A snowperson with stick arms

Municipal Shoveling Won’t Solve Winter Walking Woes — But Other City Investments Can

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.”

A neatly and thoroughly shoveled sidewalk in a residential neighborhood.
My sidewalk this past Monday after inches of wet, heavy snow: Would the City of Saint Paul clear the walk this carefully, or by 7 a.m.? (Photo by author)

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:

  1. Landlords are legally accountable for their buildings’ public sidewalks, and the city could invest more in enforcing that.
  2. Homeowners can collaborate with other homeowners to clean and clear their block, as we do already to get our alleys plowed.
  3. Clean sidewalks require a level of fussy tending that St. Paul clearly lacks the resources to sustain.

“I’ve long stood by one cure-all for winter’s woes. A grilled cheese sandwich and a hot cup of tomato soup warms your soul and gives you the pep in your step to get that last bit of ice cleared off the walk — until the plow comes by and erases all your hard work!”

Letter to the editor, Star Tribune, January 29, 2023

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.

T-shirt that reads: "It'll melt." - St. Paul City Council
A jokester’s T-shirt in a dialogue about shoveling and the condition of city streets and sidewalks on the often acrimonious Nextdoor.

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.

“Raising a temporary ‘Geezer Corps’ for sidewalk plowing would not be too hard. There are a lot of retirees, men and women, who might welcome a little extra income as well as the feeling that they are doing something for their community.”

Letter to the editor, Star Tribune, January 10, 2023

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).

A yard sign in the snow, reading "All are welcome here."
A neighborhood that lacks safe, snow-free sidewalks isn’t very welcoming at all. (Photo by author)

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.

“Had it not been for the never-ending snow-piling storm that carpeted our city earlier this winter, I wouldn’t have had the chance to witness a friendly neighbor clearing the driveway and sidewalk of a young couple with a newborn just to give them a little bit of a break.”

Letter to the editor, Star Tribune, February 20, 2023

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.

The sole of a hiking shoe with ice cleats attached.
Ice cleats are outfitted with chains, spikes or both. (Photo by Patrick Schneider on Unsplash)

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.

Animated GIF of snow falling on Snoopy as he sleeps on top of his doghouse.
Snoopy is chill about winter (courtesy of Nebraska Humane Society via GIPHY).

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

Amy Gage

About Amy Gage

Pronouns: she/her/hers

Amy Gage is managing editor of Streets.mn. A former journalist, she writes a blog about women and aging (themiddlestages.com) and contributes to the Minnesota Women's Press.