Our Winter Sidewalks Are Broken

Snow emergencies are a big deal here in Minneapolis. You hear about it on the TV news. There’s an app–tens of thousands of people have installed it on both iPhone and Android (“avoid the cost and hassle of a ticket and tow…”). People are very interested in not having their cars towed, so people become very interested in moving their cars to designated areas.

The reason the City of Minneapolis makes a big fuss and puts so many residents at risk of serious personal cost, inconvenience and unhappiness is that we’ve collectively decided to make it a priority to keep our streets plowed and safe. Individually, people comply with the rules because their personal interests (money and property) have been aligned with public safety (plowed streets).

snow emergency app

Snow emergencies coincide with, but fail to address, another public safety issue: snow and ice-covered sidewalks. In good weather, we brag about walkable neighborhoods and bike lanes and transit investments; when it snows, we fail hard on the the basic thing that is the foundation of all the rest: functioning sidewalks.

Unsurprisingly, the people most reliant on safe sidewalks are often those with the least power and money in our city: people without cars; people who walk a few blocks to the bus stop or the store; people with disabilities or limited mobility. Nobody comes to rescue them in a snow emergency.

Sidewalk users are at the mercy of property owners. In my experience, most are meeting their obligations, but in the days and weeks after a snow emergency, there are at least a handful of dangerously iced over properties on every block in my south Minneapolis neighborhood. Even if a majority of a block is cleared, some portion is still dangerously choked with ice.

I have good boots, legs that are long and strong (I am widely regarded as a hunk), and yet even I have slipped and fallen on icy sidewalks. Older people, those susceptible to falling or injury, people whose long-term health depends on not being shut away in their homes for months at a time–these people can’t afford the risk we put them in year after year.

You know how we sometimes laugh at the odd suburb that refuses to have sidewalks? As in, “Longtime Edina residents ‘up in arms’ over plan to build more sidewalks”? That’s basically Minneapolis for three months of the year. For some reason we seem to be OK with that.

311

The system Minneapolis currently uses to resolve sidewalk snow and ice issues relies on citizen reports to 311, followed by multiple letters from the city to the property owner explaining their obligation, and can take up to 21 days to resolve. The ice is likely to melt before it results in the city sending a crew to clear the sidewalk and bill the property owner for the cost. This system isn’t working

Another reason our current 311 reporting system isn’t working: hopelessness. The sheer volume of non-compliance, coupled with the demoralizing ineffectiveness of enforcement (not to mention the frozen-ness of my fingers before I can tap out an address on my phone) creates a loop where it feels pointless to report. Ineffective enforcement leads to less reporting leads to even less enforcement.

The system we have doesn’t work because there is too little incentive to comply. Here’s how we might create a sense of urgency: any property owner who hasn’t shoveled within a reasonable time-frame (24? 48 hours?) should be at risk of immediately having their sidewalk shoveled by a city-hired crew and receiving a bill for the cost. Even if there are logistical barriers to making this a guaranteed outcome for every case, it should at least weigh on people’s minds as a possible consequence of not meeting their obligation.

If Minneapolis is going to continue to rely on individual property owners to clear snow and ice from sidewalks, then the city needs to communicate an Oh no, what if my car gets towed? level of urgency.

 

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39 Responses to Our Winter Sidewalks Are Broken

  1. Adam Miller
    Adam Miller January 3, 2017 at 10:41 am #

    I encountered a new winter sidewalk obstacle today: an extension cord strewn across it to power a headbolt heater.

  2. Peter Bajurny January 3, 2017 at 10:43 am #

    Some utility contractors (CenturyLink?) did some unnaounced digging and melting in my yard, resulting in mud running into the sidewalk, then freezing solid. I managed to get the worst of it off, but there’s still a couple of inches of frozen dirt encroaching on my sidewalk.

  3. Steve Mitchell January 3, 2017 at 10:53 am #

    You are right on target about the state of our winter time sidewalks. And what good are the state-of-the-art ADA compliant infrastructure improvements on our corners if they are covered with snow or ice much of the winter season? We keep talking about walkability, which is great, but if it’s not all-season walkability for all, we are failing. Let’s put some teeth into making our city walkable in every season.

  4. Nathan Roisen
    Nathan Roisen January 3, 2017 at 10:54 am #

    Thanks for the article, agree 100% with your diagnosis of the situation, and the solution seems workable.

