Winter Walking & The City of Minneapolis Maintenance Study

The long-anticipated City of Minneapolis’ Winter Maintenance Study is being presented to the City Council’s Transportation and Public Works committee on Tuesday. The Study looks far afield for solutions, analyzing municipal winter maintenance responsibility across the country, but without ever evaluating the efficacy of either our current system or the ones studied. Despite its importance and all the time that it represents, the study glosses over these two major holes in our current system of winter sidewalk maintenance: the number of reports that fall through the cracks due to lack of a valid address, and ambiguity over what constitutes a clear sidewalk.

Here’s a visualization of our only current mechanism for enforcement.

 

A flowchart illustrates the accompanying text to share what happens when a snowy or icy sidewalk is reported to 311

 

 

ELMS is Enterprise Land Management System, one of the data management systems the City of Minneapolis uses.

PW is Public Works.

KTHXBYE represents reports that fall by the wayside.

Width of arrows represent percentages of complaints and are estimates based not on hard data, but on my experiences reporting, plus multiple conversations with various staff involved in sidewalk clearance both in the City of Minneapolis (311 and Public Works) as well as with SeeClickFix, the developer whose platform the City of Minneapolis uses for its 311 phone app.

Here is the more detailed process, aka:
Winter Sidewalk Enforcement via 311: a step-by-step guide

  1. Someone becomes aggrieved by a snowy or icy sidewalk. A subset of these people know that sidewalk clearance is the responsibility of the adjacent property owner. A subset of these know that enforcement happens only when a sidewalk is reported. And a subset of this subset of a subset of the aggrieved decide to report the unpassable sidewalk either by calling 311 or using the app on their phone (or a web form).
  2. When they make this report, they are prompted for an address, though this field is not required. On the app, the location is geotagged automatically. On the phone, the 311 operator will ask for the address. Eventually, someone who makes a lot of reports (cough, no one we know) will encounter an operator who seems particularly personally put out by the lack of street address. With persistent questioning, one learns that the street address is required for the City to send its notice of violation to the property owner.If the violation is reported with a street address included, the report enters into the ELMS database and a notice of violation is sent immediately. If the property is simply geotagged on the app, the report is diverted to Public Works, for staff to find the street address. If the property is a description on the phone (because exact addresses are rarely easy to find), some 311 operators will use internal systems to find the exact address while the caller remains on the line to confirm this; others will divert the information to Public Works.
  3. Public Works sends a letter of violation. If it is received, Public Works schedules a Sidewalk Inspector to visit. If the letter bounces back as undeliverable, however, the case is diverted to that KTHXBYE file.
  4. The Sidewalk Inspector visits the property. They visually assess whether the sidewalk is clear of ice and snow. If the sidewalk does not meet their criteria, they file a Work Order. 

Within this portion of Minneapolis’ snow and ice maintenance policies, there are two major gaps in maintaining a clear and safe sidewalk network.

GAP #1: What’s the address? 

The first is that the report virtually only moves forward with a legal street address–geotagging and descriptions, no matter how precise, appear to significantly reduce the likelihood of a complaint being resolved. While the app doesn’t highlight the importance of this address in any way, some 311 operators are clearly aware of its importance in the process, repeatedly asking for it and telling the hapless aggrieved that buildings are legally required to have it displayed (a policy enforced perhaps only slightly more strictly than the city’s snow/ice clearance ordinance, confounded by the accumulation of snow, not applicable on building sides on corner lots, without street name present, and made more difficult when one fears frostbite, property owner retaliation, and/or being late to wherever one is headed if one stays stationary).


GAP #2: What does “clear” mean?

The second gap, and the most curious oversight in the City of Minneapolis’ Winter Maintenance Study, is the lack of shared definition of what constitutes a sidewalk cleared “the full width of the sidewalk down to the bare pavement.” [source] When I’m reporting sidewalks (a seasonal endeavor that begins with the optimism of November and combusts into despair, powerlessness, and a rageful apathy somewhere in January), I report perhaps 10% at most of those I come across that are dangerously uncleared. Of that 10%, which this past year constituted dozens if not hundreds of complaints, I have seen a single case resolved with “work order filed.” The rest seem to have have ended up languishing in the KTHXBYE heap.

My definition of clear is those sidewalks that I feel comfortable and safe walking on, that are accessible to someone in a wheelchair or navigating with any balance issues. Periodically, I walk with friends and family members who have impaired mobility and I’m reminded of how generous (to property owners; not to residents of Minneapolis) my definitions of “clear” are.

The City, it seems, is even more generous. One year, my sidewalk-reporting ended in a flurry of frustrated phone calls to 311 and the City of Minneapolis, trying to better understand how the system works and why sidewalks I reported snowfall after snowfall, month after month, year after year remained uncleared. In an hour-long conversation with a lovely Public Works employee in the Sidewalks department, I learned that the City’s inspectors look not for a cleared sidewalk, but for “signs of a struggle”–if it appears to them that the property owner has made an attempt, they will not file a work order. Within Sidewalk Inspections, the property owner, not the vulnerable sidewalk user, is by default centered. In our conversation, Mr. PW was open and responsive, generous with information and clearly interested in his role within this system. He expressed sincere empathy for me walking in a lane on Franklin Ave with my elderly family member who didn’t feel safe on the icy sidewalks. Yet he continually defaulted back to concerns about how sidewalk snow and ice maintenance impacts the property owners who are responsible for it. Will no one think of the property owners?

