Navigating the Streams of Sidewalks

Regular transit users experience the public realm in a very personal way. Instead of cruising through at 30+ MPH, transit users and pedestrians are taking in all aspects of the streetscape.

This time of year, snowbanks start to recede and water starts to fill the sidewalks. If your lucky you’ll be able to slide across a thin layer of ice, praying it holds your weight. Today, my daughter and I walked from the corner to her daycare — she made it over, I broke through the ice like an unlucky ice fisherman.

Flooded sidewalk

Flooded sidewalk


Walking to my bus stop, I am greeted by piles of half melted snow but thankfully Metro Transit has plowed out a section to enable boarding. I have to be especially careful to stand back pretty far to ensure I’m not consumed by the inevitable tidal wave of greasy water that stands in the gutter of the street. I’ve been sprayed by angry motorists who go out of their way to make being a pedestrian an awful experience. I often wonder if the drivers are unhappy to be caged into their vehicles and end up taking it out on those who are liberated from their cars.

Our public streets are highly engineered to shed water extremely well. They build the streets with a crowned center, allowing automobiles to enjoy a clear surface. Unfortunately more often our sidewalks and cycling infrastructure are an afterthought and are simply thrown in without any thought as to how run off and pooling will affect their usage.

I’m sitting at work today, looking outside to the corner of Lake Street and a prominent cross street. I see small lakes on two of the four corners. Drainage apparently has never been considered for pedestrians. I see clean and dry pavement for cars on most city streets right now.  Most segments of our walking infrastructure are poorly engineered and designed for casual walks in the summertime instead of vital infrastructure for daily commutes and errands.

Life as a pedestrian and transit user could be much better if we engineered our pedestrian realm to the same degree we do for automobiles.

Jeremy Hop

About Jeremy Hop

Jeremy is multi modal commuter, map geek and an urban development nerd in Northeast Minneapolis. A single father, he enjoys spending time enjoying "here", "there" and "getting there" with his two daughters, 5 and 11.

27 thoughts on “Navigating the Streams of Sidewalks

  1. Walker AngellWalker Angell

    Well said. The really amazing thing is, we know that it doesn’t have to be like this. Engineers in The Netherlands, Finland, Sweden and elsewhere are able to design walkways and bikeways that don’t have these problems. Why are our engineers not able to do the same?

    1. Eric Ecklund

      We don’t have the money (well we do, but we spend on something else) and willpower to overhaul the entire sidewalk and trail system in the cities and suburbs so they can be used all year.

  2. Noelle

    Amen indeed. When I went for a run on Monday evening, I purposefully ran on quiet side streets so I could run in the street, where it was pretty much clear, vs on the sidewalks that were rutted with slush, water, and ice. Even the paths around Como Lake were plagued with small lakes every 100 meters or so. It’s obnoxious for me, and a major problem (and even dangerous) for the people who regularly use the paths and sidewalks in my neighborhood to travel in their wheelchairs.

  3. Katie Emory

    Jeremy, thanks for this. It’s a reminder of just how insidious designing for one population to the detriment of others can be.

    Because issues like this aren’t just a matter of getting your shoes wet. There is a serious danger of slipping, falling and getting a concussion or breaking a bone. I’ll never forget driving through Marcy Holmes on a Friday night last winter and seeing a man lying prone and motionless on an icy/wet sidewalk. He happened to be an inebriated college student who had fallen on the sidewalk right outside of his house, and thankfully didn’t appear to be too hurt. However, if no one had stopped by to help him up he might have spent the night passed out on the sidewalk… and while intoxication was a large factor in this, I believe this could have happened to someone with limited mobility for any reason.

    So this isn’t just a matter of pedestrians and vehicles, but of access relative to ability, as well.

  4. John Holton

    Wow, lots going on in that picture. Were those streets ever plowed? Are there curbs?

    The front-of-the-house power lines gives it a Pittsburgh aesthetic.

    1. Rosa

      the walls of snow are because the streets were plowed multiple times. The swoops of snow still in the street are because cars were parked there during the snow emergency and plows plowed around them (they got tickets, probably. Some probably got towed after the plow didn’t plow.)

      There are curbs but they’re probably 8 inches back from the edge of the snow? The drains are mostly working – more than usual actually, because we’ve had so many warm days that even the ones nobody clears after snow gets plowed over them have melted from the runoff. But not every corner has a storm drain and a lot of the corners aren’t sloped right so there will be a puddle at the bottom of the curb cut even right next to a drain that’s draining.

      The ground is frozen so there’s nowhere for the water to go except the storm drains.

  5. Keith Morris

    Central Ave (around Lowry) seems to have it down. Looks like the business association has someone with a motorized plow clear the sidewalks. Night and day compared to the sidewalk lake on University and Snelling. All major business districts should be doing the same.

  6. John AbrahamJohn Abraham-Watne

    Great post, and important to bring up these issues. I too engage with this fun as I wait for the bus on Lake Street (right before it splits from Excelsior). It is quite clear the infrastructure of this city was built for cars first, and as you say, pedestrians as an after-thought. The coming changes to our climate over the next decades will only make this problem much more staggering and difficult to deal with. We need to begin thinking from a non-fossil fuel perspective on these matters, whether that’s eliminating gas-powered vehicles, promoting public transportation or simply understanding the simplicity and joy of being able to walk around your neighborhood (or to work). Thanks for considering this issue, and hope keeps pounding on it as our winters grow more severe.