    I’d add that oftentimes the most dangerous component of the sidewalk system in the winter are the street corners. Unshoveled chunks of ice and snow strewn onto the street corners by plows can make crossing the street difficult even for able-bodied people. I feel for the property owners on the street corner – they can have a perfectly shoveled sidewalk in the morning before leaving for work, only to return home to a pile of rock-like ice and snow. In a perfect world, the plows would be followed by a crew to clean up the street corners.

    • Rosa January 5, 2017 at 6:58 am #

      and then spend the rest of the winter chipping uselessly away at that wall of ice.

      On our corner lot, we have this problem not just at the street corners but where the sidewalk crosses the alley. Sometimes it’s several times a day when there’s a lot of snow.

  5. Justin January 3, 2017 at 11:05 am #

    I find that a lot of residents of the city have an attitude of “Oh well, it’s winter, just put on yer heavy boots and bear it” which is especially insane since we’re a pretty dense city that experiences a long and harsh winter every single year. One sidewalk near my house was completely covered in ice and it was adjacent to a school and on a bus line, to me that really shows how little the city cares about this. I reported around 20 icy sidewalk issues over the weekend in my neighborhood and nearby areas, hopefully if they get enough complaints they’ll figure out a way to address this better.

  6. Justin January 3, 2017 at 11:08 am #

    I encourage absolutely everyone reading this to contact their city council representative. If they get enough direct complaints I bet they’ll do something about it. It only takes a minute. Find your rep here:

    http://www.minneapolismn.gov/council/members/index.htm

  7. Scott January 3, 2017 at 11:29 am #

    This is an area where the private sector may be able to play a role. When “no parking” time arrives on urban arterial streets, there are often a swarm of private tow trucks waiting to haul off any cars that were not removed by the 3:00 or 4:00 cut-off time.

    A similar approach may work here. As of the given moment, private snow removal crews can swing into action on any sidewalk out of compliance. They submit their invoice upon completion, and after 30 days of non-payment, the amount gets added to your property taxes for next year and paid at 80 percent by the city.

    The city gets a 20 percent cut for their trouble, 80 percent of the penalty rate is probably pretty good payment, sidewalks are clear, and there’s no way you will do that again.

    The “swing into action” time could be 9:00 am two days after a snow emergency is declared, or something like that. A cell phone photo of the offending sidewalk is sent to a city staffer who evaluates and gives permission to scoop, and logs the address into the system. The 20 percent penalties pay for that staffer. Payment is calculated based on frontage and snow depth. As soon as permission is given, the deal is sealed…no yelling at them to go away, you had your chance, and blew it.

    I’d suspect landscaping and snow removal crews would be pretty interested. By 2 days after a snowfall, they will have finished their normal work, and be hungry to pick up more jobs.

    • Eric Anondson
      Eric Anondson January 3, 2017 at 2:28 pm #

      I’m intrigued. Allow these private shovelers to get compensation for clearing out buried beg buttons and ADA ramps and I’m in

  8. Serafina Scheel
    Serafina January 3, 2017 at 11:31 am #

    I’m demoralized by Minneapolis Parks. Busy thoroughfares along park property often go uncleared (see Franklin and University Avenues in Prospect Park). I expect more from government entities.

    • Eric Anondson
      Eric Anondson January 3, 2017 at 2:29 pm #

      Does Minneapolis Park still make the claim they are different than other properties and don’t need to clear sidewalks that aren’t their own?

      • Serafina Scheel
        Serafina January 3, 2017 at 2:41 pm #

        Not clear. I haven’t had a response from them. The snow removal policy seems to say that perimeter sidewalks are the second priority for clearing, after–you guessed it–parking lots.

        https://www.minneapolisparks.org/news/2015/12/28/1277/mprbs_snow_removal_procedures

      • Serafina Scheel
        Serafina January 5, 2017 at 11:23 am #

        Parks actually responded to my request–they went out yesterday and salted and sanded and cleared the snow/ice pile from the bus stop. Hopefully they will remain responsive. Looked like they were out sanding/salting on University by Tower Hill park as well.

