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.

16 thoughts on “Getting Serious About Winter Sidewalks

  1. John EdwardsJohn Edwards

    When we have this conversation about winter sidewalks, I’d like to see less concern about the hypothetical disabled, elderly, low-income property owner. We need more concern about the disabled, elderly, and low-income pedestrians endangered by uncleared, icy sidewalks. I’m guessing the latter group far outnumbers the first.

    If the burden on property owners is too great, and we’re not going to get real about enforcement, then we need to bite the bullet and spend the money, as a city and as taxpayers, to make sidewalks safe.

    Another thing I see mentioned a lot: volunteer shoveling groups. That sounds nice, but clearly people are not good and kind and decent to a level that takes care of this problem on its own. People have a tendency to offer charity as a solution when they don’t take a problem seriously.

    1. Alex TsatsoulisAlex Tsatsoulis Post author

      Ideally it’d be great to see an expansion of the city’s role in snow clearing, along with a more robust enforcement of existing rules for shoveling. I don’t know if expanding the city role to that of a city like Ottawa is politically feasible, but even just increasing the resources dedicated to clearing public sidewalks would be a good start, since my experience has been that usually navigating intersections, curb cuts, and crosswalks are the most challenging parts of winter walking. Having more than 10 people tasked with clearing those intersections could have a great impact on mobility.

      1. Rosa

        making it a city responsibility might address some of the infrastructure, too: we could, with a lot of effort, get permission to build and maintain a “rain garden” in the part of our boulevard that dams up the water on the sidewalk and makes it into an ice rink every time we have a freeze-melt cycle. But we can’t put in a drain or even just a drainage gravel pit. The city could, though. Maybe if they were the ones out fruitlessly chopping ice every couple days they would do it.

        Though, maybe not; we have similar ponds in the street gutters, even though we chop all the ice out of the storm drains. it would take a lot of redesign to fix all these places. Though if the plows weren’t plowing ice piles onto the storm drains that would help too.

    2. Joe ScottJoe

      Whether property owners are elderly or just negligent, it seems to me we’d get more bang for our buck paying city employees to clear snow than we would paying them to sit in offices answering complaints and levying fines. I’m going to call up Ottawa and see how much it costs, I’ll get back to you guys.

    3. Charity Realist

      Maybe because with dedicated and active people. charity outstrips what the government can ever even dream of doing. The Catholic Church is the largest charity in the world, and does more for the sick, destitute, and hungry than any other institution.

  2. TJ

    As property owner with a sidewalk on a corner lot, I have some issues with clearing within 24 hours at times. First off, St Paul city plowing is horrendously slow in my area. Early this year I was on top of the snow removal just to have the plow come by and push the snow back up onto my sidewalk. This wouldn’t have been so bad if I wasn’t within 2 blocks of three separate school, one of which is a high school where the kids park on the street in front of my house. Needless to say the children packed down the snow and then we had freezing rain immediately. So, I had solid ice on my sidewalk for a good several weeks. I would keep it clear, throw down salt, and chip away, but when it’s too cold for salt there isn’t much that can be done.

    Personally, I would like to see high schools responsible for areas around their campus. CDH kids take all our street parking, throw litter in our yard, blast their music (waking the baby) and lastly pack down the snow. I get that living near a school has some disadvantages, but I see this as a great opportunity for kids to be involved in volunteer public service. As a young able bodied person, I am on top of this issue 95% of the time. There are others in my neighborhood that aren’t as able bodied and then have to pay a lot of money to have removal. To top it off, those kids park in front of the sidewalk exits so those same elderly people cannot leave their house to get to the street.

    Anyway, Just wanted to provide another view and possible solution.

  3. Peter Bajurny

    I also live on a cornet lot, that is also a major pathway for students walking to school (South High) from the Lake St light rail station. This morning I looked out my window as the YWCA across the street was able to use a small tractor with a brush to keep their sidewalk clear all the way to the surface, even with the heavy traffic.

    By the time I got out to shovel, it had already been compacted and was essentially unshovelable. When the snow stops I can try and scrape it all off, but that’s a long slow process.

    I wouldn’t think it unreasonable for someone, be it the city in general, or the school district specifically in areas like this, to have a maintenance crew with a snow clearing tractor keeping the route to school clean and clear. On little used side streets with light foot traffic having property owners clear their sidewalk within 24 hours is probably fine, but on heavily used pedestrian routes, you need to be out their constantly cleaning while it’s snowing, something a homeowner just isn’t capable of doing.

    1. Eric SaathoffEric Saathoff

      TJ and Peter, please remember that the public school systems are pretty well strapped for cash. That’s probably going to get worse before it gets better with the current administration.

    2. Julia

      Why stop at schools? Why not have the city (to start) plow all Snow Emergency routes, as well as walk-sheds (like watersheds) for certain destinations including schools and hospitals?

