Not Ready: first snow reminds us our city is unprepared

Don’t get me wrong - I love that feeling of waking up to a snowfall for the first time in the season; watching the flakes swirling around and wondering where the summer went. As Minnesotans there has to be at least a small part of us that gets excited about the first snow.

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For many Minneapolis residents, snow isn’t just a charming seasonal flourish or inconvenient reminder to dig out their boots. Many of our neighbors walk to get where they need to go, year-round, regardless of the weather. Whether by choice or by necessity, these people rely on cleared sidewalks as much as drivers rely on cleared roads, yet Minneapolis does not have a policy to ensure their safety. A new sidewalk clearing policy was supposed to be proposed for this year, but the Winter Maintenance Study that was due out in June 20117 has been delayed, not to resurface until Spring 2018. According to city staff this is to make the study stronger. It was great to see Public Works take an interest in this important issue, but now with this delay, we have to ask: what do we do this winter?

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Photo credit: Julia Curran

The Pedestrian and Bicycle Winter Maintenance Study was an initiative taken up by Minneapolis Public Works last January, with the goal of reviewing peer city practices for winter maintenance, understanding current city practices, and determining feasibility of new snow and ice strategies. As Alex Tsatsoulis wrote in detail last January, current Public Works policy places most of the burden to clear our city’s sidewalks on property owners. Complaints registered about uncleared sidewalks don’t get resolved for days on end and all the City provides for maintenance city-wide is a 10 person Malls and Plazas Group tasked with clearing public spaces and all the blockages from passing snowplows. That’s 10 people to clear 175 separate public spaces and clear up issues in 3,700 city-maintained crosswalks, over 16,000 intersections and 1,700 miles of sidewalks. Clearly few resources are being dedicated to this important task, and if we want a more consistently safe pedestrian network during winter months, more resources will need to be added so the City can take the lead.

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Photo credit: Julia Curran

Who relies on sidewalks to get around in these conditions? We all do as pedestrians in some way or another, whether by walking between the door and your parking spot, or walking door to door to your destination. The burden of poorly maintained sidewalks falls heavily on more vulnerable groups, like older residents who may be more susceptible to falls, low-income residents, people who are differently-abled, and children. Advocating for safer places to walk and roll in the winter is not optional for these people. Safe sidewalks are how people maintain independence, stay connected with community resources, get to school and work, and access the needs and wants of daily life. Those needs do not go away when it snows, but the accessibility does.

Minneapolis is a winter city. Not having a Winter Maintenance Policy is contributing toward the inequity of Minneapolis’ transportation infrastructure and is a major barrier toward being a truly walkable city. Walkability isn’t just something we can tout in our brochures next to sunny pictures of lakes and trails. In a city where walking and rolling is part of people's livelihoods, we owe it to each of our neighbors to be a walkable city for all ages, all abilities, and in all seasons.