When It Snows, Whose Mobility Matters?

Walkability is having a long-overdue moment. The benefits of walkable cities may be more widely understood than ever: from the dollars-and-cents case that walkability is good for property values and the financial productivity of cities, to the advocacy and fabulous resources provided by national organizations including America Walks and the AARP. We try to do our part here at Strong Towns: check out our collection of resources for creating walkable streets in your community.

But not every place that talks a good talk about walkability actually walks the walk—and that’s especially true once winter rolls around. Snow, whether you live in a place where it’s a constant presence for months, or a place that gets the occasional surprise storm, has a way of testing the depth of our commitment to making sure all our citizens can get around easily and safely.

Strong Towns member Maria Wardoku is a transportation planner and the board president of Our Streets Minneapolis. Wardoku is quick with a camera and an incisive analysis when it comes to documenting the ways in which our non-motorized street users too often get treated like second-class citizens. Here’s a photo she took during a freak April snowstorm last year (yes, April—Minnesota is not for the faint of heart!) of people walking in a clearly unsafe street after plowing rendered the sidewalk less-than-usable:


These problems are all too common: piles of snow at corners preventing the use of curb ramps, or whole sidewalks used as snow storage zones after plows dump debris from the street onto them—whether or not the property owners adjoining those sidewalks did their civic duty and shoveled.

Speaking of which. In Minneapolis and most cities, sidewalk clearance is the responsibility of the property owner, not the city—even when that sidewalk lies within a public right-of-way. The arguments for this are usually pragmatic—that it would be prohibitively expensive for the city to clear every stretch of sidewalk after every snowfall. And yet they’re also a reflection of our priorities, and the real depth (or shallowness, as the case may be) of our commitment to making it safe and easy to get around.

These policy priorities become evident when you think about the lengths we go to to make sure drivers can get around after it snows, and the double standard present even in the language our cities use. As Wardoku observes, parking in a snow-emergency zone is “banned” and drivers who break those rules face consequences. Shoveling the sidewalk in front of your property may technically be a legal requirement, but the city of St. Paul merely “asks” you to “remember” to do it within 24 hours.

The underlying mentality here is that having clear vehicle lanes is essential: it’s a mobility issue and a public safety one. For this reason, Minnesota cities are quite good at getting streets clear of snow within hours of a snowstorm, as these charts from a few years back show.

Clear sidewalks? That’d be great, but we can’t have everything.

Our Streets Minneapolis has a campaign to make Minneapolis winters more walkable, and suggests some concrete, incremental steps the city can take in the near term that fall short of clearing every stretch of every sidewalk. This includes a much more proactive response when a resident reports a snowy or icy sidewalk (currently it can take 6-8 days), and clearing by the city of a “winter priority network” of pedestrian routes.

Over in Washington, D.C., snow isn’t nearly as ubiquitous as in Minneapolis, but it can still snarl things up and make life especially miserable for those without cars. Alison Gillespie wrote a great deep-dive into the issue for Greater Greater Washington. Here, Gillespie interviews a mobility service provider to explain what snow really means for those with physical or visual disabilities:

For those who are physically or visually impaired, snowstorms can be hugely problematic, says Marybeth Cleveland, owner of A to B and Back Orientation and Mobility Services, a company that helps blind citizens learn to navigate their neighborhoods independently.

Many of her clients use special canes to determine where sidewalks stop and streets start, as well as the edges where sidewalks meet grass. Clients work with her to memorize their routes to work. They learn the location of each bus stop or Metro entrance, and know what the sidewalks and streets along the way should sound like when tapped. Huge snow banks make that impossible, she says.

“You tap the cane to hear a sound, and if there’s snow there, if you hit a snowbank, you don’t really know where to go,” she explains. Sighted people, Cleveland adds, can instantly detect where to climb over or around, an option not available to the blind.

For this reason, snowstorms often cause her clients to call for a ride from a private company or car via paratransit, which can be either expensive or hard to arrange. What's more, the snow often sits for days or even weeks after a storm has subsided, meaning that impact for the disabled community is long-lasting.

Shoveling is the law in suburban D.C., as it is most places, but there are all sorts of practical impediments to relying on private property owners to create a useful walking network. Problems include confusion about ownership of certain sidewalks, and the impracticality of removing huge drifts left by plows.

Public Works departments are often resistant to taking on the expense of clearing sidewalks as well as streets, but this ought to be the next step in our walkability conversation. It’s a crucial part of treating non-motorized street users as true equals, and it’s crucial to the productivity and livability of our places. Says Gillespie, in conclusion:

Perhaps what’s needed is a full cultural change that puts transit access higher up on the priority list year-round and sees those who walk, ride bikes, or use wheelchairs as an asset to the community. Sidewalks should not be seen as places where we can store melting snow but rather as vital arteries. Sidewalks could be maintained and valued every bit as much as roads.

“People need to change their mindset. People fought for the [Americans with Disabilities Act] and we still have all these issues,” says [Shannon] Minnick [Director of Independent Learning Services at Independence Now]. “It doesn’t make sense.”