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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Down shovels: the city should clear the sidewalks

  1. Hi, I don't know where you got Winnipeg stats on the city being efficient on sidewalk snow/ice clearing. They are not. I lived there 7 years 1997-2004. I fell at least 4 times and broke various bones because of the ice under the snow on the sidewalks and some roads..the latest being black ice under snow on April 22nd!!! I often had to climb over banks of snow to get to my apartment building or door. The small downtown core was more efficient in clearing sidewalks. The roads were generally cleared because everyone seems to drive there. But for a pedestrian/transit user trying to get around in winter was often hazardous. Most residents would because falling on ice/hard snowbanks was common occurence.

    • And I fell three times last YEAR in Edmonton, a city where residents are held responsible for cleaning their sidewalks. I’d be fine with such a system if enforcement were stringent, but inevitably some 78-year old widow (with a house worth half a million) complains that she can’t keep her property, and despite the five bedroom Georgian-style home she occupies on her own, can’t find the income to pay someone else to clear her walks either, and then every irresponsible, rent-seeking, walk-polluting rentier of a homeowner jumps onto the Sun’s letter to the editor page to call mandatory sidewalk clearing the worst thing since Hitlerslavery.

      Seems like you’re still getting more for less. Not to mention, enough $2000 electric brushes and enough sole-proprietor local contractors and the city could easily provide Cadillac service of this type for $50 a house. Again, people get the government they ask for but are too willfully ignorant (see elections; Canadians threatening to punish any party dropping one in their kid’s soccer season, for) to understand the implications of.

  2. Can anyone give an update on the 2000 Ontario Appeals Court ruling? Is it still in litigation, or is it settled?

    Also: a case name or number would be helpful.

    • Bongiardina vs. City of Vaughan.

  3. The City of Calgary is very hypocritical. The City refuses to take responsibility for sidewalks along its OWN property, and worse yet, it will actually PROHIBIT individuals or organizations from clearing the City-property sidewalks (offence carries up to a $10,000 fine). Yet, if the adjacent residential or commercial property owner doesn't shovel their portion of the same walk within 24 hours they will be fined. How shameful Calgary!

  4. I know from living in Germany & Switzerland that citizens, store owners, et al sweep & shovel their sidewalks AND roads 365 days of the year. Part of having pride in the appearance of your community. Certainly older residents and physically challenged citizens require assistance and we should work together to ensure they are helped.

    It is often the stretches the city is responsible for that are unkempt and difficult to navigate.

  5. ive been in winnipeg my entire life. 19 20 years in fact. if you dont clear your sidewalk which many people do, the city will do it for you. it may take time but it will get done. we should have to shovel snow off of a sidewalk that is owned by the government. we dont shoevl the streets do we why should we shovel the sidewalks.

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