There’s nothing I enjoy more in the winter than taking a brisk walk outdoors, bundled up to meet the cold, ideally with one or both of my dogs in tow — and, most importantly, on a clean, ice-free sidewalk. Living near two college campuses helps make ice-free walking possible (both St. Thomas and Macalester meticulously maintain their grounds), but still, I must navigate rutted streets and uneven, unpredictably shoveled sidewalks to get to those campuses safely.
During a winter with record snowfall and a growing number of climate change-induced thaw-freeze cycles, cold-weather walking has been harder this season. In fact, it’s been downright scary for me at times, especially after a diagnosis of thinning bones.
That has me paying close attention to the call for municipal sidewalk shoveling in Minneapolis, where Our Streets, a nonprofit organization dedicated to multimodal issues, is pushing for the city to maintain sidewalks as a matter of equity — because “everyone deserves accessible sidewalks.”
As a pedestrian who averages some 15,000 steps a day for both fitness and transportation, I wholeheartedly agree. People of all ages, ethnicities, economic classes and abilities deserve to move safely — and joyfully — outdoors. Which is why I believe a municipal shoveling ordinance would not work in St. Paul, where I have lived and owned a house since 2013.
Three reasons, beyond the city’s notorious reputation for poor plowing and gaping potholes on its streets:
- Landlords are legally accountable for their buildings’ public sidewalks, and the city could invest more in enforcing that.
- Homeowners can collaborate with other homeowners to clean and clear their block, as we do already to get our alleys plowed.
- Clean sidewalks require a level of fussy tending that St. Paul clearly lacks the resources to sustain.
Our Streets makes a fair point when it says that “a municipal sidewalk plowing program would ensure year-round accessibility to busy street corners, pedestrian ramps, bikeways and transit stops.” Having city workers clear snow and ice from highly trafficked public spaces would help ensure that people who have no access to cars — whether by choice or financial circumstance — could get around. It’s a matter of equity, Our Streets argues.
But shoveling also is a matter of responsibility. Metro Transit can and should (and often does) keep bus stops clear. Business owners are liable for their sidewalks and the corners or “aprons” that lead up to them. And landlords — who in my college-focused neighborhood of Merriam Park are charging up to $1,000 per bedroom per month for multi-bedroom units — are accountable, legally, for keeping their sidewalks clear. I’d rather see city workers enforcing that law than clearing landlords’ sidewalks themselves.
During my years as director of neighborhood relations at the University of St. Thomas, I co-led a class every spring for students moving from residence halls into neighborhood houses or apartments. Shoveling, along with other property upkeep issues, was always a topic we addressed. An attorney for HOME Line, a Bloomington-based tenant advocacy organization, would interject whenever I told students that shoveling should be their responsibility.
I wanted to teach them to be good neighbors — plus some student-housing landlords are derelict about getting the job done, especially if they live or “snowbird” out of state. But the attorney was right: City ordinance requires landlords to ensure that the common walkways of their properties get cleared within 24 hours of a snowfall. The headline on the city’s website practically screams the directive: “Property Owners and Managers Must Clear Sidewalks.”
So, put some teeth into the law. Enforce it. Rather than employ someone to help out properties owned by for-profit enterprises — which is what rental housing is — hire another couple of folks to staff the complaint line at the Department of Safety and Inspections. Then educate people to report unsafe sidewalks at rental properties and encourage landlords to write shoveling duties into some tenants’ leases in exchange for cheaper rent.
That’s an effective way the city could be involved and promote equity for its multitude of renters.
Saintly City Snow Angels is an aptly named volunteer group of people willing to help their neighbors who cannot clear snow themselves. A St. Paul–based Facebook group run with heart and humor by Heather Worthington and Melissa Wenzel, the Saintly City initiative has earned a lot of media coverage this winter and is featured on the “snow shoveling resources” list on the city’s website.
I’d like to see the city do more than promote it. Hire a seasonal staffer who could ensure that the highest-need parts of the city get covered, neighborhoods where requests for shoveling outpace the number of volunteers who have the resources — time, mobility, equipment — to do it.
“We need more people to sign up and jump in,” Worthington said back in December on a day when there were 667 shoveling requests. “If you see a post for the Payne-Phalen neighborhood and have a friend over there who could help, connect them.”