    • GlowBoy January 6, 2017 at 4:27 pm #

      Also frustrating with park properties is that they often lack sidewalks completely. My nearby example is Pearl Park, which completely lacks sidewalks for most of its multi-block frontage on the west side of Portland Avenue. This seems to be a common design decision not limited to Minneapolis: I remember numerous instances in Portland and its suburbs, where major parks either lacked sidewalks even when other nearby properties on the same street had them, or had circuitous pathways that more or less went from a to b but veered well away from the street and entailed significant additional walking distance.

      Is the rationale that the parks are so “nice” that people will want to amble through them rather than walk along the street? Even charitably, that point of view dismisses the idea that walking is a legitimate form of transportation where expediency might be relevant. But even ignoring that, it surely doesn’t hold up in winter when the lack of (plowed or unplowed) sidewalks means there’s no ambling possible.

  9. Noelle January 3, 2017 at 11:31 am #

    The corners are definitely some of the worst. Sidewalks can be hit and miss depending on property owners, but plows leave huge piles of snow (and now ice) in front of the crosswalks.

    Definitely make sure that poorly cared-for sidewalks in front of strip malls and other businesses are reported too. The sidewalk near Lexington & Larpenteur is always a mess, and finally this year I reported it to the property manager that owns Lexington Plaza. I noticed a definite improvement after letting them know.

  10. David Markle
    David Markle January 3, 2017 at 11:56 am #

    On some streets the street plows make it tough for sidewalk shovelers, particularly when plows on wide streets make passes at 30 mph or faster, blasting compacted snow onto the sidewalk. Seems that the shoveler’s only hope is to build up a substantial intervening barrier of shoveled snow, but that’s not always possible.

  11. srr January 3, 2017 at 1:37 pm #

    Much like snow tires, if you live in this climate and don’t own a pair of these you’re doing yourself a disservice. https://www.yaktrax.com/product/walk

  12. Anton Schieffer
    Anton Schieffer January 3, 2017 at 1:56 pm #

    I used to report unshoveled sidewalks through 311, but it never did anything to solve the problem, so I don’t even bother anymore. The same patch of sidewalk would be icy all winter, and over multiple winters, it was usually the same houses that didn’t shovel.

    I like the idea of issuing a “ticket” (or at least a notice) for unshoveled sidewalks 48 hours after a snow emergency. Maybe if the homeowner clears the sidewalk promptly after receiving the notice, the fine could be waived. But if a few more days pass and there’s no action, then send out a shoveling crew and pass the bill (with a fine) to the homeowner. They’ll learn quickly that it takes far less effort to shovel immediately than it does to have the city do it after a week of people packing down that snow.

    • Liz January 4, 2017 at 9:41 pm #

      My biggest issue is reporting sidewalks that are the cities responsibility to clear (I’m looking at you Park Board). The City of Minneapolis “report ice on a sidewalk” form only lets you search for an address. So if the place is 43rd st on the north side of Hiawatha Golf Course, there’s no houses and no addresses. (Don’t go there, it’s like four blocks of a sheet of ice.)

      I don’t get why the park board doesn’t just close some of those sidewalks. If you’re not going to clear them, at least put up a sign and tell people to go to the sidewalk on the other side of the street.

  13. Justin January 3, 2017 at 2:16 pm #

    I bet we could get city crews to handle the snow clearance with a small charge on everyone’s property taxes.

    Or at least we could get them to clear the more major streets and the sidewalks near parks and other attractions.

    • Scott January 4, 2017 at 2:36 pm #

      Burlington Vermont does this. They even have these super cool little sidewalk sized snowplows.

    • Rosa January 8, 2017 at 12:10 pm #

      That would be the best solution, I think.

  14. Walker Angell
    Walker Angell January 3, 2017 at 3:03 pm #

    Important topic. Thank you.

    Clearing is a problem but even when they’re cleared the design can be a major problem for folks with disabilities. The reverse slope creates a depression that collects water and slush that can be impossible itself but even worse when it re-freezes. Folks in The Netherlands pay close attention to things like this and design to either avoid this or to allow it to more easily be kept clear.

    These two guys stopped and jumped out of their cars to help the guy in the wheelchair get across.

    For someone with a disability small obstacles might as well be huge. 99% of the way to their destination may be clear but if 1% isn’t then they can’t get there. Sometimes this is true for others as well.

    Personally I think that utilizing property owners is nutty and will never result in an environment that is safe and useable. Walkways, bikeways, and roads should all be kept fully clear at all times (within reason) with priority given to walkways, then bikeways, then roads — and jurisdictions being responsible for making sure that they remain clear when roads are cleared.

