Shoveling is Hard Work

I walked to the grocery store on Sunday, pushing the jogging stroller all the way. I’m an able-bodied person and one of the things I like about taking the kid for a walk is that I get a greater appreciation for how others see the city: if you are mobility challenged, the winters must be full of challenges and frustrations, particularly when you hit ice and snow drifts along your way.

I’m lucky. I have a jogging stroller with big wheels and I can push the thing over the snow drifts at the crosswalk, and ease it gently over the several inches of snow that someone “forgot” to shovel, and that by now has become compacted or icy. Of course, if you’re in a wheelchair or just a little unsteady on your feet it’s harder. The frustration is that most people do a decent job of shoveling. But if even 5% of households do a bad job shoveling it can have a significant impact on mobility by making the route longer or even impassable.

In the space of a couple of blocks on Franklin all the benefits and problems of Minneapolis’ system of clearing sidewalks became clear.

Good and bad shovelers, side by side.

Good and bad shovelers, side by side.

Right at 31st and Franklin are the offices of Close Architects who always do a fantastic job shoveling and keeping their sidewalk clear. The residences immediately to their east are terrible, not just this winter, but every winter, all the way to the Franklin Avenue bridge. To be sure it’s a reasonably busy stretch of sidewalk and it’s north facing, so if you get out there after people have walked over the snow for hours it’s hard to get it right down to the concrete. I’m not sure that having the city clear all our sidewalks after snow is a great idea. But if we were to start city sidewalk clearance, places like this which see a lot of pedestrian traffic would be a good place to start. Why not have the city clear the sidewalks on streets that are bus routes, and therefore see more than normal pedestrian traffic?


On the western side of the 31st Avenue intersection is a restaurant that’s not open every day (they’ll remain nameless, I’m just illustrating a point here). The driveway has been cleared, but the sidewalk and the bus stop are a sloppy mess. For the most part consumer-oriented retail does a good job of clearing sidewalks, because after all who wants their customers slipping and falling outside. Bad advertising. Liability risk. Or even just customers tracking snow onto the carpet. The general problem is inattention to the sidewalk because the owners aren’t there every day. I’m sure we can all name a neighbor like that, traveling, “too busy” to shovel properly.


A block further on we have the corner problem. I used to live on a corner. It was bad. I recommend against it, solely on account of the double shoveling you have to do. Here’s one “solution”. Do a great job on one side, and basically forget about the rest.


Finally there’s the Cushman Motor Company. I wish they would sell the half-block of useless lawn they own to someone to develop into some town homes or apartments. But they sure do a great job of keeping their sidewalk clear, which figures since snow clearance is literally their business.

Screen Shot 2016-02-07 at 9.19.14 PM

And so this is the solution to our sidewalk snow woes, have every property in the Twin Cities owned by a company that makes snow removal equipment. Problem solved.

Evan Roberts

About Evan Roberts

Evan Roberts is an Assistant Professor of Population Studies and the History of Medicine at the University of Minnesota, where he teaches and researches demography, labor and urban issues. He counts it as a successful week if he has run more miles than he has driven. Connect on twitter @evanrobertsnz or now Mastodon

30 thoughts on “Shoveling is Hard Work

  1. Peter Bajurny

    After falling and breaking my arm in Tuesday’s blizzard, I’ve shamefully become a bad shoveler, depending on my wife and the generosity of the MPS building next door to at least make an attempt at clearing my sidewalks.

    1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

      Upcoming post, “Don’t Break Your Arm.”

      Do we need an Uber for snow shoveling? I might be willing to shovel someone who needs temporary help in exchange for having it available to me.

      1. Eric AnondsonEric Anondson

        Nextdoor. I can imagine using it for the shoveling, I see calls for babysitting all the time. Put a call out for some neighborhood kid at their going rate.

        1. Julia

          This would work only if they do a better job of actually clearing the sidewalk than most of the plows people hire in Minneapolis. Those tend to clear the bulk of the snow but also compact part of it, leaving an icy bumpy mess that’s difficult to walk and often more dangerous (for slipping) than the untouched mess nearby.

