Snowed in beg button

Getting Serious About Winter Sidewalks

As someone who walks a lot in winter, how we maintain (or oftentimes don’t) our sidewalks has been an issue of great interest to me. Last weekend was the last straw – after getting off a bus with my toddler and desperately scrambling up a snow mountain to press the pedestrian crossing button to get across Lake Street, I decided to throw a shovel in my cargo bike and clear some paths to beg buttons by myself. It’s obviously not realistic to expect local residents to clear paths to crossing buttons on major thoroughfares, but it oftentimes feels like pedestrians are an afterthought in a city that prides itself on being able to remove mountains of snow off our streets in almost no time after major snowfalls.

Cleared path

A few days after I shoveled; lots of footprints!

How things work now

Uncleared road at intersection

Two weeks after I reported this, it still remains impassable.

Currently, sidewalk clearing is generally the responsibility of private property owners. Property owners have 24 hours after a snowfall ends to clear their sidewalk (4 hours for commercial buildings and apartments), which many, but not all do. When this process fails, the city has no clear way to identify properties that haven’t been cleared. Unfortunately, given the miles upon miles of sidewalks in our city, the city relies on residents to submit 311 reports to identify problem areas. That process by its nature means that oftentimes problems don’t get to the city for a long time after it snows. It also requires an inspection, notice to the resident about the violation, and then, finally, a follow up clean up by a city crew. For many reports I’ve sent in, I’ve found that the problem is resolved by warming weather by the time the city finally gets to the last step! Another problem with this slow response is that given our deep freezes in winter, problems that could have easily been addressed after it snowed become much more challenging once they’ve been repeatedly walked on and turned to hard ice.

For public sidewalks, Public Works currently has a small crew of 10 called the Malls and Plazas Group who are tasked with clearing 175 separate public areas of the city, including trails, public places, greenways, and other public sidewalks (there is a separate group who clear sidewalks along bridges, and the Park Board is responsible for their trails and sidewalks). This crew is also tasked with the nearly impossible task of clearing all the pedestrian infrastructure that gets covered by snow plows when they clear streets. Think about the last time you cleared your corner sidewalk only to have a plow come through and put up a mountain of snow the next day. Property owner responsibility ends at the gutter, and the city comes through to do the rest. With over 16,000 intersections in Minneapolis, clearing all of them in a timely manner after it snows is logistically impossible without a considerable added investment in crews and equipment.

One of the final challenges for the Malls and Plazas Group is the evolution of our infrastructure – as we make things safer for pedestrians and bicyclists, that infrastructure oftentimes requires more labor-intensive snow clearing. For example, as crosswalks begin crossing through pedestrian islands instead of in front or behind them, snow plows can’t clear them, and they require more labor intensive clearing after the fact. This, coupled with the fact that new infrastructure is being built faster than it’s communicated to the small crew in charge of clearing it means it can be very hard to clear paths for pedestrians in a timely manner.

Snowed in beg button

Just try getting to this button with a toddler in tow.

Getting serious about sidewalk maintenance

So with limited city resources dedicated to the task, and no real teeth for enforcement of existing clearing laws, how do we make Minneapolis a place where everyone can get around in winter after it snows?

The easiest thing to do would be to increase the resources we allocate towards enforcement of the existing 24 hour clearing ordinance, and add additional resources for the city crews tasked with clearing public sidewalks and intersections. The challenge there (beyond the added cost) is how to avoid the burden for clearing in a timely manner falling disproportionately on those who may have physical limitations hindering them from shoveling quickly. It’s not reasonable to assume that everyone can clear snow and ice within 24 hours, and with any increase in enforcement there should also be a way to connect people with resources to make sure they are able to get their walkways cleared. Groups like the Longfellow shoveling volunteer network in my neighborhood could serve as a model for how to make sure everyone can get their snow cleared, particularly if this neighbor support model were expanded citywide with support from the city.

Within that sort of increased property owner responsibility could come minor tweaks that would address a number of issues – rather than limiting property owner responsibility to the gutter of the street, simply change the language to state that property owners are responsible for clearing a path into a cleared part of the street. Adding a sentence about ensuring access to pedestrian buttons would take care of the initial complaint that prompted this blog post too!

Snow removal in Ottawa

Image from the City of Ottawa.

Finally, some cities have adopted a model where they take responsibility for all snow clearing rather than relying on private citizens to do the job. It’s unclear what the cost would be in a city like Minneapolis, but our neighbors to the north in Canada have some great examples we could draw on. Ottawa, to provide one example, provides snow clearing for all residential sidewalks after at least 5cm (about 2″) of snowfall, and will do it within 16 hours of snowfall ending. They also provide a network of 81 “grit boxes” across the city for residents to get free grit to spread on their sidewalks. Minneapolis has a similar program for free sand in four locations.

While more information is needed to determine what the best path forward is for our city, it’s clear that the current system we have now isn’t working. We have for too long prioritized moving car traffic as easily as possible after snowfalls, and neglected our sidewalks and until very recently, our bicycle infrastructure in winter. As we make strides in improving our bike facilities in winter, we will continue to work with policy makers on how to make our sidewalks just as accessible. I hope you’ll join us as we discuss this and other pedestrian issues at the next Minneapolis Bicycle Coalition Pedestrian Task Force meeting!

Crossposted at the Minneapolis Bicycle Coalition blog.

Alex Tsatsoulis

About Alex Tsatsoulis

Alex is a Minneapolis resident, dad to two kids, and multi-modal advocate with a passion for making bicycling, transit, and walking fun and accessible for all. Alex's favorite bus line is the 21.