To me, that is the crux of the problem, both within the Winter Maintenance Study and more broadly in our city. Minneapolis as a whole has a deep cultural allegiance to the primacy of the car and the single family home. Even within the bitter mid-winter conversations of disenfranchised walkers, the conceptual elderly and disabled low-income homeowners struggling to clear their sidewalks are centered while elderly and disabled renters are as invisible in conversation as the impassable streets make them in our communities.

Complete Streets, the City policy that puts pedestrians first, isn’t just about static infrastructure. We should not accept a Minneapolis that isolates so many of our community members for months at a time. My goal is a city that is safe and accessible to all its residents throughout the year, including those who walk and use wheelchairs and other mobility devices. Our ordinance as it is written supports this, for the most part, but our enforcement system hasn’t kept up. Shifting and tweaking our snow clearance policies and responsibilities is meaningless when those tasked with enforcing and enacting those policies hold a working definition so far from the one held by those of us dependent on sidewalks for our daily transportation.

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7 Responses to Winter Walking & The City of Minneapolis Maintenance Study

  1. Max Hailperin
    Max Hailperin May 15, 2018 at 9:07 am #

    Left unstated in the “signs of a struggle” conversation is that the reason why property owners can struggle so much trying to clear the sidewalk and yet fail to do so is that they aren’t trying until too late, after the snow has already been trampled down by the footfalls of countless pedestrians who already walked on the sidewalk before the property owner (or their hired contractor) got around to making the attempt.

  2. Matt Steele
    Matt Steele May 15, 2018 at 9:39 am #

    This is amazing. Forgot to include the timeline for complaint processing that involves waiting sufficient time (up to months) for snow to melt before inspecting, then 311 can mark the complaint “not found upon inspection.”

  3. Matt Steele
    Matt Steele May 15, 2018 at 9:48 am #

    This is also a street design issue. You mention Franklin as a problem spot (I think Janne also had a post about how bad Franklin sidewalks are from an accessibility perspective under non-winter conditions). It seems like the worst sidewalks during winter are oftentimes those on the busiest activity corridors, because many of those streets have back-of-curb sidewalk locations. It seems back-of-curb sidewalks came about in the middle of the 20th Century as the City and others tried to squeeze out as much pavement for cars within the right-of-way. Over time, some of these have been fixed, but most still remain.

    As we plan to rebuilt streets, we need to be far more aggressive with providing space between the curb and the sidewalk. It is not acceptable to have snowplows clearing space for snow storage by blasting snow and ice onto sidewalks. This space can be grass or landscaping, or it can be extra concrete “amenity space” in activity areas. Anything that gives space for snow to be stored so that sidewalks can be kept in better shape.

    In the meantime, I think it is completely reasonable that the City assumes snow-clearing responsibility for back-of-curb sidewalks. In many cases, heavy duty snowblowers or bobcats are required to clean sidewalks after plows come through.

    We definitely need to up our enforcement game, and we need to consider citywide municipal sidewalk clearing. But in the meantime, we can make a huge impact by accelerating redesign of back-of-curb sidewalks, and prioritizing municipal sidewalk clearing for back-of-curb sidewalks until they can be fixed.

    • Adam Miller
      Adam Miller May 15, 2018 at 10:13 am #

      A particular problem spot in our neighborhood is 46th Street between Bloomington and Cedar, which has back of the curb sidewalks. Part of me understands why several property owners there clear only a shovel-width, if at all, but still, there’s a school and kids need to be able to get to and from the bus.

  4. Sean Hayford Oleary
    Sean Hayford Oleary May 15, 2018 at 9:50 am #

    That definition of clear is a hard one, because the language of the ordinance is pretty extreme — even commercial businesses rarely get truly 100% of the sidewalk width clear to bare pavement — but the practice seems to go to the opposite end.

    The width aspect in particular seems almost impossible to comply with in areas with back-of-curb sidewalks. And it’s likely unnecessary on many sidewalks, which can be as wide as 7′ in residential areas, while many other cities get by with 5′. Commercial sidewalks back of curb could be 12’+ feet wide with no other place to put snow.

    But, of course, saying a passable width of 5′ may be insufficient in areas with high pedestrian activity.

  5. Adam Miller
    Adam Miller May 15, 2018 at 10:11 am #

    The “signs of a struggle” standard is really outrageous. What good does a “struggle” do for someone trying to get through in a wheelchair?

    But I also have a follow up question: are you saying there’s no point in using the app to report? I don’t really ever call, but I do use the app sometimes.

  6. Andrew Owen May 15, 2018 at 10:28 am #

    If you’d like to take a look at the Winter Maintenance Study documents yourself, you can find them here: https://lims.minneapolismn.gov/File/2018-00576

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