Worthington, who lives in Midway, describes the service as a “bulletin board or clearinghouse”; Wenzel, an East Side resident, manages a simple Google doc that matches need to volunteers. Worthington has reached out to the mayor’s office and the departments of Public Works and Safety and Inspections to promote partnering. Her pitch: The city could more effectively promote a system of “neighbor helping neighbor” rather than continue to deal with 92,000 property code complaints a year (not all of which, of course, relate to shoveling).
Though it differs with my notion of holding landlords to account, that mindset fits in a community that some residents still dub “Saint Small” and where homeowners must collaborate each winter to hire a service if they want their alleys plowed. “We as a community can get better outcomes when we help each other,” says Worthington, who launched the first, localized version of Saintly City Snow Angels in her Midway neighborhood three years ago when she noticed the number of messy sidewalks on her walk to the Green Line.
The program morphed into a wider city initiative during the winter of 2021–2022 and was rebranded with the catchy title this past fall. “A lot of the people who need help are elderly and not digitally savvy,” says Worthington, who’s had interest from people in Fridley, Maplewood and Minneapolis. And recruiting helpers can be difficult in neighborhoods where people work multiple jobs and varying shifts, or may have language barriers, she adds.
Even more reason for the city to assume oversight of the program and its database, handling tasks like:
- Coordinating volunteer shifts among those who have the will and spare time to clear a neighbor’s sidewalk.
- Recruiting paid high school shovelers or physically able retirees to ensure that all neighborhoods get covered.
- Finding creative ways to incentivize participation.
And leaving those of us who want to shovel our walks to do it on our own.
An elderly neighbor texted me the other night, asking to schedule my help with shoveling for the anticipated snowstorm. Her daughter had found me listed as a neighborhood volunteer on Saintly City Snow Angels, and I happen to know my elderly neighbor from my previous job at St. Thomas. That is how the Saintly City program — and community-mindedness — is supposed to work.
But shoveling alone is not the solution to our winter walking woes, a point that the arguments for municipal shoveling seem to miss. Winter has warmer temperatures, far more ice and less snow overall (this year being an exception) than when I was growing up in southern Minnesota. These days, a sidewalk free of snow is not necessarily safe to walk on, even with the L.L.Bean Stabilicers that are a staple of my winter gear.
On my daily dog walk this past Tuesday, I strapped on spikes over my boots and slip-slid through rutted alleys because the shoveled sidewalks had a sheen of ice too slick and thin for the spikes to grip. Accustomed to a brisker pace, my dogs strained at their leashes. My ankles threatened to turn as I negotiated the uneven surfaces of the alleys. The experience, in a word, was awful. And unsafe!
Clean sidewalks — with dry cement — require frequent tending, unless you resort to chemicals. You shovel the day of a storm, clean up the day after, sprinkle sand or gravel where any stubborn ice remains and use a push broom once warmer temperatures melt the ice, so the standing water won’t freeze over by the next morning.
Tell me: What city worker will return again and again to fuss over the miles of sidewalks throughout St. Paul? That task belongs to the homeowner, the business owner or the landlord, or the renter whom the landlord compensates to get the job done.
Judging by the dialogue on Twitter and in neighborhood meetings, I am a minority voice in this debate. The liberals and progressives with whom I normally caucus tout municipal sidewalk maintenance as the next right thing in a city that works for all.
Hugo Bruggeman, chair of the Transportation Committee for the Macalester-Groveland Community Council, is a homeowner, father, year-round cyclist and a walker who wonders why the current system — with the city assuming responsibility for street maintenance, leaving the sidewalks and alleys to home and building owners —so blatantly favors cars.
He answers that question with a series of other questions:
- Do people have the resources to comply with the current system? “People with more time and flexibility can get the job done,” he says.
- At what point did the city start plowing streets? Did they do it in the era of horses, or did municipal plowing follow in the wake of cars?
- “If we want to encourage the next generation to walk or bike, what are you telling kids that the streets are clear, and the sidewalks are not?”
Good questions, all. But until we can agree on whether municipal shoveling is desirable or even feasible, let’s ask the city to invest in solutions that encourage community engagement, that employ young people, that urge neighbors to help neighbors, that hold landlords accountable — and then focus on keeping the streets plowed and the potholes filled.
