Minneapolis’ intense new push to make sure residents and business owners clear their sidewalks after a snowfall is having some early success.
City inspectors who have patrolled the city after three major snowfalls this season have recorded a 94.5% compliance rate, generally within several hours after a snowfall.
So far, the city has sent 1,521 notices of violation and hired contractors to clear the sidewalks from 778 properties after repeated warnings.
“It’s not where we want to be,” said Elisha Langat, a project manager with Public Works. “We’re striving for 100%.”
Additionally, the city received 3,258 reports of uncleared sidewalks through its 311 system, 460 more than the same period last year, according to the city.
The Public Works Department has ramped up its enforcement this year, doubling the area covered by its sidewalk inspectors, a program that began last winter.
Mayor Jacob Frey and the City Council also allocated $300,000 in the budget to clear berms left behind by snowplows on curb corners.
Meanwhile, some residents are taking matters into their owns hands, turning to social media platforms like Nextdoor, Facebook and Twitter to call out homeowners and businesses that have not shoveled in hopes it spurs them to act.
For residents across Minneapolis who rely on the city’s sidewalks to get around, the long and biting winter can be both treacherous and isolating.
Some get seriously injured slipping on patches of ice. Others choose to stay indoors for fear of getting hurt. Still others are forced to walk on plowed streets, close to traffic, as a last resort.
As the city works to reduce overall carbon emissions from vehicles and make streets safer for pedestrians, leaders and residents are urgently asking for more to be done to keep sidewalks clear of ice and snow.
“We’re telling everybody we want to build walkable communities,” Council Member Steve Fletcher said. “We’re seeing a lot more people walking, which is great, but that means we’re also seeing a lot more impacted by the ways that we’re falling short.”
This winter — when above-freezing temperatures, rain and sleet have morphed snow into slippery ice — has become the proving ground for the city’s efforts.
Most property owners clear their sidewalks within hours after a snowfall as required by law, according to city data.
One patch of sidewalk left untouched can pose a problem for the rest of the block. Once melted and frozen, the snow can turn into ice that can lead to serious, even fatal, injuries.
Those icy patches pose a danger to all pedestrians, especially seniors and people with disabilities.
The emergency room at HCMC downtown has received a constant stream of patients injured from slipping on the ice this winter, said Raegan Sipe, a nurse and clinical care supervisor in the department.
Janet Court, an 80-year-old Powderhorn resident, said she has fallen while walking outside during the last five years. She uses hiking poles and recently started putting grips on her shoes after she slipped while stepping off the curb last month.
“I’m trying not to let it keep me inside,” said Court, who also sits on the city’s advisory committee on aging. “That just seems to be us asking to leave this world.”
Steve Jacobson, vice president of the Minnesota chapter of the National Federation of the Blind, has been blind since birth and is accustomed to navigating the sidewalks during the winter.
He can usually feel incoming ice and snow with his cane, but when the sidewalks are impassable he walks on the street “as a last resort.”
He said he understands it can be a pain having to shovel after snowstorms, though it did not keep him from shoveling when he used to own a home.
“There is probably no way to make this always perfect,” said Jacobson, 69. “The big thing … is for people to understand that the sooner you can remove your snow from the sidewalk, the less chance it’s going to freeze and become difficult for pedestrians.”
Council members said they are waiting for the end of the season to learn what the proactive sidewalk inspections show.
Fletcher said he hopes the city takes over shoveling major corridors in the future, something the department studied in 2018. He also said the city should speed up enforcement following reports made to 311, a process that can sometimes take more than a week.
City Council President Lisa Bender said one of the main complaints from residents is that they often never learn whether reporting to 311 leads to sidewalks being cleared, something Public Works is looking to address.
Some residents are looking for stricter enforcement and stiffer penalties for not shoveling. Owners of single-family homes and duplexes have 24 hours to clear sidewalks after a snow, according to city ordinance. All other property owners, including businesses, have four hours to do so. If the city dispatches a crew to remove the show, the owner is billed about $239 for each visit.
Ice-covered sidewalks are the main topic on Best of Minneapolis 311, a Twitter account started by 22-year-old software engineer Sam Penders.
While he started the account to post the “ridiculous and funny things” reported by residents, he began noticing what he said was a poor response by the city in addressing noncompliant sidewalks.
He has reported more than 150 uncleared sidewalks on the system’s mobile app, most of which he has noticed walking around his own neighborhood of Marcy-Holmes.
He said the city should shovel sidewalks for pedestrians just as it clears roads for vehicles.
The online accountability strategy has shown some positive results, he said.
Last month, residents complained that a restaurant in northeast Minneapolis had failed to shovel a stretch of sidewalk next to its parking lot.
The restaurant responded by showing a photo claiming it cleared the sidewalk, but still, the online patrollers believed they had not done a good job, Penders said.
“The third time around they finally got it right,” he said.
Penders has continued to post about uncleared sidewalks with hopes that it raises awareness about areas that are still impassable for many in the city.
“I feel like it’s really sad that it’s come to this,” Penders said.
“There are so many other things that I’d rather be doing than this, but I feel like I have to or nothing is going to get changed.”
Miguel Otárola • 612-673-4753