Uncleared sidewalks endanger pedestrians

Tommy Sar crosses Green Line tracks on his wheelchair. Sidewalks and walking paths filled with snow create hazards for those with limited mobility like Sar.
Photo by Henry Pan

The mobility impaired are especially vulnerable

Tommy Sar has muscular dystrophy, which has rendered him wheelchair-bound much of his life. In the winter he becomes a shut-in, but not by choice. 

Once it begins to snow, some sidewalks remain full of it, making it challenging for people like Sar, who uses an electric wheelchair to do his job and get around. “I have to do community engagement, so I do have to go to off-site events, but if I can’t make it, then I’m not going. 

“I can’t do it. Somebody else has to do it for me,” said Sar, as he wandered the sidewalks near his apartment building in downtown St. Paul after a major snowfall in December. “Once it snows, I’m a hermit. I can’t really do much [of] anything.” As we walked, Sar began slipping on the snow and eventually got stuck twice, once just as we were about to cross the street and again on the Green Line tracks. 

Sidewalk removal policies differ across the metro. Some communities have their workers remove snow from the sidewalks, but both Minneapolis and St. Paul put the onus on property owners. Sometimes owners completely clear the sidewalk in front of their properties. Other times they may let the snow melt and refreeze, leaving people to slip and slide through it. 

Some believe the cities should take on snow shoveling, especially if they want to ensure everyone can get around by walking during the winter. Others believe owners should take matters into their own hands and do the work in community with others. 

In St. Paul, property owners and managers have 24 hours after a snowfall to clear their sidewalks. Minneapolis also has the 24-hour rule, but only for single-family homes and duplexes. Every other property owner has four hours between the hours of 8 am and 5 pm to do so. For example, if snow stops falling at 10 pm on day 1, the property owners have until noon the next day to remove snow from their sidewalk.

Those in Minneapolis who don’t remove snow from their sidewalks will receive a warning, which often comes from random inspections, particularly for those who have shown a tendency to not clear their sidewalks, as well as based on complaints submitted through 311. 

If the sidewalk still isn’t cleared three days after a warning has been issued, crews contracted by the City will do it for them, for a fee of $239. If that fee goes unpaid, it will be tacked onto their property taxes.

Minneapolis does remove snow from some of its sidewalk areas. It does so where two sidewalks meet in a corner of an intersection, prioritizing streets identified in its transportation action plan approved in late 2020. Priorities include every downtown Minneapolis street except for Harmon Place, as well as Chicago Avenue, Lake Street, West Broadway and Central Avenue. 

“We kind of already have a set of [pedestrian priority] corridors that we use when the City goes in, clears the sidewalk corners when plows create piles of snow at the corners of sidewalks. The property owners aren’t responsible for that,” said Mike Kennedy, director of transportation maintenance and repair at Minneapolis Department of Public Works.

As we walked around in St. Paul, Sar pointed out an unplowed sidewalk corner that covered up a ramp to the street. Trying to cross the street could mean tipping over face first onto the pavement. As winter progresses, City crews plowing the streets push the snow adjacent to the sidewalk, creating huge snowbanks that block the crosswalks. “I can’t get off the sidewalk or get on the sidewalk either,” said a frustrated Sar. Sometimes St. Paul crews will clear the corners. Otherwise, it’s up to the property owners. 

The Federal Highway Administration believes the Americans with Disabilities Act requires communities to put in so-called reasonable efforts to keep sidewalks accessible to those with disabilities throughout the year, which includes keeping them free of snow as much as possible. 

Both Minneapolis and St. Paul, in their ADA transition plans passed in 2020 and 2016 respectively, consider their existing policies to be good enough. St. Paul in their transportation action plan pledges to educate property owners more, while Minneapolis plans to devote more funding to clear sidewalk corners and consider requiring faster removal times, clearing sidewalks for property owners who won’t do it without warning, as well as taking on snow removal on so-called pedestrian priority streets. 

Our Streets Minneapolis, a local transportation advocacy organization, has been pushing the City to remove sidewalk snow. This year, they plan to ask the City to fund those efforts on pedestrian-priority streets next year. 

Photo by Henry Pan Ashley Asmus (f) demonstrates the snowblower her neighbors collectively purchased, as Mauricio Ochoa, a neighbor of Asmus, looks on.

Having the cities remove snow on all of their sidewalks is challenging, with 2,000 miles of sidewalk in Minneapolis alone. Kennedy estimated in a 2018 presentation to the Minneapolis Transportation and Public Works Committee that removing sidewalk snow could cost the City anywhere from $4.5 million if done only during snow emergencies to $20 million if the City did it every time it snowed. 

Heather Worthington, who has experience as a city manager and was planning director for the city of Minneapolis until the pandemic began, says municipal snow removal is expensive and infeasible, and that we all have to do our part. “I think it makes more sense for us individually to take responsibility for that 40 feet in front of our house, or if we live on a corner, that 150 feet, and go out and shovel that and help our neighbors who can’t do it, rather than to say to the City add one more service that we’re gonna have to pay more money for,” said Worthington.

To help those who are unable to clear their own sidewalks in the Hamline-Midway neighborhood where Worthington lives, she worked with Abu Nayeem, a local community organizer, to start a Facebook group called Midway Snow Angels shortly after the pandemic began. 

“A lot of times it’s because there’s a physical limitation, or they’re elderly. We even had a request earlier this week from a woman who’s pregnant and just can’t [shovel] right now,” said Worthington about who the group has helped in the past. As of January 21, the Facebook group has 169 members. Those who do not have access to Facebook can reach out to the neighborhood association to get in touch. 

In the same neighborhood, five neighbors on Charles Avenue, near Hamline Avenue, banded together to buy an electric snowblower because they believe in the importance of keeping sidewalks cleared. “It’s ridiculous for one person in this neighborhood to own a snowblower,” said Ashley Asmus, a data scientist who led neighbors in buying a communal snowblower. “Our lots are barely 5,000 square feet. People already unofficially share their snowblowers, clearing more than just their strip of sidewalk. Why not extend that to co-ownership?” 

Still, other communities in the Twin Cities have taken on sidewalk snow clearing. Richfield, immediately south of Minneapolis, has handled all residential snow shoveling since the 1980s. Not only does the City see it as a public good, but the fact that Richfield doesn’t have a lot of sidewalks makes the task relatively easy to accomplish. 

“Richfield has always had a high number of residents that rely on bus travel, so we want to [do] everything we can to make sure they are safe when getting from Point A to Point B,” said public works director Chris Link in a statement. 

Metro Transit does not have the resources to remove snow from all of its bus stops throughout the region and relies heavily on local communities to do so. They prioritize clearing their operations facilities, moving on to high-ridership transit stops and facilities, stops where those with limited mobility tend to board, and stops with transit shelters. 

Meanwhile, the State is working to make walking better year-round. The Minnesota Department of Transportation released its first-ever pedestrian system plan last May, which pledges to better support local communities in removing snow from places where people bike and walk. “MnDOT only has jurisdiction over our own infrastructure and right-of-way, but we are also seeking more ways to be supportive of local agencies,” said spokesperson Jake Loesch.

MnDOT also plans to review and refine agreements with Twin Cities-area communities to better coordinate sidewalk snow removal resources. Although MnDOT has put the onus on local governments to remove the snow, it’s unclear if they will be able to use funds passed—but not yet allocated—in the Infrastructure Bill to do so.

At the end of our walk, Sar said what would help him get around best is simply this: “Do your part. Just clear out your sidewalk.” Those who cannot afford to do so can call 311 in their city of residence, or connect with the Minnesota Disability Hub for a list of resources that could help.