Because pedestrians and cyclists use streets, too, and as of today, they are icy and treacherous.
Photo of snowperson at top courtesy of Nathan Wolfe on Unsplash
I share your skepticism that a municipal clearing program would necessarily be effective considering St Paul’s track record, but I take significant issue with one point.
“Homeowners can collaborate with other homeowners to clean and clear their block, as we do already to get our alleys plowed.”
Having lived in a couple pretty poor neighborhoods in st. paul, this is not the model you want to emulate if your goal is equity. How well plowed an alley is is almost proportional to the wealth and renter status of the people on the block in my experience, and there’s plenty of good reasons for it. Hiring a plow costs money, and even more than that it takes someone very dedicated in terms of time investment too if they want to organize everyone pitching in for it. I’ve lived on blocks where the alley was never plowed, and blocks where someone who could afford it paid to have their half plowed, etc. and I was never once even asked to contribute, I didn’t even know who was paying for or performing the plowing when there was any being done. Those were relatively short term residences for me but I would have been happy to chip in if it was an option.
I understand that in terms of political reality this is a big if, but I firmly believe that, for example, if the city spent anywhere near as much as all these blocks of individual homeowners are spending on plowing each year, they could do a better job, and plow the whole city instead of just the blocks that can afford it.
In terms of sidewalks, I still think a municipal program is feasible, given the right funding and approach (maybe a more proactive version of minneapolis’ distribution of free buckets of salt-laden sand could help with the repeated icing in between snowfalls?), but I would absolutely accept a crackdown on rental and commercial properties that don’t do their part as a great first step. Everyone involved wants the same thing, I would just say that many people are never going to be convinced that a city run program can successfully do the job until they see it with their own eyes, so waiting for complete consensus will never happen. Given what I’ve seen this year, trying it out can hardly make things worse
I appreciate a good discussion on this issue and the views of both Amy and Clark.
I pay $26/year to have my alley plowed. I’m lucky to have a great neighbor (50+ year resident) who organizes it. It’s an excellent deal, but I understand it might be too much for some.
However, If the city takes over alleys and sidewalks, it will be assessed on property taxes. There are plenty of homeowners struggling to pay property taxes. If a homeowner couldn’t afford to pay for alley plowing, then the increase in taxes is likely to be a burden.
As for rental property, I have no sympathy for landlords who do not maintain their property. It’s a business. It’s their job to keep sidewalks clear and the city should come down hard on them for failing to do it. If a landlord isn’t paying for alley plowing now, it costs the renter nothing. But the landlord would probably pass on as much of the cost of a city wide program to their renters as they could.
There’s an equity component to be found in most every problem in St. Paul St. Paul is not a wealthy city. Money spent on alley/sidewalk plowing is money that another equity issue doesn’t get. Plowing can’t be argued in a vacuum. It’s competing with resources for many other pressing needs. I think we have other problems to address in St. Paul with more pressing equity issues.
As for sidewalks, Saint Paul would have to demonstrate that it can clear the crosswalks on the streets before I would support any kind of municipal sidewalk clearing. Countless times I have walked on a cleared sidewalk and had to cross an icy, rutted street to get to another cleared sidewalk. I would be all for a pilot crosswalk clearing program.
Agreed, I can’t imagine that level of cooperation here. Probably 1/3rd of my neighbors I’ll wave and small talk to, 1/3rd of them I can match a face with a house, and 1/3rd of them I have no idea who even lives in a particular house.
I didn’t comment originally because I live in Bloomington (where the city clears the sidewalks and has done so as long as I can remember), but it sounds like at least on some blocks, the situation is the same in the cities.
I agree with you, Amy. Well thought out and written!
