Lydia Lee writes about architecture, design, and urban planning from the Bay Area for publications including Architectural Record and the San Francisco Chronicle. She was previously the San Francisco editor for the Architect's Newspaper. She serves on her local bicycle commission and fusses over two beehives.
In most places, sidewalk snow-clearing is left to individual homeowners. In Ann Arbor, one neighborhood decided to pool its resources instead.
As Midwesterners and East Coasters prepare to receive another several inches of snow, pedestrians in a small neighborhood in Ann Arbor, Michigan, can rest assured. They know that SnowBuddy will clear the way for their commuter walks or errands to nearby downtown. The 32-horsepower tractor, outfitted with special attachments, clears the Water Hill neighborhood’s 12 miles of sidewalks after a big storm. Paid for by community-pooled donations and operated by a volunteer force, the little tractor represents a major step towards collectivizing what has traditionally been a private responsibility.
“Pedestrians deserve a respectful transportation experience, and the sidewalk is fundamentally a transportation corridor,” says SnowBuddy’s lead organizer, Paul Tinkerhess, a 30-year resident of Ann Arbor. “When you look at it that way, it’s absurd to think that many cities assign winter maintenance of sidewalks to homeowners.”
Tinkerhess reached this conclusion after last year’s brutal winter, the snowiest on record for Ann Arbor and many other Midwestern cities. He maneuvered a dangerous patchwork of shoveled and un-shoveled sidewalks on his daily walks to work. At his shoe store downtown, he saw demand rise for boots with carbide studs, which offer more traction on ice.
“I came gradually to understand that that a system that assigns sidewalk maintenance to every homeowner will never function well for the pedestrian,” he says. “Eight out of 10 walkways might be cleared, but there is always going to be someone who is sick or out of town or just hasn’t gotten around to it yet.”
Ann Arbor is hardly unusual in placing the onus on residents to keep the sidewalks outside their residences clear of ice and snow. While sidewalks are public, in just about every city, their upkeep and maintenance—from clearing snow to repairing cracks—is the responsibility of the adjacent property owner.
This allocation of responsibilities stems from how sidewalks have historically been financed: Unlike roads, which are paid for with federal, state, and local taxes, sidewalks are local improvements, funded through property-developer fees or special-assessment districts. Like many cities in the past few years, Ann Arbor has adopted a Complete Streets policy, which raises the status of sidewalks. Its resolution reads, in part: “A ‘Complete Street’ is one planned, designed, and maintained to comfortably accommodate pedestrians, cyclists, transit riders, and motorists of all ages and ability levels.”
Tinkerhess decided to see if he could mobilize a community sidewalk-snow-clearing service funded with the model popular with public radio stations: Provide the service for free to the neighborhood, then ask for donations to offset the costs once it was up and running. As the co-creator of the popular Water Hill Music Fest, Tinkerhess was already a recognized leader in the community. It took only a couple of weeks to raise the $18,000 in startup funds that the board of the SnowBuddy (now registered as a formal nonprofit) had set as their first goal. It was enough to buy a $43,000 tractor on a four-year plan and still have some funds to cover their estimated expenses of $25,000 a year—including a $2 million liability insurance policy.
This winter, the SnowBuddy tractor has already made its 8-hour circuit around the neighborhood's sidewalks about 10 times. In addition to 12 volunteer tractor drivers, others have signed up for the "windrow patrol": They shovel away the piles of ice and snow pushed up by road snowplows that block the ends of sidewalks at intersections.
While gratified by the community response, Tinkerhess would ultimately like to see the city take on the job of clearing sidewalks. “We want to make an example of what a neighborhood looks like through the winter if its walks are all kept clear,” he says. “But equally important, we want to encourage our city officials to consider taking this task from us, since they are the rightful administrators of the transportation corridors.”
Ann Arbor mayor Christopher Taylor is sympathetic. “SnowBuddy is an exciting project where people are working together for a common purpose to make their community better," he says. "It is regrettably impractical in our current fiscal environment for the city to take [clearing snow from sidewalks] on ourselves, but I’m delighted that residents have taken it on their own initiative.” Taylor points to a 2011 tax increase that transferred the burden of fixing sidewalk cracks from property owners to the city as a first step.
Meanwhile SnowBuddy is generating cooperative enthusiasm among an increasing number of local residents. “It’s a lifesaver,” says Christine Schopieray, a 20-year homeowner in Water Hill who walks to her job in downtown Ann Arbor. “It’s nice to see that people are chipping in and doing this. I hope it keeps going.”