Speed the Plow
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Speed the Plow

Will improved winter maintenance of Toronto's busiest sidewalks snowball into something more?

On Thursday morning, as a select few Toronto city councillors met for a fourth consecutive day to discuss the proposed 2015 budget, a small storm was brewing outside. A low-pressure system, originating somewhere above the Prairies and steered by upper-level winds, had reached Ontario and was making its way south, preparing to deposit snow, some five to ten centimetres thick, all across the GTA. Within the lengthy document under review by the budget committee was a recommendation that promised to change the City’s response to future Prairie clippers: beginning next winter, sidewalks with high volumes of pedestrian traffic—those abutting arterial roads—would be plowed after just two centimetres of snowfall, as opposed to the five centimetres presently required to put the plows in action.

Even if the City does commit to clearing its most well-travelled sidewalks more attentively than it has in the past, a curious inequality—marked, roughly, by old municipal boundary lines—will remain unaddressed: in North York, Scarborough, and Etobicoke, the City plows sidewalks on residential streets; in York, East York, and Old Toronto, residents are expected to shovel their own or risk a $125 fine.

This system dates back almost to the establishment of the megacity. In 1999, remembers road operations manager Hector Moreno, city council sought to harmonize levels of winter maintenance across a newly amalgamated Toronto. Several criteria—including road and sidewalk width, the number of retaining walls and hydro poles likely to pose a nuisance when plowing, and the prevalence of on-street parking—were used to determine a sidewalk’s suitability for mechanical clearing. About 1,100 kilometres’ worth of sidewalk failed to qualify. “When we completed our survey,” Moreno says, “it was determined that the downtown core and the area that surrounded it—including East York and York, pretty much south of Eglinton Avenue—wouldn’t be receiving the service.” In 2013, transportation services, which Moreno says disperses 99 per cent of its plowing across some 40 different contractors, reported to the public works committee that bringing the entire city into the sidewalk-clearing program would involve deploying 360 crews of day labourers and cost $10 million each year.

Transportation services does make some exceptions. Within the city’s unserviced area, seniors and those armed with doctors’ notes or other proof of disability can apply for free snow removal, work that is done using shovels and snow blowers. This program provides effective protection from fines but not necessarily from falls; neighbours of elderly and disabled residents can’t always be counted on to take care of their own snow and ice. “It’s nice that the City clears your little patch of sidewalk,” says Dylan Reid, a spokesperson for pedestrian advocacy group Walk Toronto, “but that doesn’t really help if two doors down, that sidewalk is dangerous.”

As for the change proposed in the 2015 budget, Reid applauds it as “a step forward, even if it’s not the final destination.” And Moreno adds that the City will monitor foot traffic in order to regularly re-evaluate which sidewalks qualify for the two-centimetre threshold, in the hopes of adding more to the list. But for now, residents nearer the edges of the city will keep the old plowing standards—five centimetres of snowfall in January and February, eight centimetres in December and March—and residents in the unserviced area will continue to fend for themselves. “The next phase, where we actually get sidewalk clearing on all sidewalks in the city,” says Reid, “that’s going to be much tougher.”

“At this point,” Moreno says, “it’s not something that is on the horizon.”