This article would have more resonance if the author hadn’t spent the previous several years, in her role as neighborhood liaison for the University of St.Thomas, being an apologist for off campus students and their landlords. I have a business next to a house that had St.Thomas hockey players who were somehow unable to shovel their sidewalk. Excuses flew from them, their landlord (St.Thomas alums), and Ms.Gage on why they couldn’t shovel their sidewalk. Excuses flew, shovels did not. That was the culmination of years of the landlord and Ms.Gage making excuses. In St.Paul, I encourage everyone to complain directly to the city for an uncleared or icy sidewalk- https://www.stpaul.gov/departments/public-works/street-maintenance/snow-emergency/sidewalk-snow-shoveling-information
This response feels unnecessarily personal. Regardless of who lives in an apartment, students or not, it’s the landlord’s responsibility to clear the sidewalks. Many don’t do a good job, and it’s a problem throughout the city.
Great thought-provoking article Amy. I have been thinking a lot about sidewalk/road snow clearance/maintenance and car parking enforcement, bike lane maintenance, etc.
With winters like this one I do think it’s unrealistic to expect fully cleared travel lanes for any mode of transportation at all times (cars, walking, rolling bicycling, transit, etc) like you mentioned, but obviously it can be better and more options needs to be on the table like car parking restrictions all winter long instead of waiting until it’s absolutely necessary because the roadways have gotten so narrow largely because of parked cars.
As someone who travels primarily by bicycle I do wonder if both bicyclists and drivers might be better served by removing plastic bollards from bike lanes in the fall aside from those that can be guaranteed proper maintenance otherwise they seem to serve no one at all and feed into the angry driver narrative. The Minneapolis 40th street 2-way bike lane between Grand Ave. and Nicollet Ave. has been covered in inches of ice since January due to the snow ridge that plowing equipment piles snow and ice upon between the bike lane and the roadway which feeds the ice base every time it gets above freezing (which can be daily in late Feb and March). We’d all be better served if the bollards were removed so plows could push ice/snow as far off the roadway as possible so that there is enough safe shared space for the occasional winter bicyclist like myself and drivers. Instead, I have to ride in the roadway anyway and drivers are mad at me for not riding in a ice covered dangerous bikeway.
While neighborhood shovel patrols are certainly ideal and preferred (and it’s pretty ridiculous that a block of 20 homes may own 15 snowblowers), I think both parking enforcement and sidewalk enforcement could be well served by the gig economy too. A little financial incentive for the average citizen to report illegally parked cars and poorly cleared sidewalks could have better results than our current system to report and then wait for someone to come by and inspect to see if indeed city intervention is warranted and then remove the snow and then fine the homeowner. The city’s eyes can’t be on everything but we’ve all seen how a single illegally parked car during a snow storm can result in a dangerous road hazard for months as it gets continually snowed-in the same is true for a neglected sidewalk at a pivotal time in a winter storm (Why their is little effort being made to remove these vehicles is very frustrating.). Just a single day of neglect can result in an icy walkway for months making it difficult for even the most aggressive efforts of ice chopping to do much about.
This is true, but if clearing is not done promptly you end up with ice shelves that will last the whole season which I don’t think is acceptable.
Not sure why ridiculous that 15 out of 20 houses own snowblowers, the best tool for removing snow in a climate that gets a lot of it. The same 15 probably have lawnmowers too since we live in a climate where we grow lawns in the summer.
Monte, my household has started a “snowblower” share with the neighbors behind us (conveniently, a former colleague of mine at the Pioneer Press). I shovel my walks, because I enjoy it and am physically able to do so. On heavy snow days, my husband borrows the snowblower for the driveway in exchange for buying gas and keeping the machine tuned. Everyone’s happy, and it’s one less machine for the landfill someday.
It’s ridiculous in the same way that every household owning a car is ridiculous. These are machines that sit idle the vast majority of the time, and we can easily serve multiple households with fewer of them if they were a shared resource.
Very, very well written piece. As a fellow St. Paul resident, the track record on municipal plowing gives me zero confidence that the sidewalk clearing would be any better. And where are you going to find the labor to perform that kind of irregular work?
Also, as you point out, landlords (and businesses and all property owners) are not only legally responsible for clearing their sidewalks, but legally liable if someone gets hurt where snow/ice is not properly cleared. Any municipality that took on this responsible would be taking on a huge amount of liability.
The best path forward is to strictly enforced sidewalk clearing, and to send out city workers to clear uncleared sidewalks and then bill the owners.
