Municipal Sidewalk Clearing in Richfield: An Interview

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.

Sheridan Ave And 73rd St
A municipally-cleared sidewalk at Sheridan Ave and 73rd St in Richfield, MN.

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.

Washburn Ave And 75th St
Municipally-cleared sidewalks at Washburn Ave and 75th St in Richfield, MN.

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].

Richfield Sidewalk Plowing Zones
Map showing Richfield’s three sidewalk-clearing zones.

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.

Skid-steer and Toolcat
Skid-steer and Toolcat clearing sidewalks in Richfield.

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.

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23 thoughts on “Municipal Sidewalk Clearing in Richfield: An Interview

  1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

    Nice interview!

    The interview hints at it, but I did want to emphasize just how drastically different the municipally cleared standard is from the privately cleared standard. This was from last winter.

    Here is a public sidewalk on 77th Street at Lyndale, cleared by the City:

    Public sidewalk cleared by plow

    Half a block to the north, adjacent to the Kensington Park mixed-use building, here is a building that had the 1x public pass followed by a deep and thorough snow removal by a private vendor:

    Privately cleared sidewalk at Kensington Park

    This is the same snow event, same evening, half a block apart.

    Public clearing has some advantages — for a city with limited sidewalks like Richfield, it is “fairer”, since residents who happen to have sidewalks don’t have extra work their sidewalkless neighbors don’t. And it does provide an even level of coverage.

    But in terms of truly getting safe, accessible sidewalks during the winter — it just isn’t enough. It’s not that Richfield is doing this badly. They do a good job — any city that does it city-wide has similar results.

    1. Jenny WernessJenny WernessModerator  

      And yet, the roads directly parallel to the sidewalks are nearly perfect in both photos.

      We obviously have the technology and strategic ability to quickly clear large complex grids of hard surfaces without relying on a patchwork of individual street cleaners. It’s not unreasonable to assume that those skills could be applied to sidewalks (though they may not be currently, as these two photos point out).

      The imperfection of one current sidewalk situation doesn’t mean it’s an impossible path forward. It’s probably worth noting that even your “bad” photo is much better than many Saint Paul sidewalks are all winter long.

      Many snowy cities throughout Europe have excellent systems for sidewalk and bikeway snow removal. I’ve seen them cleared in the midst of as snowstorm, and used them both on foot and bike. It’s possible.

      1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

        Yes, it is certainly possible, although a couple things benefit clearing on the roadway:

        1. Car tires do help to break up remnant snow and ice
        2. Agencies seem more comfortable using lots of salt — although they have to deal with it from a stormwater perspective, it takes less of a bite out of immediate vegetation. (Since much more of sidewalk drains directly into boulevards and adjacent property than into drains.)

        We could do better. But I really doubt that Minneapolis or St. Paul — that have much denser sidewalk coverage than Richfield and other city-cleared cities — could possibly do that. At least not without huge growth in automation to do the labor.

        From a potential policy perspective, I think what Chris Link describes is done for large commercial properties might be a good template for Minneapolis or St. Paul: on priority routes, the city does a quick 6′ sweep, but then it’s up to the property owner to do the comprehensive clearing. That ensures a quick, even, basic level of usability, but still allows (requires) the property owner to actually get a full-width, bare pavement standard that would be truly accessible.

      1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

        The sidewalk pictured is after being plowed. (This was after like a 10+” snowfall, you would know if it was uncleared.)

        The foreground is slightly worse-than-typical because a second pass with a street plow has pushed more snow in. But if you look toward the background, you can see a more typical section and level of clearing.

    1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

      Much less than half, especially among single-family homes. See the map in the post. Those highlighted yellow routes are the only ones with sidewalks.

      Cities with similar characteristics but more sidewalks — like St. Louis Park — rely on a mix of city clearing and property owner clearing.

  2. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

    Richfield has 46 miles of sidewalk. According to the Pedestrian plan, Saint Paul has “approximately 1,080 miles of sidewalk.” So over 20X the amount. It would be fascinating to pencil out the numbers about how this might impact the Public Works budget…

    1. Frank Phelan

      Oh, OK, Now I’m much less impressed with Richfield now. It’s a nice little post war working class ‘burb, and it’s great they do as much as they do to clear the sidewalks. But I’d be much more impressed if they added more sidewalks, whether they were cleared by public works or property owners.

    2. Jenny WernessJenny WernessModerator  

      Saint Paul also has ~ 15x the amount of streets as Richfield (124 miles vs. 1874 miles). I mean, people certainly argue that we don’t do a good job of clearing streets here in St. Paul, but we DO have a city-wide commitment to clearing streets. Scale is important, but fortunately we have good models of large-scale snow clearing.

    3. Monte Castleman

      Well, there’s that estimate from Minneapolis that it would cost $20 million a year for the city to do sidewalks. You could scale up the capital equipment costs but even though Richfield seems to indicate they already have the staff, I’m not sure if you could make the assumption for Minneapolis and St. Paul, which have more sidewalks per capita.