      2. Rosa

        Some of the neighborhood groups organize these. There’s a poster up for (I think) Longfellow at the East Lake library.

    2. Nathanael

      You know what….

      I think the “make the property owner shovel the sidewalk” system is actually discrimination against disabled people. Who are forced to either hire someone to do it for them, or not do it at all. Whereas able-bodied people can just do it.

      The city is already legally responsible under the ADA for keeping the sidewalks accessible to disabled people.

      The city should shovel the sidewalks. We don’t make property owners shovel the streets, do we?

  2. NM

    I lived in Prospect park a few years ago and used to ride the train to Franklin, walk to Seward Co-Op for groceries, and then occasionally walk the rest of the way over the bridge home. I definitely remember that sidewalk by the parkway. Icy when cold, at least an inch of wet slush when warm.

    In my new neighborhood I have a scofflaw commercial property (for sale) that I’m reporting weekly on 311 so I can turn them in to my council member’s office (they’ve been bad the last couple years). Just waiting for my last report to get closed with no action. Any day now…

      1. NM

        Agree. My experience with 311 is that it’s a fantastic record-keeping system for complaints. Not as consistent on the creating action side of things.

        Granted, some of my app-submitted reports have been very temporal in nature e.g. car parked in bike lane after 7pm so I can’t call it in. So I know that the problem will be gone by the time someone gets to it. Just want to legitimize the problems with a picture so no one can say “stop whining, that never happens”.

        1. Julia

          When MPR did their article/map about 311 sidewalk snow removal reporting a year or so ago, I saw that none of the properties I’d reported were on there, including some chronic offenders that I’d reported multiple times. But I reported by phone at the time, so perhaps it’s better for those using a smartphone app.

        2. Julia

          Until the city recognizes its responsibility to provide safe infrastructure for people to get from point A to point B (for all residents, not just car-drivers), it needs to step up its role in getting sidewalks clear. I see a whole bunch of steps that could help make sure that vulnerable residents aren’t isolated and homebound by thoughtless neighbors and inefficient provision of city services.

          1. Inspect streets at random, not just when citizen reports trigger it.

          2. For every text, automated phone call, mailed map, tweet, Facebook post, or other communication that talks about moving cars after snow, START with a reminder that property owners are required to clear the sidewalk to the concrete. Remind them again when the weather thaws, so that those who shoveled with a “lick and a promise” initially can get back out and do it right so it’s safe for their neighbors/community.

          3. Educate people on how to clear sidewalks safely and effectively. Assume every property owner in Minneapolis is a new arrival from a snow-less locale (because half of them clear sidewalks as if they’ve never experienced winter before). Tell them to get out there early and often to avoid strain. Let them know which shovels they’ll need for different types of snow (a wide plow-like one, a scooper, a chopper for icy bits) and other accessories (a wide broom for sweeping the puddles off during a melt period) as well as additives (salt & sand for icy bits). Show poorly-cleared sidewalks compared to well-cleared sidewalks. Share videos online of how to do it. Do PSAs on radio & television. Create an easy language, model the appropriate behavior, talk about it positively (it’s great exercise! the gardening of the winter! build neighborhood morale! part of being a citizen!).

          4. For whatever length of time property owners aren’t required to clear their sidewalks, alert drivers that their neighbors WILL be walking in the streets where it’s safe and clear earlier. Tell drivers they are expected to drive extremely cautiously and to share the road with pedestrians. Heck, during weather where drivers have difficulty controlling their vehicles due to visibility or icy conditions, remind them to leave the car at home and instead walk, bike, or take transit rather than risking the lives of others and placing a burden on emergency responders.

          5. Have annual “walk with your constituents” days triggered by major snowfall and cold weather events where city council members spend a few hours doing typical activities with constituents of their ward who are particularly impacted by poorly cleared sidewalks and transit stops.