I agree with you, Amy. I think there’s a LOT of room to improve accountability for shoveling, and I don’t think the city (either city) would do a good job with a municipal shoveling program unless it had a huge budget. And in that case, if given $20M+ per year to spend, there are a lot of things that would be higher on my priority list for improving walkability in the Twin Cities.
So much of the rhetoric hyping municipal snow shoveling ignores the reality that some of the most treacherous sidewalks are not those who weren’t shoveled right away, its the melt, refreeze, icing, freezing rain, slush – the reality of the season. No one has suggested they have a solution to the ongoing work of clear sidewalks.
The kind of heavy equipment that a city program could recruit with efficiency of scale would make short work of these impediments. An ice bank that takes a normal person several hours of salting and hacking with hand tools–bobcat with a spinning brush does it in seconds.
There are a number of problems with doing this with heavy equipment like bobcats on sidewalks. First, the labor problem for this irregular work is going to be even more difficult. Nearly anyone can go out and use a shovel. Operating a bobcat actually requires skills and training and a whole set of other liability issues. It is going to be prohibitively expensive if you can even get it to work at all. Using heavy equipment will also cause a considerable amount of damage to sidewalks. Your cleared winter sidewalk may be a broken sidewalk in the spring, which is its own problem, and again will be expensive to fix.
If the use of heavy equipment was a panacea, why are the roads so terrible? Why are the roads still salted and sanded? The fact that you can clear the sidewalk more quickly doesn’t get to the problem that Mike raises – the melt, refreeze, freezing rain, slush cycle. You have to keep coming back – having heavy equipment won’t make that any easier.
Bloomington has used heavy equipment to clear the sidewalks for as long as I can remember with absolutely zero signs of damage. Equipment for clearing snow from sidewalks, basically oversized snowblowers, is designed to not be so heavy as to damge the sidewalks.
A couple of points:
Bloomington sidewalks are are much better condition than those in St. Paul. The snowblower is only part of the process for dealing with my not particularly flat/smooth sidewalk. If the heavy equipment is just oversized snowblowers, then it isn’t enough and wont take care of the ice like the original comment suggests.
It also takes the Bloomington 4 days to clear all its sidewalks after a 3-5 inch snowfall. Comparing the way the streets are plowed in St. Paul vs the suburbs, and the size of the City, that 4 days is probably about 2 weeks here.
I’m not so sure about that. Maybe on a campus like the U, where sidewalks are uniform, wide, etc., but on a actually existing residential sidewalk, widths, steps, and other variables change in a hundred ways that will require the city workers to do a great deal of the work by hand.
Thanks for your insightful thoughts on this topic, Amy. While I really wish we could implement a municipal sidewalk snow removal program, like you, I just don’t think such a program can work effectively. I used to think differently. Then my spouse and I spent a snowy February week visting Montréal, Quebeck in 2019, where there is a municipal program of sidewalk snow removal (along with cycle-track clearing). I’ve never experienced less well cleared or walkable sidewalks anywhere. We had to find a store to buy Yak-trax Diamond crampons so we could walk around the city without falling – which I still managed to do more than once. To their credit, the City of Montréal did a quite excellent job of keeping the cycle-tracks cleared that week! Beyond the ineffectiveness, though, I also witnessed what I would call a licensing of laissez-faire on the part of both residential and business owners. Everyone seemed to say, “Bah! It’s the city’s job, so I’ll shovel only my own steps and not an inch more!” Turning over the responsibility of snow removal from sidewalks to the City had clearly done damage to the community-spirit of people cooperating to help one another get through a snowy winter season. While I’m not entirely convinced that absolutely every one of your proposals is workable, the thing I like most about them overall is that they all work towards our building a stronger sense of community involvement, engagement, and responsibility to one another.
One idea that I’ve seen Dan Marshall propose is the potential creation of a special services district for snow removal specifically along transit lines. I think a credible threat of the creation of such a district, to be funded by property owners along the lines, might be one way the city (or why not MetCouncil?) could try to force commercial property owners to do better about snow clearance on sidewalks adjacent to their properties.
Amy, That is a very good article with some good ideas for snow shoveling solutions. It really comes down to a local decision for each homeowner to take responsibility for their own sidewalk first and then help less capable shovelers around them. If every one did that this whole discussion would be moot, but interesting.
