The case for clearing sidewalks of snow by block, not property

If you live in a winter city in which property owners are responsible for clearing snow from their section(s) of sidewalk, have any of the following happened to you?

A: You clear your sidewalk, one of your neighbors doesn’t, your block is still treacherous.
B: You’re unavailable immediately after a snowstorm, when you get home it’s been packed down into a crusty mess that takes 4x longer to clear.
C: Your neighbor on a corner lot keeps the pedestrian ramps to the street clear at the beginning of the season, but the plow comes by and makes more windrows again and again, and their will is broken by the end of the season and they accept the mini-Khyber Pass as a fact of life.
D: You watch someone trying to traverse a snowy/icy mess of a sidewalk in a wheelchair, or with a cane or a stroller, and you feel nasty feelings toward everyone who put them in this position (which might include yourself).
E: All of the above.

For me, it’s E. We know these outcomes as facts of life at this point. How many hours have been spent clearing snow from sidewalks just in Minneapolis and Saint Paul this season, and how many blocks have been reasonably clear?

If walking down a block requires the entire sidewalk to be cleared to an acceptable standard, and we know a parcel by parcel approach doesn’t often achieve that result, shouldn’t the block be cleared as a unit? And would that require the city taking over responsibility for sidewalk snow removal, or could neighbors band together and arrange for it themselves?


Quick preliminaries: I embrace winter and you should, too, and snow is a huge maintenance hassle. I’ve read the City of Minneapolis’ Pedestrian and Bicycle Winter Maintenance Study published last year. I know the City of Saint Paul is actively considering taking on responsibility for alley snow clearing. My employer clears and removes snow from Nicollet.

Unless I’m missing something, neither Minneapolis nor Saint Paul is on the verge of the city taking over responsibility for clearing snow from all sidewalks. I’m sure there are good reasons to think that could be a better or worse system than what we do now, but – for now – I’m interested in getting better outcomes in the current policy context(s).

Faint praise for the status quo

The sidewalk snow removal system we have isn’t all bad.

Shoveling a sidewalk well can be a really good feeling. If you get out there early, work hard clearing it, and then you see people safely and easily walking by because of your careful work? It’s nice! Can’t beat the virtuous, civic energy you get from doing that, and seeing that your neighbors did their part, too. See also: a neighbor clearing the sidewalk for another neighbor who can’t do it themselves, shoveling out someone who’s stuck.

Is there a word for this kind of simple act of community service? There must be. It’s closely related to the shopkeeper sweeping/mopping the sidewalk in front of their shop, and people planting and tending beautiful boulevard gardens. Those voluntary actions in the public right-of-way materially contribute to a place’s quality of life. Beyond nice-to-haves, we flat out rely on private maintenance/improvements to get good outcomes in the public right-of-way in many other ways (e.g. watering trees, mowing boulevards, clearing ice or leaf litter from around storm drains). If you take all of those small private contributions to the public interest away, and treat all public right-of-way as something that’s just the responsibility of government, I believe we’d lose a lot.

The virtues of the diligent civic-minded shoveler taken into account then, a system that relies on them doesn’t add up to great outcomes overall, as noted above. A minority will always be unable or unwilling to clear the snow from their sidewalk, and all it takes is one property on a block to not clear their snow for that block to become treacherous or impassible.

Inspiration: The humble Saint Paul alley

I take inspiration from how our neighbors work together to clear snow from our alley. We need it to be cleared of snow to have access to our driveway and garage, and our neighbors do, too. The bottom-up solution to that challenge is that one neighbor on the block takes responsibility to get quotes from plowing companies and to gather payment from neighbors to pay for the season. Invariably, some neighbors can’t and/or don’t pony up. I don’t believe there’s even a written contract. Regardless, this season cost us $18.

While acknowledging that this system isn’t perfect, it’s a dumbfoundingly incredible bargain and improvement to inaction. Relying on each individual neighbor to clear their frontage on the alley would be madness. We lived on another block in an adjacent neighborhood that flat-out didn’t clear snow from the alley, and it was so awful. It exacerbates issues with parking and snow emergencies, too.

The best aspects of this approach are the benefits of specialized equipment and a simple economy of scale. One truck with a plow clearing the whole alley is much more effective than 20 neighbors with shovels and snowblowers. Each neighbor still has a windrow to contend with, but the system brings down the scale of the challenge to a manageable extent. And it allows for everyone to benefit even if not everyone can or wants to pay for the service.

Sidewalk snow clearance by block instead of by property

There’s no obvious reason I can think of why neighbors who share a block couldn’t take the same approach with their block’s sidewalks.

If you’re an enterprising person, and you want to try this next winter, there’s no practical impediment to contacting snow removal companies or your local shoveling/snowblowing enthusiast, getting quotes to clear the sidewalks and pedestrian ramps on your block for the season, and then going door-to-door and seeing if enough people would be willing to chip in to pay for it.

A few considerations:

  • How well does this solution do in terms of equity? It isn’t likely as equitable as the city providing the service, but I expect it’s more equitable than the status quo. Again, this is because the system allows for people who can’t pay to not pay, and everyone who passes by would benefit from better outcomes. How many people are buying a snowblower to clear ~30′ of sidewalk?
  • Could you solve for ensuring the economic benefits of this approach are directed to small and underutilized businesses? Yes. You could propose the criteria you want to use in selecting a vendor to your neighbors beforehand. You could also preserve the option of keeping it very local by discovering an individual neighbor who has specialized equipment, could use the income, and is able to do the work.
  • Are there problematic legal questions around liability and an informal contract with a group of neighbors? I imagine so. Better to manage that problem than ignore it, but informal contracts like the alley plowing example above, or hiring a neighbor kid to mow a lawn, aren’t uncommon in similar spaces. And in both those examples, the primary recourse is to not hire the same party the next season.
  • There would be some interesting questions in setting the scope of work. I imagine the scope should include setting high-visibility poles, specific information about where snow can be stored, and clear expectations on the area to be kept clear (including pedestrian ramps) and the standards to be met. I imagine the vendor clearing the area with mechanical equipment (i.e. snowblower or brush), and property owners still being responsible for clearing ice, but a few pilot projects would likely sort out the best practice here.
  • Could things be streamlined beyond someone calling around to vendors and taking up a collection door-to-door? Absolutely. A website where you can see qualified vendors with ratings and reviews, a payment management system, etc would make it a lot more efficient. But this approach is already possible without it.
  • Could such a clearinghouse for bids to clear snow also be used to make things easier for neighbors to clear alleys or other shared public spaces not cleared by the city (e.g. alleys in Saint Paul)? Yes.
  • Could this system work in commercial districts? Why not? Property owners and/or tenants of commercial properties are more likely to contract for snow clearance, and basic economics would suggest they’d benefit from economies of scale, too.
  • Would this set up the vendor who gets the job to clear a block’s sidewalks in a prime position to offer low rates to clear other areas on the block (walkways, driveways, alleys, etc)? I expect so.

I’m aware this proposal has a whiff of “let them eat cake” about it – “if there’s a problem, just have everyone spend some of their ample discretionary income to solve it!” – but I believe there are places where people would prefer this shared approach to the status quo, and it would serve the public interest that they do so. Specialized equipment makes a big difference with snow removal, and the economies of scale that are available here are real.

If you know of a block where neighbors are already taking this approach, or you have a block in mind you think could make a good candidate to try this out next winter, please reach out to me. I’d like to see how this would work in practice.