Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Our Winter Sidewalks Are Broken

Snow emergencies are a big deal here in Minneapolis. You hear about it on the TV news. There’s an app–tens of thousands of people have installed it on both iPhone and Android (“avoid the cost and hassle of a ticket and tow…”). People are very interested in not having their cars towed, so people become very interested in moving their cars to designated areas.

The reason the City of Minneapolis makes a big fuss and puts so many residents at risk of serious personal cost, inconvenience and unhappiness is that we’ve collectively decided to make it a priority to keep our streets plowed and safe. Individually, people comply with the rules because their personal interests (money and property) have been aligned with public safety (plowed streets).

Snow emergencies coincide with, but fail to address, another public safety issue: snow and ice-covered sidewalks. In good weather, we brag about walkable neighborhoods and bike lanes and transit investments; when it snows, we fail hard on the the basic thing that is the foundation of all the rest: functioning sidewalks.

Unsurprisingly, the people most reliant on safe sidewalks are often those with the least power and money in our city: people without cars; people who walk a few blocks to the bus stop or the store; people with disabilities or limited mobility. Nobody comes to rescue them in a snow emergency.

Sidewalk users are at the mercy of property owners. In my experience, most are meeting their obligations, but in the days and weeks after a snow emergency, there are at least a handful of dangerously iced over properties on every block in my south Minneapolis neighborhood. Even if a majority of a block is cleared, some portion is still dangerously choked with ice.

I have good boots, legs that are long and strong (I am widely regarded as a hunk), and yet even I have slipped and fallen on icy sidewalks. Older people, those susceptible to falling or injury, people whose long-term health depends on not being shut away in their homes for months at a time–these people can’t afford the risk we put them in year after year.

You know how we sometimes laugh at the odd suburb that refuses to have sidewalks? As in, “Longtime Edina residents ‘up in arms’ over plan to build more sidewalks”? That’s basically Minneapolis for three months of the year. For some reason we seem to be OK with that.

Minneapolis 311

The system Minneapolis currently uses to resolve sidewalk snow and ice issues relies on citizen reports to 311, followed by multiple letters from the city to the property owner explaining their obligation, and can take up to 21 days to resolve. The ice is likely to melt before it results in the city sending a crew to clear the sidewalk and bill the property owner for the cost. This system isn’t working

Another reason our current 311 reporting system isn’t working: hopelessness. The sheer volume of non-compliance, coupled with the demoralizing ineffectiveness of enforcement (not to mention the frozen-ness of my fingers before I can tap out an address on my phone) creates a loop where it feels pointless to report. Ineffective enforcement leads to less reporting leads to even less enforcement.

The system we have doesn’t work because there is too little incentive to comply. Here’s how we might create a sense of urgency: any property owner who hasn’t shoveled within a reasonable time-frame (24? 48 hours?) should be at risk of immediately having their sidewalk shoveled by a city-hired crew and receiving a bill for the cost. Even if there are logistical barriers to making this a guaranteed outcome for every case, it should at least weigh on people’s minds as a possible consequence of not meeting their obligation.

If Minneapolis is going to continue to rely on individual property owners to clear snow and ice from sidewalks, then the city needs to communicate an Oh no, what if my car gets towed? level of urgency.