Monday, March 2, 2020

Complete Streets in the Winter: A case for municipally-funded snow and ice removal on our sidewalks

A Tragic, Preventable Death

Where Mr. Derick fell. The crosswalk continues
to be neglected after another snowfall

On Saturday, January 18th of this year, snow began to fall in Ann Arbor, slowly tapering off through the next day. By the end of the weekend, 6 inches of snow blanketed the city.  The local news stations warned of its weight, calling it “heart attack snow.” Many millions of dollars in municipal snow removal equipment sprang into action, clearing the city and county streets for cars and trucks in time for the morning commute on Monday, January 20th.

And while our community pays to keep our streets cleared and salted, the sidewalks are a different story. After the heavy snow, many residents began the task of shoveling the wet and heavy snow, but too often, areas remained neglected for days. What was left was a treacherous, patchwork network of sidewalks and crosswalks for pedestrians to navigate, with the snow steadily compacted into ice.

Richard Derick, an 88 year old Ann Arbor resident, stepped outside into the afternoon sunshine days later to walk his dog, Sammy. It was one of those rare beautiful Michigan winter days - crisp and cool but clear - perfect for a short walk to Sweetwater’s in Kerrytown. It would be his last. As Derick approached a crosswalk at Division, cars stopped to let him safely cross. According to this account, a mound of snow and ice remained uncleared at the crosswalk, and as he stepped over it, he fell. He would die the next morning from a bleed in his brain.

In the days afterwards, some on our City Council spoke out about the importance of residents promptly clearing snow and ice from crosswalk ramps and sidewalks. Just a month later, four days after a snowfall in February, we visited the site of Mr. Derick's accident and found it still slick, the ice slowly melting as temperatures hovered just above freezing.

A Climate of Unequal Accessibility

January 25th: Clear roads. Crosswalk ramps were still
iced-over at Huron High, a week after snowfall.
A compliance officer would investigate, 4 days later. 

Our local government makes it a priority to clear our roadways - there's even a tracking tool for anxious drivers who want to know when their street will be plowed. Drivers are often frustrated with the speed of local road plowing, but imagine if we required local homeowners to clear the road in front of their property, and your commute to work required faith that your neighbors would get the job done quickly. How long would we tolerate it? As Amy Crawford recently argued in Slate the way a city handles snow says everything about how it treats pedestrians..

This is exactly what we do for sidewalks, and when snow falls, it forces our most vulnerable citizens to use poorly-plowed and icy walkways for days, sometimes weeks at a time. We mandate private property owners to maintain, shovel, and de-ice their adjacent sidewalks, but all too often it's not done in a timely manner, if ever. Using a stroller, walker, or wheelchair becomes a nightmare, and winter weather can leave our disabled and elderly citizens stranded.

The City of Ann Arbor has recently launched a few initiatives that emphasize the importance of using nonmotorized transit, including declaring a climate emergency in 2019. A2Zero is a plan to become carbon-neutral by 2030, and non-motorized transit is key to achieving that goal. Vision Zero is "prioritizing investments in the transportation network, including roads, sidewalks, paths, bike lanes, and public transit." If our sidewalks remain treacherous for days after each snowfall, how can we expect our population to embrace walking, biking, or public transit?

Our Current Model: A2"Fix"It

In 2014, Ann Arbor partnered with SeeClickFix to launch A2 Fix It, a citywide reporting application, which accepts citizen reports of everything from pothole repairs to missed trash pickups, and routes them to city staff for review. In winter, app users can notify the city that some sidewalks remain uncleared. To put it another way, you can use it to tattle on your negligent neighbors. 

The system should work like this: a pedestrian notices an uncleared sidewalk, and promptly notifies staff through the app. The city sends out staff quickly to investigate, who clear the snow and ice, and fine repeat offenders to promote compliance. In practice, there are often days of lag time between each of these steps in the snow removal process, and fining those in violation has not been an effective deterrent.
This area was reported on January 25th, 1 week after the snowfall.
The app showed it was investigated a month later.

In one recent example, a long stretch of sidewalk near Huron High School was reported via A2FixIt to be still iced over a week after a snowfall, on January 25th. The City of Ann Arbor acknowledged the issue and closed the ticket on February 20th, a full month after the snow had fallen. 

In a recent Michigan Daily article, the Ann Arbor Community Standards department admitted the trouble in ensuring prompt response times, due to chronic understaffing. It’s easy to see why such a system would work poorly for this purpose. There are multiple potential failure points - perhaps the sidewalk isn’t reported for a couple days (or longer), and city staff is often overwhelmed with requests and must prioritize. Judging by the number of repeat offenders, the fine-based system does not seem to incentivize good snow removal practices. 