          6. Fix 311 and the inspection system so that the time between reporting a dangerous or impassable sidewalk and having it cleared is measured in hours, not days or weeks. Don’t give warnings–this is literally our most basic infrastructure, not an aesthetic thing. Hold properties to the legal standards. Leaving icy patches or packed snow on the sidewalk isn’t legal and it isn’t safe for many individuals with balance or mobility issues. Include partially anonymized addresses in regular neighborhood reports (“Minneapolis Public Works cleared two problem sidewalks on the 1400 block of Shovel Street.”). Charge fines that are based on property values so that wealthy property owners have incentive to actually deal with their sidewalks before being reported. For bank-owned uninhabited foreclosed properties, have a limited number of strikes before the property is forfeited to the city as being abandoned.

          7. Fix the 311 app UX so that reporting properties can be done even in cold weather. Why does it matter if the property’s sidewalk is untouched vs not-wide-enough when it’s unsafe to walk? There are no options for blocked ramps from piles of snow nor for icy patches that the property owner didn’t bother to sand/salt nor for the ruts that build up again at driveways from cars. Make it a binary. Is it cleared per the legal requirement or not? Is it safe and accessible for individuals with mobility issues?

          I have a feeling that we’d see shoveling become a city service pretty quickly if Minneapolis started actually enforcing existing laws to ensure basic infrastructure functions. Equity, sustainability, and access in this city are a joke when those who walk and take transit are unable to safely navigate the city.

  3. Noelle

    Then there’s the fact that even when the city does it, it’s not consistent either…Lexington Avenue in Roseville is usually fairly well-cleared in winter, until you get to just north of Larpenteur and it’s sometimes not even cleared at all, until you cross Larpenteur, and then it’s spotty since that turns into St. Paul.

    Hamline Avenue is always a total crap-fest after snow, and even after the city goes through to “clear” it. I always avoid running there after snowfalls since it seems like they set their brushes (or shovels, or whatever they use) to a height of 2″ off the ground.

    I wish I lived by a sidewalk simply so I could put good karma out into the universe by shoveling it, but alas we live on a cul-de-sac. So, I just try to keep our driveway clear to keep the UPS guy happy.

  4. Joe ScottJoe Scott

    Maybe I’m biased as someone who lives on a corner lot with a heavily trafficked sidewalk on the north side, but I really think sidewalk snow removal is an unfair burden on residents. I often don’t get a chance to shovel my sidewalk until late in the evening. By the time I’m free to shovel, and well within the 24 hours of snowfall, the sidewalk has become a bumpy sheet of ice.

    This problem could easily be solved by a fleet of municipal rotary broom vehicles. Can someone who knows how to do this please calculate how much doing this would add to property taxes? I suspect it would be less than the amount I spend on salt every year trying to undo the effects of my untimely shoveling. Even if you value your time at a relatively low hourly rate, I would have to assume that the economy of scale provided by municipal sidewalk snow clearance would be a huge bargain.

    1. Peter Bajurny

      I’m also on a corner lot, with my south side being a heavy walking route between the Lake St Blue Line station and South High. Legally I can wait until after they’ve compacted the snow on the way too school and leaving again, but that’s not the way to make a safe route to school. I agree, organized clearing now.

    2. Rosa

      We have a corner lot too. Thankfully, no bus stop. Our poor neighbors.

      I saw someone in a bobcat clearing the curb cuts in Seward last week. Was that the city? It was maybe 30th Ave or 31st, between Lake & Franklin.

    3. Joe

      If someone is unable to remove snow and ice from a sidewalk in a timely matter (before if gets compacted by pedestrians) there are plenty of private business that will do this for $. Good neighbors clear their snow, bad neighbors have excuses. Municipalities should not be responsible for clearing all the sidewalks in a city.

      1. Steve

        It’s not quite that simple. There’s a lot of pedestrian traffic on my street. If it snows after I leave for work, by the time I get home it can already be very compacted. My street also has a lot of car traffic and very narrow boulevards. Many times I’ve cleared my sidewalks down to bare cement, only to have the plow go by and throw slushly ice and snow back up on the sidewalk.

