Seasonal Sidewalk Disorder Seasonal Sidewalk Disorder

Why do we not have the same level of enforcement to protect the space for our walkers as our motor vehicles?

From Tony Hull, Program and Evaluation Specialist

The days are getting longer and I have already spotted the first flip flops of the imminent Spring Season.  Everyone is starting to see the light (of the longer day), but for some folks this seasonal shift is more significant than for others. Winter is a challenging time for all Minnesotans, but for folks who rely on walking and transit it can be downright isolating.

In addition to my responsibilities with the TLC/BWTC team, I am a resident of the Whittier Neighborhood of South Minneapolis and pleased to be the Ward 6 representative to the newly formed Minneapolis Pedestrian Advisory Committee (PAC).  The PAC formed in early 2010 with the completion and adoption of the ambitious Minneapolis Pedestrian Master Plan, to advise city staff and leadership on pedestrian issues.  The PAC plays an essential role in advocating for improved walkability in a city where 91% of the streets already have sidewalks and walking is sometimes taken for granted.

The latest meeting of the PAC in early February was a field walk to look at snow removal barriers. The walk convened at the new Public Works facility on 28th Street by the Hiawatha Light Rail where there was  a brief presentation and discussion with Public Works staff about the city policies and procedures addressing snow removal. The informative discussion spilled well past the time set aside for the field walk, but given the spirit of discussion and sub zero temps outside, no PAC member seemed disappointed about missing the walk.

Instead we learned about the process for addressing sidewalk snow removal barriers and discovered a bureaucratic mess where Minnesota-nice trumps actual action when it comes to meeting our community’s winter accessibility needs.

The City of Minneapolis, it should be noted, is far ahead of many communities in terms of policy and resources dedicated to snow removal. The city’s sidewalk snow removal ordinance is quite clear and strict: Each property owner is responsible for clearing sidewalks of ice and snow within the following time frames after a snow event:

  • 24 hours for homes and duplexes
  • Four daytime hours for apartment and commercial buildings (daytime hours begin at 8 am)

Additionally there are penalties for not complying with the ordinance, specifically:

  • If the City of Minneapolis gets a complaint or discovers that a sidewalk is not properly cleared, Public Works will inspect the sidewalk and give the property owners a chance to clear it.
  • If the sidewalk has not been cleared upon re-inspection, the property owner may be issued a citation with a fine. 
  • Crews will remove the snow and ice from the sidewalk. Property owners will be billed for this service, and unpaid bills will be added to property tax statements

This is a strong policy that persuades most property owners to be diligent with their snow removal responsibility. 
That is, unless they don’t see this as a priority, and they are familiar with how the city policy plays out in practice. Consider the following scenario involving resolution of a snow removal complaint:

Day 1 – a day after a snow event you discover a property along your route to the bus stop that has not been cleared of snow, creating a barrier. For the sake of this scenario, we will assume this is a 12 unit apartment building that is now over 24 hours out of compliance with the “4 daytime hour snow removal” policy for apartments and commercial buildings.

You make a call to the city’s 311 service to register the complaint and trigger action. You return homebecause you are not able to find a suitable alternative to access your bus stop (This scenario also assumes it is not Saturday or Sunday, when you will not reach a person at the city’s 311 call center – open 7am to 7pm weekdays).

The call center receives and logs your complaint, then forwards it with the address of the offending location  to the public works department. There, it is added to an inspection schedule for the next available public works department employee to make a field visit for inspection. 

Day 2- For sake of simplicity we will assume this occurs the next day, even though this is not always the case, as complaints can pile up quite quickly and create a backlog of inspection requests. Public works staff do work diligently to respond as quickly as possible.

The inspector goes to the apartment building in question and determines that indeed the property has not been adequately cleared of snow. The inspector logs the information into a computer that now verifies the apartment is not compliant with the city snow removal ordinance. No ticket is issued, as the city is reluctant to seem heavy handed. You are now on your second day missing work, hoping that the situation is going to be resolved  before you run out of vacation or sick days.