      Do any residents in Minneapolis or St. Paul ever have an agreement where one person on the block that owns a good snowblower will just run it down the entire block when they’re done with their driveway just to be nice, or in exchange for money or a case of beer? Does anyone have to do their driveway and sidewalk by hand? On my block I’ve literally seen no one out shoveling, every single person owns a snowblower or plow or else pays a snow removal service. According to a recent Strib article it’s an issue that snow removal services don’t even want to bother with doing Minneapolis sidewalks.

      1. Andrew Evans

        Our house is on a pretty steep hill from the sidewalk, so I need to go around 2 lots north of me to get to my place. Then I’ll try and do each of the neighbors, although my real interest and only responsibility is mine. I should remember to try to clear the sidewalk crossing, but the person who owns the empty lot is a slumlord type who doesn’t show an interest in it, mowing, cleaning, or otherwise, so no love lost there. I’ll also push the snowthrower back if the gas runs out, so sometimes the empty lot only gets a single pass.

      2. David Schaal

        Any sort of work sharing has always been informal in my experience.
        I have a blower and have used it on neighbors walk when they were sick and if it is really heavy I will plow at least a path over most of the block.
        Teens earning spending cash by shoveling is still a thing and I have seen mention of it on next door.

        One of my neighbors uses a snow removal service as do the owners of the rental properties (single home) on our block.

      3. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

        I think a fair number of people hand shovel, particularly on smaller city lots. I have a plow service and love not having to do it by hand — other than scraping off small snows.

        Of course, clearing sidewalks is the easy part. The hard part is clearing drieways — especially on urban lots with very few options of where to put the snow.

        Suburbs that consider adding sidewalks also worry about the burden of clearing snow from the new sidewalk for residents. But somehow the private paved surfaced are getting cleared now. If people are able to manage with clearing their internal walks, and their (hard-to-clear) driveway, a 5-6′ of straight flat sidewalk in front is pretty minor.

        (Notable exception for the unlucky folks who have back-of-curb sidewalks who literally get the entire sidewalk length covered in dense, plowed snow. They deserve to get a subsidized two-stage snowblower, if not have the city clear it for them.)

        1. commissar

          in the cases of behind the curb, perhaps easiest would be to simply treat it liek an extension fo the street. and have the city clear it. impractical to expect everyone to be able to manage that kinda crap

      4. Cobo R

        Clearing the sidewalks is very informal.

        My blower is electric with an extension cord (it works surprisingly well), so my range is limited to my house, my neighbor the right, and part of my neighbors to the left.

        I always try to clear the side walk for one of my neighbors because he’s pushing 80 and doesn’t have a blower. On the other side they have a blower and three able bodied adults so I usually let them handle it on their own.

        If my blower were gas and could make more time, I would probably clear the entire block just to be neighborly.

      5. commissar

        when i lived in north, there were some buddhists with a nice snowblower that would usually clear the sidewalk. or a nearby neighbor would do it for a can of coke. helps that there’s really not much in the way of a driveway in most of st paul or Minneapolis.

  3. Monte Castleman

    Bloomington does provide a salt / sand for residents to use on their own property or adjacent sidewalks as needed- it’s in a big container in the animal control parking lot. The last round of ice they couldn’t keep if full despite filling it several times a day so finally they just dumped a huge pile next to it.

  4. Scott

    Uncleared sidewalks in Minneapolis are definitely an issue, but IMO it is the giant snow mounds piled up by plows that create the biggest barriers. These mounds are piled up on top of pedestrian ramps, bus stops, and where alley driveways cross the sidewalk and often remain for weeks. There is something very wrong with the idea of pushing snow off of streets to create clear paths for autos that make it harder to walk, bike, and take transit. This is especially true considering that Minneapolis has a Complete Streets Policy that claims to prioritize these modes of travel.

    There are other plowing techniques that exist that don’t result in dumping snow onto pedestrian ramps and bus stops. Or, crews could remove the snow mounds earlier rather than waiting for them to solidify into blocks of ice. Or, other cities like Montreal plow and then remove the snow mounds because they realize walking year round is a need, not a luxury. Lot’s of options exist beyond a complete City takeover of sidewalk snow clearance.

    1. Brian

      How would the extra cost of other plowing techniques be paid for? It already takes three days to plow streets. How would the city not extend this even further?

      The current snow removal budget is $13 million. Just adding sidewalks would more than double the snow removal budget. I am guessing that sidewalk clearing would cost around $100 per property on average.

      1. commissar

        you do it like street cleaning. you plow to passable, hell, even current snow emergency levels, then come back later, ban parking for 48 prior, tow what’s not moved, then plow and haul as needed. obviously, it’s not practical to haul all of it away, but might work to blow some up onto yards.

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