      If there’s a budget issue, perhaps we stop plowing parking lanes. Why does private vehicle storage come above basic infrastructure?

  4. Joe ScottJoe

    Ok, here’s what I came up with. I’m sure there are lots of reasons this isn’t a one to one comparison, but anyway-

    This article says Ottawa spent $24.4 million on snow removal in 2014:

    This article from the Strib says Minneapolis snow removal costs between $7.3 million to $12.3 million a year. $12 million (What we spent in 2014) would be about 10% of what the city spent on debt service for bonds that year. It really doesn’t seem like that much.

    Ottawa has about double the population of Minneapolis and about 7 times the land area. So I’m guessing Ottawa city proper includes more recent suburban development.

    Surely at 1/7th the land area of Ottawa, we ought to be able to tackle sidewalk snow removal at the municipal level. We could match Ottawa’s snow removal budget by raising our total tax levy less than 1%.

  5. Hannah PritchardHannah Pritchard

    As a recent home owner, I was excited to finally be in control of my own little 45 feet of sidewalk. While the excitement has slightly worn off, the challenge has become apparent!

    We don’t have quite the foot traffic that Peter does, but it does get packed down pretty quickly with foot traffic. If you don’t clear the path to the street at the beginning of the season (like I didn’t last year) it gets really hard to find after a few snowfalls! If you clear the snow a little past the edge of the sidewalk, into the grass, then when it melts the water is (somewhat) absorbed into the grass, instead of running across the sidewalk. The weird thing that the previous home owners left us was not a really aggressive garden hoe, but was actually an ice scraper. I kinda wish there had been a snow removal section in home ec when I was a kid.

    1. Julia

      As a fan of specialization and problem-solving, I love seeing the ways that different people deal with difficult sidewalks conditions. To me, a huge part of the problem is what you allude to with teaching snow removal in home ec. Clearing a sidewalk well is an art. It’s not a one-tool, one-time task, particularly if you’re dealing with foot traffic, bus stops, narrow boulevards and snow thrown back on by drivers, low patches, poorly positioned gutters, driveways, and various types of snow/freeze-thaw patterns.

      I loved shoveling when I lived in a smaller building (triplexes) both growing up and as an adult. I miss it now. I loved watching how older people did it, hearing the shovels scraping in companionship against the concrete and ice in the sparkle of snow at night, shedding layers as I warmed up, seeing my skills improve, trying to figure out how to do better. But not everyone grew up learning to shovel for any number of reasons. I wish we cared enough about walking to make snow shoveling a point of pride for property owners, something shared on social media to indicate “We’re open!” after snow storms and talked about as part of our “North” identity.

      In my observation, a good deal of shoveling is contagious–blocks with chronic offenders have compliance drop off for other property owners as the winter continues, whereas a block with a stellar shoveler often has at the very least a half-assed attempt. I had a conversation with a person in Edmonton about their very similar snow clearance system (basic infrastructure maintained by individual property owners) and it sounded better there with a culture of shoveling one’s neighbor’s walk if need be, with the expectation that it’d happen in return.

      And we can’t just “remind” people–as you point out, it’s not something that people know how to do. Often it’s a matter of poor tools, lack of sand, lack of knowledge. We need education that people will actually engage with, and enforcement (probably) to provide motivation to learn for those who don’t walk and don’t care about their neighbors.

      1. Scott

        I think you’re on to something. Poor tools make the job so much harder, and good tools have become very hard to find. Good tools also take a little bit of maintenance, which takes a little bit of knowledge to keep them in good order and working well.

        A real shovel with a replaceable steel edge, an ice chipper, a snow pusher with a replaceable steel edge, and a grinder to keep the edge straight and level makes such a huge difference.

        I think the real answer is to follow the example of Burlington, VT, where the city clears all sidewalks city-wide, but until that day comes, neighbors helping neighbors and teaching might be a good start.

  6. Scott

    Maybe Saint Paul could take the lead in this area by creating a new neighborhood process to build expectations around sidewalk snow clearing. As I’m sure you all know, Saint Paul does not manage the processes of plowing alleys or collecting garbage. Saint Paul residents are also expected to hunt squirrels for food and know how to knit their own socks, as all good frontier dwellers do.

    Given our status as the do-it-yourself city, perhaps block groups could extend their alley plowing contracts to include clearing the snow from sidewalks around the block. Most alley coordinators ask for $20 or $25 to cover a season’s alley plowing. If $50 included alley and sidewalk, I’m guessing many people would consider that a reasonable ask.

    If the city helped out by boosting enforcement, it would seem an even better deal. If buying in to the sidewalk group eliminated one ticket or one city shoveling charge, being part of the sidewalk communal group would easily pay for itself.

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