Photo of a car parked in the bike lane while the parking lane is filled with snow

How the 2019 Snowmageddon Showed That Cars Remain King

February 2019 was a record-breaking month for snow in Minnesota with 39 inches of snowfall in just four weeks, an amount shattering the previous record of 26.5 inches in February 1962. Students have missed several days of school and some workers have shifted their commute mode to cross-country skiing, but the snow has been less fun for those of us who typically walk or bike to get around the Twin Cities.

Getting several feet of snow in a short time has been an essential test of agencies’ commitment to sustainable transportation, and they have failed the test miserably. The Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) has a stated commitment to reducing greenhouse gas emissions produced by passenger cars and light-duty trucks, a series of Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) curb weight classifications that includes the SUVs, crossovers and pickup trucks so popular today.

At the same time, those agencies have prioritized clearing roads for the passage of motorized vehicles. MnDOT’s social media team posted a video of a clever technique used to remove snow from highway medians and another of several plows working in sync to clear a highway as quickly as possible.

Similarly, the City of Minneapolis has an Office of Sustainability that claims dedication to environmental sustainability and social equality, and the City of Saint Paul is developing a Climate Change Action Plan that will aim to reduce transportation emissions and improve the quality of life for all residents.

Despite these stated goals, the cities dedicate significant resources to keeping roads clear while leaving sidewalk maintenance to private property owners and largely ignoring maintenance of bike lanes. This approach, not surprisingly, has failed pedestrians and cyclists.

Photo of a sidewalk with a foot-high snow bank blocking access
A snowbank blocks sidewalk access for pedestrians, including people who have physical challenges and parents with strollers. (Alicia Valenti)
Photo of a car parked in the bike lane while the parking lane is filled with snow
A car parks in the bike lane on Marshall Avenue in St. Paul because the parking lane is filled with snow. (Alicia Valenti)

The creative thinking MnDOT employs to clear highways for motorists isn’t being extended to people who utilize other modes of transportation. (It’s worth noting that people with higher incomes and white people tend to have greater access to cars and drive more than people of color and people with low incomes. Similarly, people with disabilities are more likely to face barriers to transportation, including inaccessible bus stops and stations.)

Many sidewalks and bike lanes throughout the metro have been impassable since the February snow onslaught began — and some crosswalks go nowhere because a path to the sidewalk hasn’t been cleared. Complaints from pedestrians and cyclists about uncleared snow regularly go ignored because the city “can’t” take care of it, or because the issue resolves itself several weeks later when the snow finally melts.

Photo of crosswalk connecting to a sidewalk made inaccessible by snow
An icy snowbank blocking the sidewalk renders this crosswalk useless. (Alicia Valenti)

Twitter user happify has thoroughly documented many of these issues:

I’m sorry, but the total lack of @CityMinneapolis walking infrastructure in winter hurts my soul. #gompls

— happify (@happifydesign) March 3, 2019

Imagine the outcry if:

  • At the end of every block, foot-high snowbanks blocked vehicular traffic from passing through intersections;
  • Drivers had to get out of their cars and climb across a 3-foot pile of snow to press a button to get a green light so they could safely cross the street; or
  • Most major roads had broad patches of treacherous ice that could cause a car to flip or go off-road at any moment.

That is the current reality for pedestrians and winter cyclists throughout Minneapolis and St. Paul.

Photo of a traffic light and a beg button made inaccessible by snow
A beg button near Seward Co-op in Minneapolis is made inaccessible by snow. (Alicia Valenti)

Twitter user Dependent Clause tweets a thread chronicling the issues plaguing bike lanes in St. Paul:

Day 12 of no safe bike lanes on Marshall Ave. Cars now fully parked in the bike lane

— The Dependent Clause 🌹 (@DependentClause) February 11, 2019

It’s difficult enough to navigate these conditions if you’re an able-bodied person with reasonably good balance. For people with disabilities and people who use mobility devices, the public and private failure to maintain sidewalks can make it impossible to navigate the city safely — or at all. On several occasions, I have watched people using canes or wheelchairs travel in the street, moving toward oncoming traffic, because a sidewalk was unusable. Others who would face similar challenges simply remain home under such dangerous conditions.

Photo of a bus stop made inaccessible by snow
A bus stop made inaccessible by snow (Alicia Valenti)

A tweet from Anton shows a man experiencing this very issue with sidewalks:

Not easy to see here, but that’s a man with a cane walking into oncoming traffic because the sidewalk is impassable for him.

— anton (@anton612) March 8, 2019

Despite bold claims about valuing social equity, MnDOT and our local governments continue to leave accessibility for pedestrians and cyclists up to the whim of private citizens. These agencies provide for relatively unimpeded travel by car while paying lip service to environmental sustainability in the face of climate crisis.

Private car traffic continues to be prioritized at the expense of all other modes of transportation in the Twin Cities to the detriment of people who cannot afford to — or choose not to — drive. However futile it may be after having the same complaints go unheard year after year, here’s hoping winter 2020 will be better.

About Alicia Valenti

Alicia is the chair of the 2021 board. A transplant to the Twin Cities who works on small and large transit projects across the Midwest, she likes to write for about bikes, winter and fun things to do on transit.