Sidewalks are a public amenity, just like our streets and bikeways. But unlike our streets and bikeways, we rely on property owners and businesses to clear snow from the sidewalks adjacent to their properties.
In theory, relying on property owners to clear snow from their sidewalks is an easy, low-cost way to ensure sidewalks remain accessible throughout the winter.
In theory, property owners are required to shovel the entire width of the sidewalk down to bare pavement, and those on corners are required to clear curb cuts. Residents can report problematic sidewalks by calling/emailing 311 or using the Minneapolis 311 app. The sidewalk snow clearing rules in Minneapolis state that owners of single-family homes and duplexes are required to clear sidewalks of snow and ice within 24 hours. All other properties (businesses, apartments) must clear sidewalks within four daytime hours (8 a.m. to 5 p.m.) after the snow stops falling.
In theory we have city staff assigned to inspect sidewalks to make sure they’re sufficiently cleared and to respond to complaints. If property owners don’t follow these rules, they may receive a warning letter, a follow-up inspection and a bill from the city to cover the cost of clearing their sidewalk.
In reality, this approach results in unsafe and often inaccessible sidewalks. According to Our Streets Minneapolis, in the last six winters there have been over 30,000 submitted complaints of uncleared sidewalks throughout the city. If just one property on a block neglects to clear its sidewalk, the entire block can become inaccessible to some people and unsafe for others. Some landlords take the ticket because it’s cheaper than paying someone to shovel their property through the winter.
Assuming the punitive system we currently have is the right approach, we have not been investing the resources to ensure sidewalks are actually cleared. I have countless examples of uncleared sidewalks I could share from the last two years of walking my kids just five blocks to our neighborhood school (some photos are included here).
This includes a business that not only did not clear their sidewalks after a major snowstorm but actually plowed feet of snow from their parking lot onto the public sidewalk. Even after talking to the employees, reporting the issue to 311 several times, and reaching out to my City Council rep for help, I found that the sidewalks remained covered in snow for four weeks. I don’t know what fines were levied, if any, but the impact on pedestrians was significant. This business is on a busy street and part of the “prioritized pedestrian network” that the city has identified based on a high volume of pedestrian traffic. It also sits between two bus stops.
Snow- and ice-covered sidewalks cause countless fall-related and traffic-related injuries every winter. Many of us likely know people who have been injured in this sort of fall. My child’s preschool teacher, for example, fell on a Minneapolis sidewalk this past winter and broke both wrists, leaving her with huge medical bills and an inability to do her normal work for three months while she healed. The entire school community was impacted by her absence. Because of these issues, I frequently see pedestrians, people using wheelchairs and people pushing strollers moving into bike lanes or even the street itself to get to where they need to go.
Relying on individual property owners to quickly and adequately clear sidewalks causes issues with inequitable access. People of color, people with low incomes and people with disabilities are disproportionately impacted by uncleared sidewalks because they’re more likely to rely on walking, rolling and public transit for transportation. Most people who take the bus or light rail rely on sidewalks to get to the bus stop or light rail station. Many people do not have the option of working from home, paying for rideshare, or owning a car (which costs $12,000/year on average).
This is a problem in a city that has:
- A Vision Zero plan that aims to ensure we have 0 deaths on our roads, sidewalks and bike lanes by 2027;
- A Climate Equity Plan with a mission to “collaborate with residents to advance environmentally just policies that achieve deep carbon emission reductions, repair past environmental injustices perpetrated upon Indigenous, Black and Communities of Colors, and create solutions for a sustainable, inclusive economy”;
- A Complete Streets policy that establishes a framework prioritizing the needs of people walking and rolling first when planning for our transportation system and streets; and
- A Transportation Action plan that includes a mode shift goal to have 35% of trips taken by walking or biking by 2030 (compared with 19% in 2019).
A city with all of these goals plus winter weather (that brings snow and ice for four to six months/year) cannot rely on theoreticals to keep a critical public amenity accessible. We must invest the time, resources, and attention to proactively ensure our sidewalks are available to all, year-round.
In November, the Minneapolis City Council approved $580,000 for sidewalk snow and ice removal pilot programs, including snow case workers, senior snow clearing assistance, snow ambassadors, and a mobile team. Many folks point to the fact that the Minneapolis Public Works Department often struggles to keep streets plowed throughout the winter, so why would we throw more money at having the city take on sidewalks, too? Other cities like Montreal, Bloomington, Minnesota, and Rochester, New York, have successful sidewalk plowing programs. The city looked into many of these programs and included their findings in the Minneapolis Pedestrian and Winter Maintenance Study.
In my experience, streets (and protected bikeways) in Minneapolis are almost always better and more consistently plowed than sidewalks. When managing deicing with salt or sand, many property owners use far too much salt. Just 1 teaspoon of de-icing salt can permanently pollute 1 gallon of water, which negatively impacts our drinking water and can be toxic to many plants and wildlife.
This issue of needing to ensure our public sidewalks remain accessible year-round is a community problem that we can and should pool our resources (tax money) and attention to solve. I’m eager to see the municipal sidewalk plowing pilots rolled out as an important investment in preventative solutions instead of the under-resourced punitive system we have in place now.
We cannot afford the cost of the status quo.
Editor’s note: Streets.mn values a diversity of views on important urban issues. In the case of sidewalk shoveling, we published an article in March 2023 that took the opposite position on municipal shoveling in St. Paul (though, in common with this article, it argued that sidewalks need better winter maintenance).