pretty well, allowing some street parking at all times, in a consistent manner that people can figure out. You could call this the Constant Snow Emergency method.

    3. Ashley

      Actually its easier then that to tell what is even and what is odd. You just look at the closest building number. If it 7120, its even. If its 7121, its odd. No need to add more signs.

    4. Ashley

      Actually its easier then that to tell what is even and what is odd. You just look at the closest building number. If it 7120, its even. If its 7121, its odd. No need to add more signs.

  3. Eric AnondsonEric Anondson

    Great point. I counter with this whenever I hear resistance to apartments and “transient renters”, that home owners are invested and committed to their community, homeowners show a care for their property that renters won’t.

    There are homes on my block whose sidewalks only get cleared when “that guy” who shows off his snowblower clears ten homes in a row. More often it becomes an icy cow path trampled by boots. Homeownership being a marker for caring and investment in a community is a giant fallacy and constant unshoveled sidewalks prove it.

    1. Alex CecchiniAlex Cecchini

      At the very least, I’d be interested in a study in some of our mixed-use neighborhoods comparing rental property sidewalks to owned 24 hrs and maybe 3 days after a snow event. I pass by plenty of poorly shoveled small rental properties (rented duplexes, triplexes), while larger buildings seem to be cleared quite well. Owned sidewalks are a mixed-bag, so it’s hard for me to overcome perception bias.

    2. Rosa

      homeowners get old, or sick, or go out of town at an inopportune time, or throw out their backs and have to take a shoveling break. Any system that depends on thousands of individuals all doing the right thing is going to be spotty.

        1. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

          While I’d like the city to assume sidewalk clearing duties (thereby showing that mobility by walking is at least as important as mobility by car)…….

          I’d like to see some sort of technology platform that allows citizens to help out other citizens. I think this already happens in whiter/wealthier neighborhoods, because people have more fancy machinery to show off (e.g. snowblowers) and more spare time – both are luxuries. It seems quite common in my neighborhood for those with snowblowers to run the entire blockface of sidewalk after a large snow event, or to clear an older neighbor’s driveway, and so on.

  4. Rosa

    I keep my sidewalks clear, and then the street plows come throw up a wall at the curb cut. The city needs to be responsible for the curb cuts.

    That said, it takes time for everybody – yesterday I saw a guy in a wheelchair riding in the street, because the sidewalk was inaccessible (clear, but inaccessible) and he got stuck for a while because the street wasn’t plowed on that side yet 🙁

  5. Ashley

    As a long time Richfield residence with only a one car garage, this has never been an issue. Two car garage with room for three in the driveway and you still don’t have room? Maybe the issue is too many vehicles and if being more earth friendly, and therefor more population dense is you goal, getting rid of a few vehicles might first be in order.

    Allowing on-street parking during snow emergencies is in no way going to change how much off-street parking is required by the city Are you saying that if they had a staggered plowing they would suddenly have a reason to have less on-site parking and therefor be able to use more land for housing? Why on earth would they specifically change their zoning for events that may happen a handful of times during the year? They don’t. Its just the way cities zone and yes, its likely for aesthetics but that’s the way it is and the type of plowing will not change that. You really want unfair go to places like Apple Valley were there is NO street parking at all, everyday of year, during the night.

    Also is it cheaper and easier on the roads for the plows to come by once-not multiple times to do the same street? Less wear and tear on the vehicles, roads, and drivers (again if your looking for earth friendly grinding up pavement due to unnecessary wear and tear is not the way to go).

    As someone who has lived next to a single family home that has been used for the last 10+ years as a rental property (where we counted up to 15 single adults living in it at one time (two cars can fit in the garage, five in the driveway, and oh about 10 parked on the street) I love the fact they make them move the cars to plow. When they don’t, its dangerous and a plain nightmare. I live in a residential/commercial area next to a school and when the roads don’t get plowed because of people who feel they are better then anyone else and the rules don’t apply to them, kids actually get hurt (as was indicated we have few sidewalks and when the roads don’t get plowed in forces kids to walk down the middle of the road). Isn’t is much better to have nice wide streets clear by morning safe for kids? Or clear one side, then by morning cars are parked there and the other side is a mess squishing everyone together? One year, when they didn’t enforce the snow emergency, by spring our road was basically down to a one lane road and the cars were about 4 feet away from the curb on either side due to snow. Now you have parked cars and kids walking down the middle of the road, playing frogger with cars.

    No matter what you do, you will always have people who will “suffer”. Have you driven to uptown where both sides of the street are packed on a good day? Now take away one side of the street to plow. Those cars don’t just go away, they have to go somewhere. Lots of them will get towed.

    1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

      I’m highly skeptical that there’s any difference in wear and tear from doing one side one day and the other the next.

      Your glee at the poors who live near you getting it when it snows is not a good look.

      There are trade offs to each approach. Matt’s not wrong to suggest that we might want to avoid harming the most vulnerable.

    2. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

      You mentioned the two-car-garage/three-car-driveway situation, so I assume that as in response to my statement. I was actually stating that to emphasize that the current policy doesn’t hurt me that much — even with guests, there is a place to put their cars during a snow emergency.