SnowBuddy: "Simply Transformative"

One local neighborhood has shown a different way. The SnowBuddy program in Ann Arbor's Water Hill neighborhood, where a team of volunteers operate and maintain snow removal equipment, ensures every sidewalk and crosswalk in the neighborhood is walkable all winter. In the same year A2FixIt launched, Paul Tinkerhess and a group of neighbors came together to create a nonprofit volunteer-run snow removal service, with the mission of keeping all the walkways in the neighborhood clear, all winter long. They solicited donations from those in the neighborhood, and purchased commercial-grade equipment designed to remove snow all the way down to the concrete, using plows and brushes, and spray treatments for ice. Lisa Brush of SnowBuddy says the service has been "simply transformative" for the neighborhood in winter, allowing all to freely and safely use the sidewalks regardless of disability or income. 

The program has been both effective and popular in the neighborhood. After a couple years of operation, the team began to advocate for winter sidewalk maintenance citywide. To gather data, they traveled to Burlington, Vermont, where the city assumes responsibility for all winter sidewalk maintenance. 

In Spring this year, the SnowBuddy team will be releasing a report to the city, updating options for citywide clear and safe winter sidewalks. The previous 2018 SnowBuddy report already showed, from surveys of Ann Arbor citizens, are that our sidewalks remain impassable during the winter months, that there is broad support for municipal snow clearing, but that a volunteer-driven service is not a sustainable model for municipal snow removal. "It's a heavy lift," Brush says. The volunteers work hundreds of hours, and it's not something that could scale up to cover the whole city.

The Burlington system, where the city owns the equipment and pays the staff, could also be difficult to replicate here - our parks department has said it does not have sufficient year-round work for such a large team of employees - and maintenance of equipment. It is possible that the city would contract walkway treatment out to private companies.

The city of Grand Rapids did just that in 2019, with a small pilot project to contract out snow removal for 100 miles of selected sidewalk routes in the city, when 2 or more inches of snow falls. The City of Holland, Michigan heats its sidewalks with miles of underground pipes carrying waste-heat cooling water from the local powerplant - a dream energy-efficient solution, but impractical in our city.

$50 a year, for completely clear sidewalks, citywide

Snow turning to ice, as children walk to school.
Near Clague Middle School, uncleared sidewalks abound.

The city has estimated a Burlington-type program to cost $2.7 million to launch, with an as-yet-unknown amount of money for yearly costs. The SnowBuddy team has their own set of estimates set to be released in early Spring, but in the meantime our crackerjack team of Damn Arbor mathematicians came up with a conservative estimate for yearly cost, at  less than $2M dollars annually. This number is based on the cost of walkway snow and ice management in Burlington, adjusting for miles of sidewalk, but not for snowfall, even though Burlington has much more snowfall than A2. 

Because the city of Ann Arbor does not have an extra $2M of headspace in its yearly budget for such a program, funding options must be considered. Funding could come from a public-private partnership seeking grants (if any are available), setting up special assessment districts, or a new millage with dedicated funds be put before the voters. 

If we choose a millage, the exact amount required could be determined by further study, but a Headlee override of 0.4 mills would more than cover the startup cost and yearly estimates above. Such a millage would cost the average Ann Arbor homeowner just $48 a year.

Next steps

With the recent declaration of a climate emergency, the time is now to push forward on this. SnowBuddy has already proven the transformative power of having walkable paths all winter long, serving as a pilot project for our city. It is an election year for city council, with every ward in the city holding competitive elections. We have reached out to candidates and current City Council members, and will be posting their takes soon.

We have a simple choice to make. We can accept our current situation, where miles of sidewalks remain unsafe for weeks each winter, or we can spend a reasonable amount of money each year to ensure safe sidewalks citywide year round, and make Ann Arbor walkable for everyone. 


  1. Another tax for A2 residents allocate some of the $ for those confusing round abouts and the construction of all those bike lanes on A2 narrow streets and hire people to drive sidewalk sweepers, just like snow plows schedule certain areas on certain days to be cleaned.

  2. Snow removal is a "basic city service" it should not require additional funding, just use of existing tax dollars. We
    are spending lots of dollars on bike transportation, but that should not be at the expense of the safety of pedestrians who are comprised of senior adults, those with handicaps and the general public.

  3. I used to live in University Hts, Ohio, a small suburb bordered by Shaker Hts, Cleveland Hts and Beachwood. On any snowy morning, the roads were cleared by plows, AND the sidewalks were plowed by narrow plows just the width of the sidewalks. The snow clearing crew were so efficient, all the walkways were cleared by the time of morning rush hour so pedestrians could get to busstops or rapid transit lines, and get safely and on time to school or work. It was covered by our local city taxes, together with road clearing, fall leaf pick-up, road and roadside maintenance, and side-walk repair.

  4. UM doesn't even clean it's sidewalks! Madison between 5th and Division was ice-covered, very slick and dangerous. I agree that the city should use some of the existing millages to clear the sidewalks.

  5. I live on Miller Ave and Snowbuddy is a godsend! I have lived here for almost 40 years and have always cleared my sidewalk in a timely manner butI am in my mid 70's now and shoveling is becoming a challenge.Miller is a main pedestrian Avenue and before Snowbuddy if I did not get out in the early morning the snow would be packed down and difficult to clear.As it is clearing the driveway approach where the street plows pile up chunks of frozen snow is almost impossible.There are way more pedestrians than bicycles, they deserve safe sidewalks and crosswalks.