Public Works Department Plows Ahead

On Tuesday I attended my first meeting as a volunteer for MBC. Members of the City’s Bicycle Advisory Committee and members of the City’s Public Works were in attendance, including those making key decisions regarding the day’s topic of discussion, Winter Maintenance and Cycling. Snow and ice control in Minneapolis is carried out by the City’s Streets Department, and after a few minutes of discussion with staff members, I felt genuinely pleased with the effort and willingness to find a way to improve service.

A lovely day for a ride!

Due to financial, temporal, and natural constraints, it is difficult to provide a level of service many cyclists would like to see. This blog entry illustrates what to expect for the city terms of maintenance, some of the issues involved, and things that are being done to improve winter cycling throughout the city.

Here is my interpretation of what cyclists should know about the City’s operations:

  • Bike lanes, trails, and the newly formed bike boulevards are on their minds, and decision-makers are looking for ways to improve service.

  • Workers are staffed throughout the city day and night. As one might guess, fewer are on duty at night and on the weekends, and additional workers are typically called in during a snow event of at least 2 inches.

  • Typically, bike lanes are managed with the general street maintenance. Main arterials for automotive traffic have precedence, followed by lighter trafficked areas, and bike lanes on either receive the same treatment.

  • There are 2 employees assigned to maintaining the 11 miles of trail managed by the City’s Public Works department. Plowing the Midtown Greenway, its ramps, and LRT Trail can take from 16 to 24 employment hours for a single snow fall event.

  • Barring extenuating circumstances, the City strives to reach all bike-ways within 24 hours of a snowfall event.

In order to improve the level of service, it is important to understand the nature of the work itself. Often the type or intensity of snow and ice control is subject to a number of other complications. Managing winter operations can be a very difficult task, especially when considering a few key issues, including:

  • “Timing-Intensity-Duration”: this naturally born issue was emphasized by the City staff members throughout the course of the meeting, pointing to the varying possibilities of snow or ice events we experience. Try to imagine what happened around New Year’s weekend this year. Rain fell, froze over night, and snow covered the ice. The next day as it warmed, the snow melted, turned to slush while cyclists moved about, and froze into dangerous ruts. That was a worst-case scenario from a management standpoint.

  • Winter parking restrictions, while intended to be helpful, can also cause problems. Often time’s people forget to move cars, and while many cars can be towed, too often there is not enough time to wait and not enough trucks to pull cars away. This creates jutting snow banks, something the Department recognizes as a serious safety issue for bikers. They remove the jutting banks whenever possible.

  • Funding. Money for winter maintenance operations in municipal streets comes from the highly competitive General Fund. Funding requests for Public Works maintenance crews compete with funding requests for Police and Fire service each year during the budget process. The City budgets approximately $9 million each calendar year for snow & ice control.

While there are a number of other issues, these three create the largest set-backs for improving service for bike-ways. Thankfully, the City, dedicated community members, and advocacy groups like MBC are proactively working to improve winter cycling conditions. Here are some examples:

  • Creating a dialogue for improved maintenance. It seems like a no-brainer, but we are fortunate to have a community that is enthusiastic and up-front about setting standards for safe and enjoyable rides. The City enlists the help of the Bicycle Advisory Committee, invites citizens to public meetings, and answers questions honestly. That has lead to collaboration in the past, and bodes well for the future.

  • The City has a complaint line that works.  If you run across a snow/ice concern in winter, or any kind of maintenance concern any time of year, call 311 to report the problem to the City.  Staff emphasized that the information they receive from 311 calls is very helpful.

  • Recognizing key problem areas. An example would be the 3 large pools of water (which tend to freeze into rutted ice) on the Midtown Greenway. Because of a voiced concern, these areas will be monitored, evaluated, and changed accordingly. Most likely, the improvement will involve correcting the grading or adding drainage sometime in the Summer of 2012.  Prioritizing the hierarchy of bike-ways that receive snow and ice control service first. Again, bike-lanes on main arterials have immediate precedence, but residential streets with heavier bike traffic, like the Bike Boulevards, could be prioritized among similar residential streets.

  • Asking for the support of the public. If additional funding is to be granted for increased service, the community needs to express a need.

Winter cycling brings with it some additional challenges.  But with the right equipment and a smart, safe riding style, winter becomes just another great season for biking. And please, report any particularly dangerous spots or potential problems to the City by calling 311.  Public Works maintains over 1,000 miles of roads, alleys, and trails, and calls from citizens can help them prioritize and address specific problems.

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