The shovel after the storm: Clearing those sidewalks after a big snow

A woman shovels her sidewalk
Ellen Matzke, 86, of Mankato, Minn. shovels her sidewalk for the third time since the snow began falling on Tuesday.
Jackson Forderer for MPR News

The City of Minneapolis on Thursday approved a study of city-led sidewalk clearing — we’re talking potential snow and ice removal handled by Minneapolis, not property owners, by 2027.

It’s an effort that began months ago, spearheaded by local advocates, nonprofits and councilmembers in the area. But the treacherous sidewalk problem isn’t unique to the Twin Cities.

‘I felt so unsafe walking’

Shanna Altrichter has lived close to downtown Rochester, Minn., since 2016. This is the first season she’s called the city to alert of a neighbor not shoveling a path.

“It feels petty, right, and I don't want to do that. I know removing snow is hard work,” she says. “But the bus stop issue was so bad.”

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Altrichter commutes to her work, just two miles away, via the bus. It’s cheaper and easier than driving, she says.

Until winter comes.

“I've fallen almost every year,” she says. “You always wonder if this is going to be the one that results in an injury that's going to need surgical intervention.”

Altrichter wears a walking boot for an old knee injury. Add that to ice and snow buildup, and things get pretty messy: Enter climbing over snow drifts to board the bus.

Her driver now picks her up in the street, another potential hazard, but she says options are limited when folks don’t clear snow and ice from their walks.

Neighbor Jake Wright walks his kindergartner to school a few days a week. Come snow or ice, like this week’s or the late December storm, things get tricky.

“The ice was so bad. Once you got more than two or three houses down from where I live, we were both slipping and sliding all over the place,” Wright says. “He fell down and I felt so unsafe walking.”

It surprises him, being many families live in the area. His plea?

“Just remember that there are kids walking on the sidewalk and sometimes they're little and sometimes they're unaccompanied and, you know, it's, it's just common decency to have a path cleared where people can walk and not be worried about like falling and injuring themselves,” Wright says.

A man shovels snow.
Ben Weeres shovels the walk outside his home in northeast Minneapolis amid the lull of the Wednesday snowstorm.
Stephen Maturen for MPR News

Snow-linked safety issues are echoed across the state in Moorhead, Minn.

Betty Kannas, technical office specialist with the city, says they get “a lot” of resident complaints especially around those bus stop areas.

“We do try to be lenient if we know that there's more snow coming,” Kannas says. “But if it's not done by the time” — by 9 p.m. each snow event, in Moorhead — “they do go back a second time, then we abate the property.”

Bills to homeowners can cost anywhere from $150 to $300, she says. Down in Worthington, Minn., that price is a flat $90, Community Service Officer Kirk Honius says.

“I do see lots of footprints in the snow on the sidewalks. The sidewalks are being used and people are trying to get through the snow piles,” he says. “It’s just been a lot of snow this year and just don't know what to do with it.”

Private vs. municipal snow removal

Filing complaints and enforcing sidewalk clearing may not be the key to keeping privately-owned paths clear, some say.

José Antonio Zayas Cabán is the advocacy director for Our Streets Minneapolis, a nonprofit working toward accessible transportation in the city.

“Complaints are sky high and they're continuing to skyrocket because compliance is often an issue,” Zayas Cabán says. “Enforcement isn’t effective because it's a response to an existing problem, so the snow has already fallen, accumulated, melted and refrozen.”

He says requiring shoveling also puts undue burden on folks who have disabilities, older residents and people who work multiple jobs and may not have time to remove snow.

That’s why he and a team of local lawmakers and advocates have pushed for the Minneapolis City Council to consider that pilot program. The question he hops it’ll answer: “Whether we should maintain a system where property owners are responsible for removing the snow, or the municipality should do it.”

Zayas Cabán’s team has studied similar cities — Montreal; Rochester, NY; Crystal and Bloomington, Minn.; and some service districts in Minneapolis — that offer municipal-led sidewalk clearing. He says they do work, but it’s up to each city to determine how it will look.

Gattiek Chol spreads salt on his sidewalk
Gattiek Chol spreads salt on his sidewalk after shoveling it in Mankato, Minn. on Thursday.
Jackson Forderer for MPR News

Will Minneapolis, or other Minnesota cities, move forward with the program?

There’s some momentum of the idea right now, Zayas Cabán, and some lawmakers who previously voted against the pilot voted for it this year.

“The tides are turning a little bit,” he says. “But it's totally up to them.”

What’s next?

The Minneapolis Department of Public Works is coming up with a report and analysis to turn over to the city council.

By the end of the year, the city should make a decision on whether to include the pilot program into the 2024 budget.

Critics argue Minneapolis doesn’t have the current capacity to handle existing snow removal from streets, let alone sidewalks. Others disagree with the increased taxpayer burden it would come with.

Until a decision, people in the city and elsewhere have other options.

Cities and programs across the state offer snow removal programs. Some let residents opt in with a flat seasonal fee; others require an application and approval based on need through income, disability or age.

CSO Honius recommends checking in with neighbors or other helpers, too — especially if you’re going out of town, even just for a weekend.

Other advice, beyond getting those shovels out? Take caution.

“People just need to walk slowly. Drivers need to keep an eye on the pedestrians. They will be on the curb side and there's little curb now with all the snow piled up on the edges,” he says.

Altrichter’s tip in Rochester? Shovel and de-ice early.

“It gets harder and harder to remove, and meanwhile the pedestrians that you may or may not be aware of are having an ever more treacherous commute,” she says, nodding to personal experience — what she calls the Minnesota penguin shuffle.