Snow angel systems exist in other cities and are RUN BY THE CITY. It’s cheaper and easier for the city to put out a call to volunteers than charge money/plow sidewalks city-wide, etc.(and they know how to manage volunteers for other city programs, so it’s far smarter, less harder, than what we Saintly City Snow Angels are doing). Plus we’re seeing so much freeze/thaw/ice cycles than before and none of us know how to handle that thanks to the unpredictability of those weather systems at any given moment.
No easy answers. Asking for help has stigma. Not everyone knows their neighbor. Not everyone is a homeowner. But the more we focus on “how can we help others?” it’ll likely lead us to a better, more snow-free path forward.
Yes, lets do this.
Although I’m in favor of citywide sidewalk snow clearing I don’t see why we couldn’t just combine the two: wait for everyone to clear their sidewalk, then the city comes in to clear the remainder and tickets the property owners for not clearing it. Make it several times more for landlords of multi-unit apartment buildings. I’ve seen too many “luxury” apartment buildings that don’t shovel their sidewalks. You don’t even get the luxury of a cleared sidewalk at these places. Also, I have to regularly clear the Metro Transit stop at the end of a commercial block. If I don’t do it there’s just piles of snow and ice and it’s on a concrete curb, it’s not a patch of grass with a sign sticking out of it.
Yeah this seems like the best way forward. I too see luxury apartments leaving their shoveling untouched frequently, and other commercial uses only clearing as it is needed for their business. If they’re closed when the snow comes down the sidewalk remains uncleared another day or two, and then its icy and compacted underneath when they do finally clear it. And I highly doubt they get ticketed for that considering how much I see it. And any empty buildings seem to just not clear all year, whether its an abandoned run down liquor store or a brand new set of luxury apartments that just happens to still be under construction. Those can create major impediments and can’t be ignored by any policy aiming to fix this issue.
If city crews have to go out and bring out the equipment for one or two houses on every block, then it’s not much more effort just to run the equipment down the entire block.
I anticipate that it would actually take a significant amount of additional effort. Putting aside the logistical problems and astronomical labor, equipment, liability and sidewalk damage costs of clearing everyone’s sidewalk with heavy equipment, it certainly isn’t as simple as running the equipment down the block.
One or two houses per block would lend itself well to crews of shovelers going out, though.
This article is drivel.
I actually agree that citywide street clearance in Minneapolis is not feasible, but the arguments put out above, reveal all the sanctimonious problems with this organization
This post shows hatred toward landlords ( a.k.a. housing providers), and yet elsewhere streets.mn promotes large scale developments that can only be owned by out of city, out of state, possibly out of country, corporate ownership. So is it all landlords your head, or just the middle class local landlords? Personally, I think we need more mom and pop housing providers and fewer corporate landowner overlords. I also think we need more homeownership models— another model, being limited by the five over one syndrome mode on streets.mn
Elsewhere on streets.MN, anrticles abhore single-family zoning, and yet in this article we’re promoting the caretakership of sidewalks. It only comes from single-family homeownership. ( and homeownership is the greatest source of the middle class wealth. It should be increased, with special efforts toward including historically, disenfranchised populations, not decreased— to disenfranchise more populations.)
Hypocrisy runs deep in streets.mn
I don’t hate landlords. In fact, I used to be one. But the law requires landlords to shovel their sidewalks. If they did that — which, to me, equates with caring for and about their tenants — then our cities would be more walkable.
In our current system, property owners are responsible for clearing the sidewalk within 24 hours of a snowfall, but there is a huge flaw: the clock resets anytime we have a new snowfall. We frequently get several snowfalls in quick succession, which means the sidewalks can legally go unshoveled for a whole week. During that time, foot traffic has tamped down the snow, which often becomes compressed into a layer of lumpy ice at the bottom.
Here is my proposal: we need to get rid of that resetting clock loophole, and adopt a results-based standard. If the sidewalk in front of a property has treacherous snow or ice, regardless of the time since the last snowfall, we should be able to report it to the city. The city will send out a crew, and the property owner is assessed the cost. This is very similar to how the city deals with trash left on private properties, and it works pretty well! Combine it with the city coordinating volunteer shovelers, and I think we’d have a very robust system of clear sidewalks.