      2. Joe ScottJoe Scott

        Why should this principle apply to sidewalks and not streets? As a good neighbor, why shouldn’t you have to shovel your street or pay a company to do it for you?

        1. Rosa

          a friend of mine moved to Baltimore and that’s how his block finally got cleared after their big snowstorm. He’s SO MAD. But if the city just does’t plow for 3 or 4 days eventually the neighbors band together and shovel the street, if only so they can get their cars out into it.

      3. Nathanael

        Muncipalities absolutely should be responsible for clearing all the sidewalks in a city.

        Alternatively, we could have each homeowner responsible for clearing the roadway in front of their house. Does that make sense? No, because it’s DUMB. Same thing with sidewalks.

    4. Monte Castleman

      That’s one thing I found interesting. Out here in Bloomington you never see anyone digging out with a snow shovel; they all either have mechanized equipment or contract with a snow removal service. Yet the city plows the sidewalks. In Minneapolis presumably more people have shovels only for the very short driveways off alleys, yet the residents have to maintain the sidewalks.

      1. Nathanael

        Wow, so Bloomington has already fixed this by providing a city service. And Minneapolis is actually *behind Bloomington*?

        Surely some civic pride could be deployed to get Minneapolis to catch up with Bloomington.

    5. Alex

      At the very least it would be nice if the city, which already has contracts set up with snow clearing services, would allow blocks to opt-in to regular clearing service with assessments on their taxes or charges on utility bills and take advantage of city pricing, administration, etc. The city would probably lose some money in administration even if the homeowners are paying the clearing charge, but it would go a long way towards making Minneapolis a more walkable city. Which I think is a policy goal, right? At least I heard a rumor once that it was.

  5. Evan RobertsEvan Roberts Post author

    Glad to see this provoked a good discussion. Someone with too much time on their hands should take a look at the Bloomington City budget and see how much this stuff might actually run the city of Minneapolis.

  6. thatcher

    As an aside, Special Service Districts in Minneapolis can clear and haul snow from within their districts and assess property owners that cost. The interesting thing is that residential properties are exempt but can opt in. The district can choose to provide them with service even if they don’t pay.

    This plays out different ways, as you can imagine, and with mixed success. One residential property In Uptown has prime frontage but was getting it plowed for free thanks to the business property owners. But they were not interested in opting in despite having dozens of units that would have controlled the costs relatively.

    In cases where multi family exists on commercial streets, I personally think they should have to pay an assessment of some sort if they get that benefit. With many of the multifamily buildings pitching their great locations within business districts, they have a responsibility to maintain the district that they place wear and tear on.

    In cases of single family houses on commercial corridors, such as Franklin or Lake, I could see where opting in makes sense. The reality is that if it is more effort for the contractor to stop and go around the property, they’ll just plow it anyways. Forcing an individual person who can use their own labor to essentially pay a contractor is less fair in my opinion.

  7. Sam

    In previous years, I’ve never reported sidewalk issues to 311. This year I’m finally fed up enough that I have been reporting the chronic houses. I’ve had pretty good success getting the tickets I submit via the app resolved. The biggest problem is that the same homeowners don’t shovel again after the next snowfall. Please please please continue to report all chronic offenders out there. They need to learn that this is not OK.

    I was surprised though to see one poster with no compassion for those who work all day. You really think I should have to hire the job out because I have to work 7-6, including commute time? I think that is completely absurd. I think as long as I can get it cleared within 24 hours, that’s all that should be required. If it gets compacted down, it’s my job to use salt or other means to correct that. Maybe the walking conditions are poor for a day, but tough… road conditions are poor for up to 3 days.

    1. Monte Castleman

      Whenever I point out I think it’s ridiculous that the city if forcing citizens to maintain city property, the counterpoint “well, does the city cut the grass on the boulevard” gets brought up. But it’s never a problem if the grass waits until you get home from work, or even a day or two (and most people own mechanized equipment for cutting the grass too).

      1. Nathanael Nerode

        Seriously, every city I’ve ever lived in, the city cuts the grass in the medians. Some cities, the city also cuts the grass between the sidewalk and the street.

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