What would happen if we treated sidewalks like streets?

Perhaps I am getting grumpy as winter drags on here in Minnesota, but as I was picking my way on the ice, trudging through the snow, and climbing over the snowplow mountains at intersections after the last big snowfall, I thought (again, for I think this every winter):

The City should treat sidewalks like streets.

That is, the City should “plow” the sidewalks rather than relying on individual property owners’ initiative to shovel the snow.

Why have property owners do the work of maintaining public property?  The only benefits I can identify are (1) heart-warming stories of neighborly generosity where people clear the snow from elderly neighbors sidewalks, cookies are baked for the nice folks shoveling their friends’ walkways, and the camaraderie as we get to know each other as we share the burden, and (2) the City (that is, taxpayers) don’t have to pay for it. Yet we do pay for it with our time, money (snowblowers are not cheap and even snow shovels cost something), and limitations in transportation choice.

Helpful neighbor doing the City’s work

Why have the City clear the sidewalks? I believe Northfield could find ways to manage both the cost and logistics (perhaps a snow removal utility – rates would be higher if you live on a cul de sac, but lower on a snow emergency route), so that’s not my central concern.

Sidewalks are critical public transportation infrastructure, not amenities. Whether we cannot drive, cannot afford to drive or choose to walk to carry out our daily activities, we rely on a safe sidewalk network to get around just as much as others rely on the motor vehicle spaces. City maintenance of the sidewalks network (and filling in gaps in the network) would be a strong statement of the importance of transportation choice and do much to implement our environmental, age-friendly, multi-modal transportation policies.

Piecemeal snow removal on sidewalks limits mobility and increases risk for everyone, but particularly older adults. Reading comments on the Age-Friendly Northfield survey recently, snow on sidewalks was mentioned by multiple people as an obstacle to getting around as they age.

Snow removal is one of the biggest objections to adding new sidewalk. Attend any public meeting for a street project where sidewalk is proposed to be built where none currently exists and you’ll hear a concern about the burden of snow removal. Since snow is a problem for less (often much less) than half the year, this means fear of snow shoveling has helped create gaps in the sidewalk network itself which persist year-round. Northfield could remove this excuse my removing the snow.

Snow removal by property owners is not always equitable. In areas with neighborhood associations, the association removes the snow. In others, like mine, my family can buy a big and expensive snowblower; my neighbor can pay for a snow removal service. The rental properties in my neighborhood are rarely shoveled and neighbors who work out of town (or work long hours) often do not have time to clear the snow promptly or effectively. Any one of the properties which doesn’t clear the sidewalk interrupts the network for the block. Maintaining a transportation network should not depend on individuals’ affluence, work schedule, means of paying for housing, or sense of civic responsibility.

Wait, would the City have to clear all the sidewalks at once? No, the City could prioritize sidewalks the same way it does streets as long as it provides a connected, clear sidewalk network in a timely manner (here’s a similar argument for bike lanes). My local street is appropriately plowed later than nearby collectors; my sidewalk can wait, too. Some special cases might include ensuring snow is removed quickly near schools and facilities serving older adults.

What about sidewalk maintenance more generally? The City is will discuss its Pavement Management Index on Tuesday which maps the condition of driving surfaces of City streets. If the City treated sidewalks as transportation infrastructure, sidewalks (and gaps in sidewalks) would be included in their inventory.

Nicely cleared multi-use path in Lapland

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