    • Justin January 3, 2017 at 7:48 pm #

      What a sad sight, our pedestrian infrastructure is pathetic.

  15. John Reiher January 3, 2017 at 5:25 pm #

    When I complained about unshoveled sidewalks here in Washington State, I got told “Shovel it yourself.” That sidewalks weren’t important to transportation. Yet, by the number of footprints one could see in the snow, at least a hundred people had been walking on those “unimportant” sidewalks.

    The biggest offender, the City Hall sidewalks. Completely covered and no one shoveling them.

  16. Pete Moss January 3, 2017 at 5:53 pm #

    I don’t see the situation improving until car culture takes a big hit.
    Case in point: About 8:00 this morning, with a fresh coating of ice after freezing rain, I stopped at the P.O. in NE Mpls, where I noted the walkway next to the building (and along where patrons park their cars) LOADED with salt; but on the nearby sidewalk along the street, nary a grain.
    And in residential areas, let’s be frank: A great many sidewalks are inadequately maintained. Why bother, when it’s so much easier to keep the way clear from the back door to the garage?

  17. Joe Scott
    joe scott January 3, 2017 at 7:58 pm #

    But the thing is, a lot of the “problem properties” are occupied by the same elderly people we are concerned about traversing uncleared sidewalks,or are occupied by people who maybe work a lot and don’t have time to shovel and are definitely not rich. If you are renting a house and working two jobs and you don’t clear your sidewalk, and then you get hit with a fine because your lease says snow clearing is your responsibility, and you can’t afford that fine and lose the house, does that benefit the city overall?

    I really think it would make a lot more sense for the city to just do it and increase property taxes accordingly.

    I suspect many businesses and large residential properties which currently keep snow clearing supplies on site and pay staff to clear snow would save money under this system, so maybe the rate they pay under it could be higher than for low density residential. Even some homeowners might save money, depending on how much you value your time and how much salt you’re buying.

    • Chris Johnson January 4, 2017 at 10:15 am #

      Thank you, Joe Scott, for pointing this out.

      I’m an older man, not quite elderly yet. I try to keep my sidewalks clear, but it’s a real physical challenge for me to do the work. It often takes me hours to finish the job. Additionally, I’m on a corner on a snow emergency route. That means I get lots of heavy, compacted snow and ice plowed up from the street onto my front sidewalk and my corner. It’s very difficult. The corner is almost always a loss. I’ll dig it out, and they’ll plow it back in again, sometimes 2 or 3 times for one storm.

      Then there’s ice. In places where my sidewalks get sunshine, they’re dry. In the shady places, especially where melt water runs off, there is still ice. I put salt down, but salt is not a perfect solution. It is near useless when the temperature is near zero or below. It’s toxic, killing the grass and plants along the edge of the sidewalks. It’s polluting when it runs off in the spring into the Minnehaha Creek watershed. I am sure other property owners have more shade and vegetation and grading troubles than I do.

      So if we really want to provide first class walking transportation opportunities as a city, we have to treat it that way. It would make more sense for the city to prioritize clear sidewalks over clear streets, and pay for it the same way — via taxes.

    • Rosa January 8, 2017 at 12:13 pm #

      the city could also invest in good equipment. So the solution would be clearer sidewalks and more uniformity – and incidentally, an employment bump.

  18. Steve Gjerdingen January 3, 2017 at 11:24 pm #

    There was this one particular business in Roseville located at the northwest corner of Pascal St. and County Rd B that really struggled to shovel their sidewalk while I lived near there. I spoke with store management and it sounded like all they had to do their work was a shovel. Sometimes they’d knock out a little narrow path but often it was difficult for them to get it done since the road sludge would wind up on their walkway due to close proximity to the roadway.

    What was interesting about it was that most of the sludge was near the corner of the intersection and the ‘mound’ was less noticable when the plow got further away from the intersection. My theory is that the plow was making a right turn onto the main roadway, rounding the corner, and depositing large amounts of snow on the boulevard areas closest to the intersection in the process.

    All it would take in this case is simple engineer/design to build the sidewalk further away from the roadway and have a wider boulevard, especially as it approaches the intersection. You could taper it closer to the roadway midblock if you wanted to. The same issue happens a block down at Albert Street and County Road B as well.

