Winter Mobility Beyond Snow Tires
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Winter Mobility Beyond Snow Tires

How Toronto can make walking and cycling more accessible in winter.

When Mayor Mel Lastman called in the army to shovel the city out of a snowstorm in January 1999, Toronto became a national laughingstock. Three mayors and one ice storm later, snow removal remains a sensitive issue for many who walk, roll, bike, take transit or drive in the winter months. Today, as the city shifts away from car-oriented transportation and development, roads aren’t the only places that need attention after a snowfall.

Sidewalks and bike lanes are increasingly important elements of the winter transportation equation but levels of service [PDF] vary throughout Toronto. In most suburban areas, the city provides mechanical snow shovelling at an annual cost of $13.5 million. However, in many neighbourhoods, especially downtown, narrow sidewalks and street parking prevent mechanical snow clearance. In these areas, property owners are responsible for clearing their own sidewalks and the city spends $1.16 million on manual snow shovelling for seniors and persons with disabilities.

City of Toronto Sidewalk Plowing

Map of mechanical snow clearance from the City of Toronto.

In addition to the costs associated with winter sidewalk clearance, the City receives an average of 390 slip and fall claims per year, with an average value of $32,000 per claim. Some quick math suggests that claims cost almost much as mechanical and manual snow shoveling combined. This raises the question of whether improved services to clear sidewalks could actually save the City money, as well as creating a more accessible and inviting streetscape in winter.

However, sidewalks are only one piece of the puzzle to reduce car dependency and encourage yearlong active transportation. In 2014, the city introduced a desired pavement condition for bike lanes and in 2015 several bike lanes were prioritized for service at an estimated cost of $650,000 per year. Extending snow clearance to bike lanes is a logical extension of increasing the network of cycling infrastructure since winter ridership maximizes the return on investment.

Yet, the slippery paradox of segregated bike lanes is that areas of the road without motor traffic are actually more difficult to keep clear of snow. Although pilot projects involving varying levels of salt and other de-icers are an improvement over recent years when bike lanes became snow storage, winter maintenance of bike lanes is still being rolled out across the city and is far from an exact science.

From getting out the door, to planning daily commutes and making transfers between different forms of transit, the conditions of sidewalks and bike lanes are crucial to ensuring that alternatives to car use remain viable all year long. In the winter more than any other season, active transportation is about sharing not just the road but also the sidewalk.

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