The Great Winter Sidewalk Debate

A city election year is almost upon us and people are getting upset with each other on Twitter over who’s got the right solution for safe sidewalks (I had previously assumed 2021’s biggest political conversations would happen on crime-themed Facebook pages). As someone who’s been raising hell about winter sidewalks for many years, hoping for anything that would work, I want to interpret this as good news. People are showing they care about the problem of snow- and ice-covered sidewalks.

But back to the part where people are getting upset with each other on the internet.

On one side you have advocates for municipal clearing — something that the city has determined would cost up to $20 million per year. Anyone who wants to spend lots of money on sidewalks is automatically my best friend. And it makes intuitive sense. We band together as a community of taxpayers to plow the roads. If you conclude (correctly) that sidewalks are an essential part of an urban transportation system, then why doesn’t the largest city in Minnesota take on the responsibility to clear sidewalks?

On the other hand, there are people who’d like to improve the current enforcement-based system. Property owners are currently required by city ordinance to shovel their own sidewalks. The way to ensure sidewalks get cleared is to strictly enforce it. Enforcement has been stepped up in recent years — but it still takes an unacceptably long time for the city to receive a complaint, send an inspector, send a letter, and shovel the offending sidewalk. And if it snows again in the meantime, you can reset the clock and wait some more.

One man’s solution: more proactive inspections and city shoveling without warning letters.

It’s important to point out the current system is a failure that keeps many people trapped inside their homes in the winter. And because anyone who takes the bus spends quite a bit of time as a pedestrian, broken sidewalks make for a broken transit system. There goes your dream of being a dense, pedestrianized, climate-friendly city.

I’ll also acknowledge that a large majority of property owners in my neighborhood do a good job with their sidewalks. But it only takes one or two properties on each block to make it hazardous or impassable.

I’m not particularly offended by the idea of including winter sidewalk maintenance as part of a property owner’s responsibility checklist. Did you know that Minneapolis fines property owners over tall grass in the summer? And in 2019, the city enacted energy efficiency inspections and disclosures when you sell your house. We require people to do certain things when they own property.

Nor am I offended by the idea of socialized sidewalks. I live in a building where money is pooled collectively to provide sidewalk clearance for everyone. It works. I’m glad I don’t have to do it. Do I look at other cities (and our Park Board) who attempt some version of municipal clearing and imagine all the ways it could go wrong in Minneapolis? As vividly as I can see the failures of the current system.

Even if you believe municipal sidewalk clearance is the best solution, it’s hard not to be skeptical that this city council or mayor (or the ones we might elect in 2021) would allocate even $1 million for a sidewalk program, let alone $20 million.

Even if you believe we need to improve on the current failing enforcement-based system, it’s hard not to be skeptical that we can turn it around when service levels were reduced in the 2021 budget that was passed a few weeks ago.

And that’s too bad for anyone who believes this is an urgent problem in need of an immediate solution.

Both “sides” in the debate run up against the same problem: there’s a third side in this debate! Many people are content with doing nothing. Stepped up enforcement upsets a segment of property owners. A tax for municipal clearance would likewise upset some property owners. It will take political will to make this a real priority.

So it feels beside the point to get upset with anyone who feels strongly that we should make our sidewalks safe year round. As an unbearable moderate once said, “There is more that unites us than divides us. We all want the same outcome.” We should channel this energy into immediate action to solve an urgent problem. Nothing should be off the table, including wrapping our seniors in airbags.