Down shovels: the city should clear the sidewalks

Down shovels: the city should clear the sidewalks

Tom Hanson/CP

It’s the middle of March and winter has yet to relax its icy grasp on Canadians. Last week, much of the country faced a late-season snowstorm and the prospect of yet more shovelling. Regardless of the snowfall, however, the burden of hoisting snow and chipping ice is not distributed equally across the country—particularly when it comes to sidewalks.

Many Canadian cities plow their sidewalks, as well as roads. Like drinkable water and street lights that work, clear sidewalks are a basic municipal service in these urban centres. And yet numerous other cities have abandoned their sidewalk plows and dumped the job on residents instead. Is this fair?

Last month, Calgarians received two snowy surprises. An early February blizzard left much of the city under a thick white blanket that required removing. Calgary residents must clear the sidewalk in front of their homes down to bare pavement within 24 hours of a snowfall, on pain of a $150 bill for a city crew to do the work. To the surprise of many, however, it was subsequently revealed that residents are responsible for shovelling any community trails that abut their property as well. A homeowner’s obligation to clear Calgary’s 700-km-long pathway system was apparently added to the books in 2004, but left unpublicized until now. Hey Calgary: don’t forget to stretch.

No Canadian city would ever expect residents to keep the roads in front of their houses clear of snow and ice for the benefit of cars and buses. Yet Vancouver residents are expected to have their sidewalks cleaned for pedestrians by 10 a.m. daily. Saskatoon gives its citizens 24 hours to get the job done. Numerous other cities, including Edmonton, Windsor, Ont., Hamilton, Kitchener, Ont., and Waterloo, Ont., have also off-loaded responsibility for sidewalk shovelling onto residents, although Calgary appears to be breaking new ground with its demand that citizens shovel the path behind their house as well as the sidewalk out front.

Curiously, many other Canadian cities, including Winnipeg, Ottawa, Montreal, Quebec City, Fredericton and the majority of Metro Toronto, manage to keep sidewalks clear as part of their routine duties. Sidewalks may be lower on the priority list than roads and bridges, but the effort is there. So what explains this snowy divide?

Cities that require citizens to do their own shovelling frequently cite the heavy cost of sidewalk clearing and limited budgets. But sidewalk plowing appears to be one of the great bargains of municipal governance. Winnipeg, for example, manages to keep its sidewalks free from snow and ice for $2 million a year, or less than $7 per household. Try finding a teenager willing to shovel your driveway just once for $7, let alone a whole season.

Some civic politicians may hope off-loading responsibility for snow removal will help them avoid lawsuits. But a municipality cannot dodge its liability for slips and falls on icy sidewalks simply because it forces homeowners to do the job. According to a 2000 Ontario Court of Appeal decision that has been cited nationwide, “snow and ice accumulating on public sidewalks?.?.?.?are the legal responsibility of the municipality, not the property owner.” And this holds regardless of bylaws or fines. The city owns the sidewalk and is ultimately responsible for keeping it clear.

Beyond the financial or legal issues, however, the attitude of a city toward its sidewalks says a lot about political commitment and public concern. Nearly every Canadian city has recently made some sort of pledge in support of active transportation or becoming “pedestrian friendly.” A city that refuses to clean its own sidewalks makes a mockery of such commitments.

“Sidewalks are a fundamental element of the urban transportation infrastructure,” says Barry Wellar, professor emeritus of geography at the University of Ottawa and creator of a walkability index for Canadian cities. “It is bizarre that any city would fail to provide the same level of service for sidewalks that it does for roads. This makes its pedestrians second-class citizens.”

Homeowners coerced into doing the city’s job will inevitably produce widely varying results; and this has nothing to do with good citizenship or courtesy. Chopping ice and clearing snow are hard work, particularly for elderly residents. When some sidewalks are bare and others covered with snow, pedestrians and joggers migrate onto roads, making life difficult for everyone. Driving a plow down the length of a sidewalk keeps everything consistent and safe. Besides, sidewalk-clearing bylaws encourage neighbours to complain about each other’s snow-clearing habits. There’s no upside to sidewalk shovelling.

In the interests of fairness and common sense, next winter all Canadians should demand their cities provide snow-free sidewalks. Exhausted shovellers unite!

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