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.
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
- 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).
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.