    Another issue is that private property owners on commercial lots who own or rent the bobcats don’t make more than 1 pass. They don’t feel it’s their responsibility to fix the issue of cleaning up the extra snow that the road plow dumps on the walk, after the bobcat has made it’s first pass.

  19. Adam Miller
    Adam Miller January 4, 2017 at 10:55 am #

    Irony: I would not have missed by bus this morning either (1) had I not stopped to salt our sidewalk, or (2) had the last block before the stop not been a skating rink that required me to slow to a crawl to avoid falling.

  20. Jackie Williams January 4, 2017 at 11:57 am #

    the city does not seem to enforce much of anything. You can pretty much get away with not shovleing all winter. The church next to my house never shovels the sidewalk and has garbage piled up year round. I used to call 311 but nothing ever happens. BUT let me put a plastic bag in the recycle bin by accident and I will never hear the end of it.

  21. Scott January 4, 2017 at 2:55 pm #

    Depressing.

    Burlington’s fleet as described in their “Snowfighting Program,” the plan to address the city’s 95 miles of roads and 150 miles of sidewalks:

    10 large trucks (of which 1 is a spare)
    1 small truck – for dead ends and narrow streets
    11 sidewalk tractors (of which 2 are spares)

    A large truck should complete its route in 5-7 hours, while a sidewalk tractor should require 6 hours, or 8-9 hours if the sidewalk tractor is simultaneously salting the sidewalk.

    Burlington expects about 80 inches of snow annually, or around 2x the Twin Cities

    https://www.burlingtonvt.gov/sites/default/files/u249/26.1%20Snow%20and%20Ice%20Control%20Plan.doc

    • Eric Saathoff
      Eric Saathoff January 11, 2017 at 11:28 pm #

      I think it’s rather inspiring than depressing!

  22. JamesDee January 5, 2017 at 11:57 pm #

    I used to live on a busy street that is a County Road and a Snow Emergency Route. I would always do a good job clearing the sidewalk and so would most of my neighbors. Many times the street wouldn’t be cleared overnight on the first day of the snow emergency and the county would come by days later and plow the snow from the street onto the cleared sidewalks.

    We were all in compliance with the ordnance by having our sidewalks cleared within 24 hours of the end of the snowfall. I think part of the problem is that the city and the county don’t always clear the snow on the scheduled day when a snow emergency is declared. I see it all the time with corners. The property owner clears the snow from the corner, but the plows either cover the corner with several feet of snow or they don’t plow all the way to the curb.

  23. GlowBoy January 6, 2017 at 4:19 pm #

    I agree, the biggest problem is not the sidewalks (although sidewalks that haven’t been shoveled within a few days of a snowfall is also inexcusable) but the street corners.

    When I moved here 2 years ago I was thrilled (as a cyclist) to hear that the major MUPs get regular plowing, but disgusted when I saw what’s happening at crosswalks. Even heavily used crosswalks are still blocked by these mounds, and it hasn’t snowed for over 3 weeks. As a cyclist (either riding an MUP or the sidewalk on a street that’s unsafe to ride in winter) I find them merely annoying. As a parent often carrying or walking my young child or pushing a stroller I find it hazardous. The disabled must find it absolutely forbidding.

    Maybe (unlike with sidewalks per se) it shouldn’t be 100% the adjacent property owner’s responsibility. I understand the duties of being a corner-lot owner (I used to be one in Portland myself, and although it doesn’t snow a *lot* there I still diligently shoveled my 150 linear feet of sidewalk many times — once when we got a foot and a half of the stuff). However, it’s not nature that’s creating these blockages, but the agencies that are plowing up these mounds of crosswalk-blocking snow in the first place. I would argue that they should have to come back around and dispose of snowbanks that block crosswalks. I’m curious as to whether anyone’s tried to press an ADA case on this.

    • Rosa January 8, 2017 at 12:16 pm #

      I have seen what I assume are city-owned bobcats a few times out doing the corners – only in Seward, never in Powderhorn. I have no idea how they decide where to do that, or when.

    • Rosa January 8, 2017 at 12:17 pm #

      the mounds of plowed snow ice also block the storm sewer grates, so when we do get a thaw instead of draining it makes a streetcorner pond right at the curb cut, if we’ve managed to keep the curb cut relatively clear. We spend a lot of time every winter chopping out the snow mound over those grates.

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