Upon returning to the public works office, the inspector  prints and mails letters to each of the properties he/she has noted as being out of compliance with the snow removal policy. The letter states that they (property owner) have been found out of compliance with the city snow removal policy and have seven days to meet compliance before an inspector is scheduled to re-inspect, at which point the property will be assigned a city work crew to perform removal. The property owner will be billed or an assessment added to their  property tax bill.

Days 3 to 14 -  You spend the next week getting a ride from a friendly neighbor, who doesn’t mind going out of the way to get you to your bus stop on his/her way to work. You anxiously await results, confident that justice will be swiftly served to the negligent apartment owner and your barrier will soon be removed. That is unless you have been down the road before, and you know better than to get your hopes up.

There are a myriad of possible outcomes from here, all dependent on the reaction of the property owner, responsiveness of city public works crews and Mother Nature.

The following is a sample of possible outcomes:

Outcome 1 - Best case:

Property owner sees the letter two days later and realizes he is out of compliance with city ordinances and dispatches a person to clear the sidewalk to the concrete that day.  City inspector comes by later to see that yes, the sidewalk was cleared and closes the complaint. All is well and only four days later.

Ouctome 2 – City snow removal:

Property owner ignores the letter, inspector shows up seven days later,confirms that the sidewalk has not been cleared, and issues a work order for city crews to remove the snow at owner’s expense. The notice goes on the list of removals that will be addressed in the order that they are received. A couple of days ater the city crews arrive and clear the snow off the sidewalk and the owner is billed the cost for the work. All is resolved--only two weeks after the complaint.

Ouctome 3 – Snow event: Go back to step 1:

Property owner receives the letter, but in the meantime a new snow event occurs (a rare Minnesota phenomenon) and the current complaint is now canceled. The weary individual must call 311 again to register a new complaint.

Outcome 4 – Property owner games the system:

Property owner waits until the day before the re-inspection and manages to clear the sidewalk and skirt by a city work order for snow removal: case closed. The next day, it snows again. Weary commuter calls 311, hoping for quicker results this time.
I realize this all sounds sarcastic, but this is the reality of what will likely occur when a person reports a property owner who has violated the city of Minneapolis ordinance on sidewalk snow removal.

I should be clear: the city public works staff are not the cause of these problems.  They  follow procedures that have evolved over the years to keep the city from appearing heavy-handed during difficult winter months. In fact, when we consider what a workload the public works folks already have, (managing the street snow removal during these relentless winters), adding responsibility for policing sidewalk snow removal (which for the exception of where furrows are formed at intersection ramps, is outside of their responsibility), seems to be a misplaced allocation of city resources.

A member of the PAC raised questions about the city zoning inspectors, who are responsible for infractions during the warmer months, such as brush piles that pose fire hazards, unkempt lawns, and unsafe abandoned buildings. These zoning inspectors are quick to issue actual citations and force remedy for these situations. Why can’t winter sidewalks fall under similar enforcement?

Again, the answer seems to fall on a reluctance to seem heavy handed during what is agreed to be a difficult time (Minnesota winter). I know I have neighbors who lack the physical ability to shovel their walks and may be either reluctant to ask or unsure of how to find assistance. I certainly don’t want to see these folks hit with big fines or additional tax assessments. But is this justification for having an ordinance that is for all intent and purpose unenforced? Certainly some enforcement policies can be developed that provide leniency or even service assistance options for people who really are physically unable to remove their snow, while having swift consequences for other property owners who are just lazy or irresponsible.

Imagine if our parking enforcement policies were similarly enforced? The streets would quickly become a parking lot. Obviously many of us have cursed parking enforcement when we’ve received a ticket or  had a car towed, but the overall result is a respect for parking policy based on the assurance receiving stiff penalties. 

Why do we not have the same level of enforcement to protect the space for our walkers as our motor vehicles?
I am proud to live in Bicycling Magazine’s #1 bicycling city, but how can Minneapolis expect to become America’s #1 walking city, if some of our residents can only walk eight months out of the year?

It is time to review the policies and procedures for protecting winter accessibility. It is by no definition heavy handed to take measures that ensure that our residents of all abilities are able to access the transportation system year round. In fact, it is the right thing to do.