Having clear sidewalks in the winter is an important issue for a lot of people. People should be able to move around their city or town year-round, and they shouldn’t have to use cars in order to get around easily. For my family, we need clear sidewalks in order to walk to the library and stores while using our stroller to carry small children. For some of my neighbors, they need clear sidewalks so that they don’t slip, fall, and end up in the hospital. For a few of my neighbors, they need clear sidewalks so that they can use their wheelchair to roll to the bus stop. For all of these reasons, I have been curious about alternatives to having property owners shovel their own sidewalks. When I heard that the city of Richfield, which is a suburb just south of Minneapolis, provides municipal sidewalk clearing, I wanted to learn more about their program. I didn’t find any information about it online, so I called Richfield’s Public Works department, and they put me in touch with Chris Link. What follows is my conversation with Chris, which has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Who are you, and what do you do?
My name is Chris Link. I’m the Operations Superintendent for the city of Richfield Public Works. It’s my overall responsibility for snow removal procedures and policies for streets, sidewalks, trails, everything.
For context, how does Richfield Public Works handle snow events, in general?
We treat every storm differently. It’s basically, when will it stop, or slow down? Today for example, it started snowing in the middle of the night, the forecast said that we’d have about two inches at five o’clock in the morning, but there was a lot more than that. So we said, we’re going to have our crew that clears our main roads come in at 5:00, we’ll do one run of our main roads, and then we’ll see what the storm is doing. So today we had ten guys start at 5:00, and now everyone’s going to go out at 9:30. The snowfall on Sunday ended at 1am, so we went out at 1:00 and plowed until 10:00, and then went home. We have to really balance it, we don’t want to wear the guys out. When they’re tired, that’s when accidents can happen. We don’t do split shifts, we use all available staff.
Do Richfield residents have to shovel their sidewalks at all?
No. It’s not required, there isn’t an ordinance that says they have to. I’ve worked for Richfield for 20 years, and ever since before I started, we’ve had equipment to clear the sidewalks.
How many miles of sidewalks does Richfield clear?
It’s roughly forty-six miles. 66th Street’s [separated cycle track is] brand new, so we’ll have updated numbers this summer.
How many miles of streets does Richfield clear?
124 miles, and with a 4” snowfall, that will take us six to eight hours to clear.
(For reference, Minneapolis currently has 1,715 miles of sidewalk and 1,081 miles of streets according to the Minneapolis Pedestrian Masterplan.)
How long does it take Public Works to get all of the sidewalks cleared?
Now [because of our new equipment] we can get through sidewalks in about eight hours. It’s getting more difficult with the amount of snow [this February]. We’re going to have to start hauling some of the snow away.
Do you know approximately how much the service costs per resident?
We don’t assess separately, it’s just a service that Richfield provides through taxes. We’ve never calculated the cost. If I start spit-balling, the capital costs for the vehicles, we probably have close to a half million dollars in equipment for just sidewalks. And then there’s our time, but I have a difficult time adding cost to city services, because when you talk about staff time, they are going to be here working no matter what. It’s just [because it’s snowing] today they’re going to be plowing snow. In two weeks, they could be doing trees, changing water meters, fixing water main breaks, they’re always going to be here.
Are residents generally happy with the service?
Yes. We do have our problem areas though where, “It’s not cleared on time and I’ve got to get to the bus,” we get those kind of calls, but I assume that they’d much rather have us do it than them. We aren’t perfect though. Sometimes it is difficult for people in wheelchairs to get through our sidewalks. We aren’t perfect, and I know that.
What are some other comments that you hear from residents?
The hard part with sidewalks now is ice events. We don’t [treat] sidewalks after ice events. That’s the part that we’re working through right now. These [winter] rain events that we’re getting are more frequent. When I started, it wasn’t an issue. The last four years, it has been. We’ve had one ice event per year. On streets we can kind of take care of it. The last one we had was terrible.