      So I don’t feel personally wronged by this policy. But I think we can do better. There are really two problems in my mind. The first problem is that not everyone does have space for their cars during a snow emergency. The second is that by encouraging people to build adequate space to store all vehicles off the street, we’re wasting a huge amount of materials, money, and doing broad environmental damage simply so we can have spotless streets.

      The first major issue: there is no requirement in Richfield to have off-street parking, although the vast majority do. On my block, there is at least one house that does not have a garage, just a make-shift driveway off the alley. I understand that at first glance it looks like a big waste to see so many cars next door. But mixed households are actually pretty environmentally friendly — although each adult may still have a car, they’re using vastly less space for housing, less energy for heat, etc. And maybe most importantly: they probably don’t have any other choice.

      As Matt noted in the article, apartment-dwellers suffer the most, since if they don’t have a space in the lot, they’re out of luck. This is a double-whammy for undocumented immigrants who get towed. They’ve often obtained their vehicle through informal means, and are unable to show dependable identification to get their vehicle back. I’ve been told multiple times by people in the Latino community that the practice for many is that if you get towed, you don’t try get it back. You just go find another beater.

      The second major issue is that when people need to remove their cars completely for snow emergencies, it discourages them from depending on street parking — and encourages them to build super-sized garages and driveways. This creates more runoff, less space for gardens and trees, and costs homeowners a lot of money. That becomes a sunk cost into having a certain number of cars — further discouraging a household from giving any cars up.

      1. Ashley

        Sean I agree with a lot of what you say. I actually have a degree in environmental planning. But if you do a cradle to grave assessment, instead of destroying infrastructure to create infrastructure, its self -defeating. Isn’t it better to find another way instead of just creating more parking, on or off-street? Aren’t you just adding to the problem? Making it to easy for people to actually find alternatives? We no longer carpool, uses buses, we don’t even bike or walk anymore. There is nothing in the constitution that states “…I’m an adult therefore I must own a car and every adult in my family must own a car and everyone else bows down to me….”

        Instead of complain about snow emergencies, why not complain about mass transit? Oh and by the way, Richfield does have a good bus system. People can get just about anywhere, I know…. I don’t just preach, I do practice. You know why I still have a one car garage? Because I told myself that’s all I needed. And no, the rental house next to me is not because they have any other choice, its a lifestyle choice. Its a bunch of college kids and they are using it as a party house.

        1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

          Hey Ashley:
          Glad we’re mostly on the same page! And good to know about your background. I studied Environmental Studies in college, and am a planning grad student now.

          In response to a couple of your issues:

          > “But if you do a cradle to grave assessment, instead of destroying infrastructure to create infrastructure, its self -defeating.”

          Are you referring to the earlier statement about multiple plow trips destroying the street? If so, I don’t know that to be true. The plows do indeed have to go over the street multiple times in Minneapolis, spread over a couple days, and there is wear and tear there. But they also go over the street multiple times in Richfield — they just do it all in rapid succession. (I believe it takes three passes either way.) I can’t imagine it makes a difference for the pavement’s sake to spread three passes across three days than to do it all at once. It almost certainly does cost more, and it would be great to know how much, because obviously that’s something to balance.

          > “Isn’t it better to find another way instead of just creating more parking, on or off-street?”

          Absolutely. It would be great if we simply needed less parking because we had fewer cars. But, for better or for worse, most people do have cars, and will for some time. The nice thing about using on-street parking more is that you’re less committed — financially and physically — to keeping those cars. If I have a two-car garage and three-car driveway, why not have at least two cars? Many older Richfield garages get replaced as they become obsolete, and they almost always go bigger. I believe that’s in part because we can’t rely on street parking.

          And I totally agree about talking about transit. Richfield has the best transit in the first ring, and better than a lot of South Minneapolis. I have regularly taken the 18, 554, and 540. Transit gets a lot of coverage here, too.

          1. Ashley

            Actually I’m referring to

            “While Minneapolis and St. Paul have seen a rapid replacement of surface parking with valuable buildings to house people and businesses, cities with all-or-nothing snow emergencies have extremely high minimum parking requirements” and all the talk of needing wide streets so people can park on them.

            In order to do this in Richfield, you would need to destroy current infrastructure. Like my earlier example stated, when they didn’t enforce the snow ban, my street literally became a single lane road trying to accommodate walking traffic and cars going both ways. I saw a kid almost get hit once a week. That might be ok with Adam but when your there, watching it, its not ok.

            “All that for a little mess a few times a year? ” I don’t think Matt is aware how serious it can get….fast! Sure making sidewalks would help but then again, destruction of infrastructure to create infrastructure. It’s a waste of money that can be spent elsewhere. It just seems to me Matt hasn’t thought this out. He’s making broad statements about something that in order to occur, would not be just as easy as saying “yep we are now staggering”.

            As a planning person, you have to see sometimes you have to make work with what you have. And having different rules for different areas (yes it will work here but there, you do that), just confuses people more.

