The pickup truck rolled down the north Minneapolis street on Tuesday at a slow, ominous speed, an orange signal light flickering above the cabin.
The men inside, inspectors for the city of Minneapolis, had one mission: to check whether residents had shoveled their sidewalks.
It was the fourth round of inspections since the city announced last year it would crack down on people who failed to clear their sidewalks. It has been the responsibility of homeowners for decades, and the former method of compliance — neighbors telling on neighbors — wasn’t working, officials said.
The inspections are one of several new strategies to keep nearly 2,000 miles of sidewalks clear for pedestrians during the winter. The city is also weighing whether it should shovel major corridors, as some suburbs do.
“Sidewalks are an incredibly important transportation system, if you think about it,” said Lisa Cerney, the deputy director for the city’s Department of Public Works. “Every trip starts and ends with walking.”
Because there haven’t been many significant snowstorms so far, inspectors had only gone out three other times.
Before Tuesday, they had examined about 13,000 parcels and found 689 violations, Cerney said. The compliance rate has been promising, with about 95 percent of households shoveling their sidewalks.
This week’s storm brought down almost 5 inches of snow, according to the National Weather Service, leading the city to issue a snow emergency Monday. It also gave homeowners 24 hours to clear the sidewalk in front of their property.
Around 10 a.m. Tuesday, teams of inspectors were divided among the city’s quadrants. Each pair would then drive down blocks in a random grid in their quadrant, marking down which homes had not cleared the snow.
Isaac Prehall and Kevin Henke were assigned to inspect a grid in north Minneapolis, roughly between N. Washburn and Morgan avenues and N. 29th and 35th avenues. While they would normally walk down the block to examine the sidewalks more closely, the subzero cold that enveloped the state meant their inspections would be made from inside the warm pickup truck.
They have been trained to know what to look for, but it is still basically a visual test. Is the width of the sidewalk clear? Could a wheelchair pass by without problems? Did they sprinkle ice-melt or sand?
“There are some places that just don’t try,” Cerney said. “And then there’s others that you know have genuinely tried.”
Prehall said they try to be reasonable, especially because of the brutal cold and the wind blowing snow back onto the sidewalks. But people need to have at least put in the effort.
“If little Johnny has been out with a small shovel and didn’t do his job, then, you know, we gotta keep them open,” Prehall said. “Everybody’s gotta do their part.”
Rolling down Oliver Avenue N., Cerney pointed to a stretch of sidewalk covered with a light layer of snow, likely there because of the sweeping wind.
“While it’s not down to the pavement, you can tell they’ve made an effort,” she said.
It was a different story with the houses at the end of the block, where footprints were easily visible.
“That one did not make an attempt,” she said. “They didn’t even shovel their steps.”
Halfway through their route, the pair had jotted down about 40 parcels where the sidewalk was unshoveled. Henke guessed they would have about 80 by the time they finished.
“You can tell there’s a lot of snowbirds that haven’t coordinated their snow removal effort, but we’re getting the word out,” Henke said.
Back inside, they would report those addresses to 311. Employees would then go back out Wednesday to see if those sidewalks were still not shoveled. If so, they would begin to send out notices of violation.
Tuesday’s compliance rate across the city was almost 97 percent, or 191 violations out of 5,943 properties inspected, Cerney said.
It’s too soon to tell whether the inspections are making more people shovel their sidewalks. The data will later be analyzed to see if it helps explain why some people don’t shovel, Cerney said.
And the inspectors will probably have more opportunities to collect that data, maybe even this weekend.