With sidewalks we didn’t put any salt out, we didn’t put any sand out. There are environmental concerns, and there’s budgetary concerns with that. If we start putting salt on sidewalks, we can kill grass and trees, and there’s the environmental side of it too. We’ve been trying for a number of years to reduce the amount of salt that we use. That’s our biggest struggle right now is what to do with ice. [Another challenge is plowed snow storage.] 66th Street has a boulevard area for snow storage from the street. That works out very well for us, but Nicollet and Lyndale and Penn Ave have sidewalks directly next to the street, and those are very difficult to clear. They take a long time to clear, we have to go back multiple times to clear plowed snow. Nicollet and Penn are county roads, but Lyndale is ours. We’re responsible for all of the sidewalks though. We don’t wait until all of the plowing is done on those roads, we clear the sidewalks along those roads multiple times, I think it’s a better service. It’s frustrating [for us] to have to do it again and again, but it’s a better service.
How does liability work for the sidewalks?
The city is protected by state statute. If the city causes a dangerous situation, then the city could be found liable, like ice created by a water main break, the city could be found liable for if someone got hurt by it. Snow isn’t caused by the city though, so we aren’t liable for it.
Are the corners of intersections cleared after the plows go past?
Our procedures and policies are changing. Up until last year, we had two pieces of equipment that would go out on sidewalks, and it was difficult. It took a long time. If we got a 4” snowfall, all the streets would be done the same day, but all of the sidewalks probably wouldn’t be done for about four days. Now we have five pieces of equipment, so we are in the middle of changing our operations. A lot of that is because our streetscapes have changed. Now we have dedicated cycle tracks [on 66th Street] that are off street. We have a lot of bus ridership, so we are starting to clear the radiuses and landing pads. This is our first year of doing it this way, it’s been pretty successful, but it’s ever-changing.
Does Richfield have a prioritization of streets versus sidewalks?
We do, but it doesn’t really come in to effect unless we have a severe event of 12” or more. We have the staff, they’re here, so we’re going to send them all out. Here is a map of all of our sidewalks. The city is broken up in to thirds. We have sidewalk plows [pre-deployed throughout the city].
What are some differences between Richfield and Minneapolis, or St. Paul?
Minneapolis relies heavily on on-street parking. On-street parking is allowed in Richfield, but for us, a Snow Emergency goes into effect after two inches of snow has fallen, and then you’re not allowed to park on the street until the roads have been plowed. We try to do as much notification as possible.
Do crews clear down to the pavement after every snow?
We don’t have a bare pavement policy for streets. That gets back to [what we were talking about with] the salt. Travel lanes, or at least their wheel paths, we’d like to have cleared. We do have maintenance agreements with certain property owners. At 66th and Lyndale, those businesses will generally clear their own sidewalks. We do one pass of sidewalks after a snow event. [Our equipment may not always be as wide as the sidewalk], so if the businesses want more than what we clear, then it’s the responsibility of the property owner. Our equipment plows a six foot path, except for they cycle tracks and trails, which we plow out to eight feet.
What kind of machinery does Richfield use to clear its sidewalks?
We have sidewalk plows and a skid-steer, a Toolcat, and a pickup. They all have attachments. We have blowers. We have brooms too, but we generally only use those early in the season.
Are there any things that cause confusion for Richfield residents? Any weird rules related to municipal sidewalk clearing?
Not really. We rely on feedback from our residents. If we miss something, I want to know. One difficulty is private property plows where they blow snow on to the sidewalks. Then the snow is too heavy for any of our equipment to get through. That’s where we try to work with our public safety folks.
What else should people know about Richfield’s snow clearing service?
The ice thing is a big thing. We don’t have a solution for it. We don’t know what the right thing to do is. We’ve thrown around the idea of having stockpiles of salt and sand for residents to use, but there are disadvantages of that with cleanup, and environmental concerns. The sand gets in to the storm ponds and at some point you have to remove it, and dredging storm ponds is very, very, very expensive. We haven’t used sand since 2008 for either streets or sidewalks. I don’t like, but there’s got to be those conversations. I’ll say it, there’s climate change. There’s something going on. There’s too many ice events now for there not to be. We didn’t have these, even just ten years ago. It’s odd and difficult for us. Ice is the hardest thing to deal with. We don’t have the answers.