“To create an urban environment in all parts of the city that encourages and supports walking,” states Toronto’s Pedestrian Charter, the City “upholds the right of pedestrians of all ages and abilities to safe, convenient, direct and comfortable walking conditions” and also “provides and maintains infrastructure that gives pedestrians safe and convenient passage while walking along and crossing streets.”
We, like every other person in Toronto, need to make use of our sidewalks from time to time (read: constantly). They are rather handy for getting us from A to B, after all, and getting from A to B is an important part of our daily routine. And while we often wish that this imperative, to go places and do things, could conveniently be silenced from January to March, so far the world has not obliged our desire to hibernate for months at a time. In short, our pedestrian need for sidewalks does not fly south for the winter.
The question of just who is responsible for keeping our sidewalks clear of snow and ice, for ensuring that they meet the City’s own standards of safety, convenience, and comfort, is somewhat vexed. Failed to shovel the walk in front of your home? You’ve broken By-Law No. 530-1999 and are liable to pay a fine. But if you slip and fall on that icy walk the municipality is liable, which is why you can sue it. Over the years various measures have been considered to tackle the annual plague of uncleared walks that besets Toronto by the time February doldrums hit; many of these measures have been rejected (usually on the grounds that they are cost-prohibitive), and of the ones that have passed, none have managed to reliably ensure the safety, much less the convenience, that we all require.
Currently, the City does not proactively seek out and punish by-law offenders, pursuing infractions only when someone calls in to notify of a specific offending property. This is cumbersome for residents but minimizes strain on City resources, and it is true that more often than not it gets the job done: most of us, most of the time, are shovelling where and when we ought.
During a phone call with Torontoist, Councillor and Public Works and Infrastructure Committee (PWIC) Chair Glenn de Baeremaeker summarized the situation aptly: “When I walk from my house to the bus stop in winter… I walk past about fifty houses to get to my TTC stop. I would say about forty to forty-five houses are in perfect condition. Ninety per cent of my neighbours shovel their sidewalks. Then I get to four or five houses whose owners just haven’t shovelled all winter long. A minority of the people are endangering the majority.”
The moral to be drawn is that “most” is not sufficient for this particular task. All it takes, as any of us who’ve skidded, hiked, waddled, slid, or jaywalked past those few bad houses on the block know, is a few offenders. For those of us who are able-bodied, others’ failure to shovel is an inconvenience, another item on our checklist of winter gripes about which we grumble periodically and then soon forget. But for those of us with mobility issues, even fairly minor ones, the few bad houses on a block can make the difference between going out and staying home altogether. On crutches? Using a walker? A wheelchair? Hell, if you’re carrying a baby sometimes it doesn’t seem worth it. “Most” is not enough because this is, as properly so-called by the City, a matter of rights—not just of convenience but also of basic safety.
Dylan Reid is co-chair of Toronto’s Pedestrian Committee and one of the key figures arguing that we need to reorient our conversation about sidewalk-clearing, explicitly marking it as an accessibility issue: “It’s a necessity for sidewalks to be cleared. There are statistics out of Britain that show that falls by the elderly cause the health system something like one billion pounds a year… It’s an extreme danger—the elderly end up sometimes shut in. It’s simply not an option to not do the sidewalks.”
The Pedestrian Committee put precisely this point to the PWIC last week, requesting that the City “undertake a cost-benefit analysis to determine whether providing additional resources to ensure that additional sidewalks and other passages used by pedestrians are cleared of snow would result in an equal or greater reduction in liability and other costs” [PDF]. Translation: the City can’t rightly claim that a more rigourous sidewalk-clearing program would add to its budgetary pressures unless it also considers how much it is paying out in slip-and-fall claim settlements (and thus how much it might save were that number of claims to shrink), which it has not yet (publicly) done.
It is, to be sure, only a first step and arguably something of a red herring. If pedestrian safety really is a rights issue then cost is beside the point entirely: the City simply needs to find a way to keep our sidewalks walkable, even if it is at added expense. But this latest move may, at a minimum, force the City to do some honest reckoning. Those slip-and-fall claims are one measure of the high price Toronto residents pay for untended walks and undeniable evidence that this is far more than a matter of convenience.
Though we’re almost a month into spring, snow was—in a moment of apt meteorological coincidence—once again falling during last week’s Public Works meeting. It was a helpful reminder that we need to be prepared to deal with it effectively: in this city, winter never goes away for long.