Metropolis

The Way a City Handles Snow Says Everything About How It Treats Pedestrians

When streets and sidewalks require clearing, cars’ needs always come first.

People navigate snow-covered sidewalks in Chicago.
This could be cleared, too.
Scott Olson/Getty Images

The afternoon light was fading, rush-hour drivers were honking, and the pedestrian signal indicated we had just 18 seconds to scramble across five lanes of traffic, but I just … could … not get my toddler’s stroller over the knee-high pile of grimy snow blocking the curb ramp. Having failed to push the wheels over the bank, I turned around to pull the stroller behind me and, with my other hand grasping my terrified kindergartener’s arm, managed to make it across the road just as the light changed. As we caught our breaths on the other side, I considered whether driving the half-mile to and from school—a perfectly walkable route on paper, at least until a major snowstorm—might actually have been the better choice.

I live in Ann Arbor, Michigan, a college town as progressive as any—and, despite this year’s relatively mild winter, one that is often covered in snow. Like hundreds of cities nationwide, we adhere to a “Complete Streets” policy. Pedestrian safety is a perennial topic at City Hall, and Ann Arbor just opened its first crosstown protected bikeway. In November, the council unanimously declared a climate emergency, setting a goal for citywide carbon neutrality by 2030—a mission that will require most of us to choose nonmotorized modes of transportation when we can. But here, and in others cities across America, efforts to nudge people out of their cars were once again seemingly forgotten as soon as the flakes started falling this winter. It’s then, as plows head out to clear and salt major arterial roadways, that a city’s true priorities are revealed.

For many pedestrians, snow-clogged sidewalks may be an annoyance. For the stroller set, they can be soul-sucking. And for the disabled, the stakes are truly high. Cities “talk a good game—they claim that pedestrians are the highest priority in their transportation network,” says Scott Engel, who lives in Minneapolis, a city that gets more than 3½ feet of snow each winter. “But in winter, the priorities are streets first, then alleys. The sidewalks are a just a disaster. Psychologically, it’s overwhelming.”

In Minneapolis, Ann Arbor, New York, Boston, and most of the United States, clearing snow from sidewalks, bus stops, and even fire hydrants is the job of adjacent property owners. This peculiar system, in which private citizens are required to maintain public infrastructure, is typically enforced by fines, which—when levied at all—may disproportionately punish low-income, older, and disabled homeowners who have neither the physical ability to shovel nor the means to pay someone else to do so. For pedestrians, the result is an obstacle course of icy goat trails, towering snow piles, and puddles of slush. Curb ramps, which people who use wheelchairs, walkers, or strollers rely on to get across the street, can be especially treacherous, because even diligent clearing may be undone when the city plow comes through to push snow up out of the roadway. (An 88-year-old Ann Arbor man died earlier this month after falling in an icy crosswalk, which a passing plow had blocked with a berm of snow.)

“It could render an entire block impassable if just one property owner fails to clear,” says Ashwat Narayanan, executive director of the advocacy group Our Streets Minneapolis (Engel sits on the board and leads its Pedestrian Work Group). “The city does enforce it, although there are many complaints that go unheard, but there’s a double standard: We don’t expect property owners to clear the street in front of them. Why should we rely on property owners to clear sidewalks?”

For the third year in a row, Our Streets Minneapolis delivered more than 1,500 postcards from residents to their City Council and the mayor, asking the city to take on responsibility for clearing snow from sidewalks. (This year, the city did allocate funding to clear berms left by plows.) It’s not an outrageous ask. The Twin Cities suburb of Bloomington plows snow from more than 260 miles of sidewalks (although it says that can take four days to complete). Syracuse, New York, where 10 feet of snow falls in an average winter, hired a contractor last year to clear 40 miles of sidewalks, a $170,000 pilot program in response to a series of “snow summits” held to address citizens’ complaints. Meanwhile, in New Hampshire an 1898 state Supreme Court decision forbids municipalities from forcing abutting property owners to clear sidewalks or charging them for the service. Instead, keeping sidewalks clear is a public service, performed by the city or town. That’s the typical system in Canada, too—although in practice sidewalks are often cleared long after car traffic begins flowing again.

“Roads have historically been prioritized,” Ottawa, Ontario, retail worker Brian McPherson, an outspoken bike commuter, tells me. “Now sidewalks are supposed to be first, but the city is having a hard time keeping its promise.” McPherson notes that a busy pedestrian bridge over the Rideau Canal, installed just this past summer, became congested after the first snowfall in November; the city closed a set of access stairs for the season rather than clear them, leaving only narrow switchback ramps for walkers to trudge up and down. And while more intrepid Ottawans have been known to commute on ice skates, for others winter weather—which lasts half the year—is more daunting. “It doesn’t take too many friends-of-a-friend who slipped and fell to make people nervous about venturing out,” McPherson says.

Like most municipal problems, inefficient sidewalk clearing could be solved if there was simply enough money—and political will—to go around. But this is America, where we love a technological fix. At the Syracuse snow summits, residents were enthusiastic about the prospect of snow-clearing robots like SnowBot, which was developed by Colorado-based startup Left Hand Robotics. Thanks to a wealthy benefactor and a municipally owned power plant, downtown Holland, Michigan, boasts 5 miles of heated sidewalks, which melt snow at the rate of 1 inch per hour as long as the temperature is above 20 degrees.

“It’ll work at lower temperatures, but it will just be slower,” explains Amy Sasamoto, Holland’s downtown development coordinator. For energy costs and upkeep, abutters are assessed a tax of 45 cents per square foot of sidewalk fronting their property, “but it pays for itself in less salt and less maintenance,” she says. “I don’t know if you’ve ever been to Holland, but we’ve got a great downtown, and you can shop here year-round!”

Back in Ann Arbor, where we can only dream of robotic plows and heated sidewalks, city officials this year asked residents to snitch on neighborhood nonshovelers, who get one warning per season and may face fines of up to $1,000. Yet again, the hefty penalties failed to guarantee safe, passable walkways or intersections. Meanwhile, faced with another long Michigan winter—and many more twice-daily trips to school—I invested in a set of stroller skis.