  7. Adam MillerAdam Miller

    Yup. If you’re like me, you’ll try to do little tiny bits to help, like dig around the drain with you (waterproof clad) foot to try to allow runoff into it, remove minor blockages, or just step on the edge of the ice so it will melt better. I suppose I could carry a shovel to do more.

  8. Rich Passmore

    Go easy on homeowners that live on a sloped lot. I used to live in Merriam Park and our house sat about 5′ above the sidewalk with the typical St Paul postage stamp size front lawn. No matter where I put the snow, it was always going to end up as water on the sidewalk. If someone did engineer a solution for that situation, let me know and I’ll pass it on to the new owners.

  9. Justin D.

    I live on a corner with a bus stop and a lot of walkers, and it is really hard to make it passable. Snow is one thing, not that hard to clear it, but once the melt sets in….big puddles that are nearly impossible to get rid of. It’s really frustrating that we can’t figure this out because people are more interested in urban living and walking and transit than they have been in decades and that interest might wane if we can’t make it work a little better.

    1. Rosa

      There’s literally nothing I can do about the puddle at our curb cut, or the one on the sidewalk for that matter – there’s just nowhere for the water to go.

      So I propose an instant and completely free solution: one sided parking from November – April 1, all side streets converted to one-ways, and the other lane given over to pedestrians and wheelchairs.

    1. Monte Castleman

      The problem is there’s not a lot of overlap between “drains good” (minimum 1.5% crossslope) and “meets ADA standards” (maximum 2.0% crossslope). Engineers won’t even go close to the 2.0% limit because there’d be a lawsuit if they didn’t’ rip it out if it was accidentally built to 2.1%

      Of course the problem in the winter is more that the water can’t drain off to the side either direction due to the snowbanks on either side. I’m not sure there’s a solution beyond putting a bunch of storm drains in the sidewalk.

    2. Rosa

      did you see my proposed solutions? We’re good at having clear, dry streets – give half of the (remaining after snow) lanes over to pedestrians and wheelchairs.

      1. Eric Ecklund

        That infringes on my freedom to drive (sarcasm intended, but unfortunately many people probably think that way).

        1. Jeremy HopJeremy Hop Post author

          Why do you walk and take the bus then if its so awful… Well, for some of us its not a choice. People take for granted their ability to own and drive their cars. Its such a normalized thing that if someone isn’t doing that, they are questioned why.

          The real question is why our public spaces are treated as secondary to the auto spaces. A few off the top suggestions to improving the pedestrian and transit realm:

          1) Grade the sidewalks and trails to shed water
          2) Install proper drainage grids at sidewalk (ADA) ramps
          3) ALWAYS provide a planted median between the street and sidewalks — Snow storage and a human comfort effect.
          4) Major transit stops and transfer points should have at minimum, a lighted shelter. For stops that are major but have less frequent service on one of the legs, a heated shelter with seating and lighting.

          I’m no engineer or even construction person. I do believe these items don’t require any sort of advanced design or compromises on the part of the auto realm. We as a country just don’t prioritize or encourage pedestrian and transit use as a policy.

          1. Eric Ecklund

            We like to pretend we promote pedestrian and transit use. In the suburbs we build nice trails that go out into the woods, which is nice but not where people need to go. Then in the winter the trails aren’t plowed, so have fun trudging through snow and tip toeing over ice. This is what I had to deal with in Shoreview today.

            1. Jeremy HopJeremy Hop Post author

              I’m surprised to hear about your experience in Shoreview. I’ve always understood that the city plows all of their multi use trails all winter. Aside from the asinine loopy loop trails in and out of the woods, shoreview does offer a trail next to every main thoroughfare. I applaud this municipality in being an early adopter of off street cycling infrastructure, even if its not as robust as we’d like it to be.

          2. Rosa

            to be fair, in Minneapolis at least the streets are also not well drained. The giant puddles are at the corners where the sidewalks hit the street, in the street, it’s just that they make the sidewalks really unpleasant to use.

            Drivers mostly drive exactly in the middle of the street, this time of year, unless there’s oncoming traffic (and then one car pulls over to the side, if there’s nobody parked there).

  10. Eric Ecklund

    I dealt with this in Merriam Park yesterday. At every intersection there was a large puddle with a thin layer of ice underneath. My options are walk through it, walk on the snow bank, or if I’m lucky there’s a grassy patch with mud. If it was a side street I would walk on the street.

  11. B.Hat

    The Midtown Greenway has some fierce lakes developing as well. While it isn’t so bad when melted and just biking (all-season riding comes with an understanding of getting wet on occasion) when the re-freezes happen, those puddles either turn into slicks or get hard ruts frozen into them that just throw your bike out from under you on occasion. It should be an easier solution than sidewalks, adding drainage there, and a welcome respite from those minor fall injuries!

  12. Tricia

    Oof — wet shoes all weekend long. Minneapolis Parks trails were fantastic: cleared to the pavement and as dry as they could be in this weather.

    Neighborhood sidewalks were a completely different story. It’s partly drainage and warped sidewalks and partly (in my non-engineer’s guess) that the homeowners had never cleared down to the pavement in the first place.

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