Sidewalks, Snow and Class Privilege

CBC Ottawa Morning asked the following question on Twitter today:

Would you be willing to shovel your own sidewalk if it meant quicker, more efficient snow plowing on the streets?

As municipal policy, this is clearly a horrid idea, for the many reasons mentioned in reply. Primarily, making the city less walkable is exactly the opposite of what we need to do if we want to create a vibrant city. Unless you live your life one parking garage to the next, you’re going to need to use our sidewalks. Even in winter, we need to make sure everyone can get around.

This policy would just further privilege cars over everyone else.

There are, of course, a number of other good reasons that this is bad policy. Mobility would be dependent on the compliance of your neighbours. And what if you have mobility issues? What if you’re unable to shovel snow? What if you’re away or sick? Basically, why do we think so little of our city that we would adopt a policy that would keep people from doing anything in the city? In addition, this places an added and uneven obligation on some residents, but not on others.

And, of course, sometimes a sidewalk looks like this:


There’s no way that’s shovel-able.

Beyond all that, though, there is a question of class and privilege.

First, this favours those with cars over those without cars. I’m pretty confident in suggesting that the more money you have, the more likely it is that you really on driving as a primary mode of transportation. So this would disproportionately favour the wealthy.

Second, we can basically think of this as a form of taxation, except instead of paying in money, you pay in time and effort. If you have the money, the need and the ability to store a snowblower, your obligation suddenly becomes much easier and much faster. Basically, your tax burden is lowered by buying a snowblower.

If you don’t have a driveway or a car, if you don’t have a place to store a snowblower and, most importantly, if you don’t have the money , you’re not buying a snowblower. Buying a snowblower will equate to buying privilege, of buying your way out of much of your civic obligation.

(The same goes if you can just afford to hire someone to do your snow clearing.)

That’s pretty gross. This policy would be incredibly regressive. It would be the most cynical and selfish of moves. It would make us an absolute failure as a city and a community

Of course, there’s no sign that we’re heading towards this policy…even if we effectively got it last week. The city has set priorities, and sidewalks and bike lanes are not neglected. Last year, the city was pretty good at adhering to its snow clearing standards, and I tend to expect the city to do better in future storms.

Really, this was just a media organization trying to stir things up.

Business interests and city snow clearing

It’s easy to think that the city works for businesses not for residents. When you hear about a single business getting a bike corral removed, BIAs having veto power over city projects or the need to construct a business case for initiatives that would improve the lives of residents, it sure seems like the city prioritizes business interests over anything else (other than council members getting re-elected).

And so we come to snow removal.

I live adjacent to an arterial street (not a road, as the city likes to say, a street). The sidewalks of this is sort of street should be cleared to bare pavement within four hours of 2.5 cm of snowfall. This is according to the city’s service levels. As you all know, on Tuesday December 29, we received 20 cm of snow. It’s fair that the city was a little late in getting to clearing the sidewalks (though they cleared the street twice within 12 hours).

By Wedensday afternoon, nothing had happened. That’s about 36 hours, or 9 times the professed service level. At that point, I decided to notify the city. I didn’t want really want to complain. I know the crews were working hard. At the same time, how can the city know there’s a problem if we don’t report it.

After making the report on December 30, I received a confirmation email stating that my report would likely be looked at on January 6…which, if they suddenly then cleared the snow, would mean missing service levels by a factor of 53.

On Friday January 2, I decided to dig out the bike rack across the street. This was 72 hours after the bulk of the snow storm, meaning the city had missed their service level by a factor of 18.

IMG_2278I spent about an hour digging out part of the sidewalk and bike racks, and I think I did an ok job.

There’s another bike rack behind this one, and behind that, a Bell utility box. I didn’t feel like digging those out.

As I was about halfway through this job, a Bell Canada van drove up. At first, it stopped (illegally, as they tend to do) right by the box, but there was a huge snow bank there, so the driver went and parked in an open spot about three houses down.

No one got out.

The van sat there for about five minutes and then drove away. I was pretty sure I knew what just happened, but I went on with my shovelling and then went inside.

And wouldn’t you know it, within an hour of a Bell Canada employee attempting to access the utility box, a city snowblower came by and cleared the sidewalk. You can argue it’s just a coincidence, but I’m disinclined to believe that.

I am confident the city cleared the sidewalks on my street only when it inconvenienced a business. 

Forget about the octogenarian who needs the sidewalks to do her grocery shopping. Forget the kids who’ll try to walk along the street. Forget the people who just want to live and enjoy their street and neighbourhood. It really appears the city only cared about snow clearing when it became a matter of commerce.

And that’s pretty disgusting.

New Bridge, Old Cynicism

Yesterday, I rode the new bike/pedestrian bridge at Coventry Road. It opened this week to much fanfare, and it certainly seems well-done (the ramps were a little more snow- and muck-covered than I’d like, but I imagine that, in future years, regular traffic will help keep that down).

I’ll admit, I don’t totally get why so many people would need to get from an often-empty ball park to the train station, but I’m told by people who know the area better that it will be quite useful…and there were a few other people using it as I crossed, so maybe it’ll be quite popular. It connects to a MUP on the train station side, and it’s close to some bike routes on the ball park side, so those are pluses, but here’s where my cynicism arises.

A day after the bridge opened, much of the bike and pedestrian infrastructure in the area was suddenly cleared of snow (not all of it, mind you; the aforementioned MUP is only partially cleared, which is a bit of an…oversight). The ride to, over and from the bridge was much more pleasant than commuting in the area had been all winter.

So here are the questions: is the city actually dedicating itself to better snow-clearing now that the bridge is open? Since a lot of people use the surrounding infrastructure, with or without the bridge, why did it take until February to give much of it a proper clearing? Will communities only get proper winter maintenance if they have a shiny infrastructure bobbles?

Or was this a one-time shot, so this week’s stories and photo-ops wouldn’t be ruined?