            1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

              But Richfield’s streets are already very wide — 4′ wider than Minneapolis’s typical streets, and up to 10′ wider than some other suburbs. (Notable exception north of 66th and just east of Penn, if you happen to live there.)

              I don’t think anybody is suggesting we should tear them up and make them even wider. It’s more a question of using what we have. Since we already have wide streets with space to put cars, why functionally require people to build more space on top of what we already built?

              The lack of sidewalks are a unique issue to Richfield, and I understand having that extra space clear during the winter can make things safer. But ideally, traffic on residential streets is slowed to a point where it isn’t dangerous for them to be in such close proximity.

              I’m amazed to compare the alley behind my house (12′ wide for both directions of traffic) and the street in front. Parents let their kids play in the alley, neighbors socialize there, and I even feel safer walking there. Cars go 10 mph, 15 tops, and are very cognizant of their surroundings. But on the wide street in front, cars zip by at 25-30 mph, barely looking up from their Instagram feed.

              1. Ashley

                Ah but do you live by a school with teenagers coming and going (walking and *cough* driving)? Still think they are going at a speed that’s not hazardous? Now imaging them whipping off the main street (and I’m not joking about that), and trying to slam on the breaks because someone is in the middle of the street? Easy if its bare asphalt, not so much snow and ice. And even if you don’t have a school with teenagers driving around, Richfield has a lot of schools, no sidewalks, and lots of kids walking.

                Seriously I wish I’d taken pictures that one year. You would see what I mean.

                Honestly I don’t think we have wider streets then Minneapolis but I’d actually have to pull open a map.

      2. Monte Castleman

        Having off-street parking, especially in a garage, is desirable for a number of reasons, enough that I don’t think having available street parking is going to discourage people from building garages.

        1. Ashley

          I would agree with you there. I used to park in the street for convenience. I don’t park in the street anymore. Having the side mirrors ripped off my vehicle, and every other vehicle on the street, was enough of that. I’ve also seen cars in from of my street egged, keyed, a kid riding his bike down the road that kicked every car as he peddled by…. Ever since I moved to the driveway (not even the garage), I’ve never had an issue.

          1. Monte Castleman

            I do think there’s some psychological barrier towards vandalizing someone’s car that’s parked on a driveway as opposed to the street. Also, twice someone has crashed into my car when it was parked on the street. I have a tandem garage and narrow driveway so it’s a huge pain making sure the right car is in the right position, but after the second incident I started keeping my car off the street most of the time.

  6. Ashley

    My glee at the poors who live near me? Who might that be? You assume the people in the rental house next to me are poor? So I’m glad they make people move their cars and that makes me…. what, exactly? Because I must be a “….elitist for wealthier suburbanites who have garages for their cars, work traditional schedules, and are better-informed of such events….”? So everyone who lives in a house is rich? Everyone who lives in an apartment is poor? Is it possible to have multi-generations in a house or a single person in an apartment? Nothing to so with socioeconomic status and more about life style choice? Every person who works 2nd or 3rd shift is poor and everyone who works first shift is rich? I know people who work non-traditional shifts are well off and I know people who work traditional shifts who are not. Anyone who speaks English as a first language is better off then someone who does not? Again, I know recent immigrants who have made it and many people whose family goes back generations who have not. It doesn’t appear that I’m the one making broad based generalizations.

    You brought up wear and tear, what about all the other things I mentioned? Do you realize many kids live apartments, right? And based on what I’m getting, if you live in an apartment, you must be poor because only poor people live in apartments? You want them to walk on dangerous roads? Who cares if they get hit? Who cares if they fall and hurt themselves? Oh, but I’m glad they move the cars so the kids can walk and I’m…what, exactly? Your disregard for kids is not a good look for you.

    Also, should we demolish perfectly good houses built 60 years ago so we can put up more high-density housing with wider streets so people can park on the streets? Well guess what, we have houses and some places don’t have wide streets. What then? They are actually widening 66th street and they took down about 20 houses-people were not happy to loose their houses, you see, they had no choice. But oh good, now we have wider streets!

    Maybe Matt could come up with a solution using existing infrastructure I’d listen but tearing everything down so we can do it “right” isn’t going to happen. Have you ever done a cradle to grave assessment on replacement of perfectly usable objects-no matter what that object is? The cost, both economic and environmental, for production of concrete or steel for example? Sometimes you have to work with what you have. You have to forgive people who created things half a century ago for not having the forethought to know “we need wider streets” so we can park more and more cars on it.

    There is a cost of doing things twice and yes you would be plowing twice. You are going down the same streets, twice, even if the plow isn’t in the down position. Do you truly think the plow always stays on the non-plowed portion of the street? Going back out to the same area with heavy equipment does create wear and tear. If I go to the store and only get half my groceries and have to go back, are you indicating there is no cost? Cost in time, gas, and yes, another trip on the road does create wear and tear.

    1. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

      I think you may be commenting on the wrong article. This article isn’t about demolishing houses or widening already excessively-wide streets.

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