The city should take responsibility for clearing sidewalks of snow. This would be more efficient and reliable than requiring individuals to clear small stretches.
The city’s snow and ice rules requires property owners to clear sidewalks next to their land. Owners must remove snow and apply sand or salt within 24 hours of a snowfall of an inch or more. The city gives one warning per winter to people who fail to do this. If the sidewalk is not clear 24 hours after the warning, the city can remove the snow and fine the property owner. After the first violation, the city can fine the owner without a warning.
Some property owners do not clear their sidewalks. People have to leap between footholds in the snow. People in wheelchairs cannot travel easily.
The Ann Arbor News reported in February 2014 that the city gave 438 warnings and 44 tickets that winter. The report says, “Community Standards Supervisor Jessie Rogers said it’s been difficult to keep up with warning and ticketing property owners this winter because each time it snows it resets the 48-hour timeframe so quickly.” Since then, the city has changed its rules so that property owners only get one warning a winter. However, the timeframe still gets reset if there is more snow within 24 hours of the first snowfall.
Frequent snowfall hides failures.
After a snowfall, property owners have 24 hours to remove snow. After this time passes, the Community Standards officers can respond to complaints and give out warnings. If snow falls again, the process restarts because property owners can claim that they cleared the previous snowfall.
For a person to accurately complain, they need to:
- Notice a snowy sidewalk.
- Be aware of the city’s snow rules.
- Know that the last snowfall was more than 24 hours ago.
- Call the city during business hours, or file a report online.
Then the city has to send someone to look at the sidewalk and issue a warning. When property owners receive warnings, they have another 24 hours to correct their mistake. After that, the city can re-inspect and fine the owner.
For the city to give a property owner the first ticket of the season, it must not snow for two 24-hour periods plus the time it takes for two inspections.
Currentresults.com, with data from the National Climactic Data Center, shows the average number of snowy days in Ann Arbor. For the 90 days of December-February, 37.9 are snowy. That is 42% of days.
This number can be used to estimate the odds of having a streak of clear days. Here are the odds that it will continually not snow for some number of winter days:
- Two Days: 34% (.58^2)
- Three Days: 20%
- Four Days: 11%
- Five Days: 7%
With these odds, I’m surprised the city gives as many tickets as it does. Maybe inspectors can distinguish between a new flurry of snow, and a past snowfall covered by a new flurry. However, owners might challenge tickets in ambiguous cases. It seems that even with fast enforcement, negligent property owners have a good chance of avoiding fines.
Correcting failures takes too long.
The city only corrects peoples’ mistakes after many days. By the time the city starts clearing, the snow may be compacted and icy.
The city should mechanically remove snow immediately after snowfalls. There is specialized equipment that makes this easy. Contractors could plow and salt entire sidewalks in one pass.
In some ways, mechanically plowing and salting streets will be cheaper than the current system. It will save labor and materials expenses and prevent slipping and shoveling injuries. However, it will be more expensive for the city government.
I asked a public services administrator what it would cost the city to plow its sidewalks. He estimated that it would be similar to the cost of plowing roads, or slightly higher. He guessed $600,000-$800,000. This amount is close to what the city spends on road plowing:
The 2015 budget lists expenditures by activity. For Street Maintenance and Traffic Control, there are several different winter expenditures. For 2013, they were:
- LOCAL [street] SALTING/PLOWING $373214
- MAJOR [street] SALTING/PLOWING $278221
- SNOW AND ICE CONTROL $18,291
- ROW [right of way] MAINTENANCE $71,714
- BR 23 WINTER MAINTENANCE $10280
- BR 94 WINTER MAINTENANCE $51636
However, a recent Mlive article references a much larger estimate of $2.7 million estimate for sidewalk plowing. It surprises me that sidewalk plowing could be so much more expensive than road plowing, but even if the estimate is accurate, the city can afford the expense without raising taxes. I list funding sources on my city services page.
As a first step, the city should budget $2.7 million for test year of plowing. During the test year, property owners would still be legally responsible for clearing the sidewalks in front of their property, in case there are unexpected problems with city plowing. After a year of plowing, city council would have a better estimate of annual costs, and could budget accordingly.