Guest column

A clear path to municipal sidewalk plowing


As a member of the Minneapolis City Council, it’s my job to work with the community to advance concrete policies that help improve the lives of working class people. That’s why one of my top priorities this term is creating a municipal sidewalk plowing program.
The heavy snowfall this past January has reminded many of us just how big of a problem snow and ice on our sidewalks are. Normal tasks like going to work or the store become much harder and more dangerous. Elders or people with limited mobility are especially impacted. People who use wheelchairs or push strollers are put in extremely challenging positions and sometimes have to resort to rolling in the street. This is not the welcoming, accessible city that we want to live in.
Currently, the city takes full responsibility for plowing the roads, but sidewalk plowing is left to the personal responsibility of the property owner. That system simply isn’t working, as most any pedestrian knows from experience. There are thousands of unshoveled sidewalks each winter – in the winter of 2021, there were an estimated documented 4,500 unshoveled sidewalks across the city. Compliance varies widely, creating unequal conditions. Renters are subject to however their landlords chose to handle the snow. Elders and people with disabilities have to find a way to shovel, or pay punitive fees. Homeowners who live on corners are expected to take on twice the work of their neighbors next door. The result is a patchwork of compliance that doesn’t guarantee safe, accessible sidewalks for everyone.
The good news is that the city can begin investing in a municipal sidewalk plowing program relatively quickly, and scale up over the next few years.
To start, the city can focus on plowing the sidewalks that pedestrians rely on the most. The Pedestrian Priority Network (PPN) is about 15% of the city’s total sidewalks that the city has already mapped out and committed to improving. Starting with the PPN is a natural way to begin investing in the infrastructure that will be needed for citywide sidewalk plowing.
A sidewalk plowing workforce can also be scaled up over time. The city can lead a mixed-delivery model that could include a combination of workers employed directly by the city, contracts with small businesses and neighborhood associations, or temporary or on-call work for youth or other residents. The city already uses existing partnerships to remove snow and ice in certain areas of the city – think college campuses, Metro Transit, and the Special Service Districts that cover specific commercial corridors.
How much would municipal sidewalk plowing cost, and what would that mean for residents? One big factor in cost is frequency. In 2018, the city did an estimate that showed that plowing every sidewalk in the entire city every time it snowed half an inch would cost about $20 million per year, or about $95 for the median property taxpayer. Clearing less frequently, like only during heavier snow or a Snow Emergency, was estimated at about $6 million, or about $33 for the median property taxpayer.
In June, the council will receive the results of an operational and fiscal analysis that Council Member Aisha Chughtai and I authored to give us more updated and specific information about the options for beginning this crucial program.
By then, the last snow and ice from January’s storm will probably have melted away, but our attention to this problem won’t. It can be easy to forget about the snow when it isn’t on the ground, but the city must commit to sidewalk plowing for the long haul. As the impacts of climate change increase, there will be more extreme weather events. We need to develop programs and infrastructure now to make sure our city is resilient to the larger snowfalls that we know are coming. The current system of personal responsibility will only deteriorate further as the impacts of climate change bring more snow. Investing now will also help ensure that more vulnerable residents, like elders and people with limited mobility, aren’t disproportionately impacted by the impacts of climate change.
The sidewalks may be icy, but the path is clear: begin investing in a municipal sidewalk plowing program now for a more safe, resilient, and equitable future.
Contact Robin Wonsley at


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