Usually when city council makes a decision, it settles an issue. But when Kitchener City Council considered a report on its role in clearing snow off sidewalks, it set off a blizzard of reactions.
You have the idealists and fiscal conservatives who say that if we all pitch in, do our part and be good neighbours, there’s no reason to spend tax dollars on a new service. And then there are people who think that we must treat sidewalks the same as roads and have the city clear them.
While an appeal to our civic nature might help, anyone who relies on sidewalks to get around knows there are always problem spots. But making the city responsible is not ideal. When I lived in Toronto, which clears sidewalks, I remember regularly shoveling snow because the city took too long. In Kitchener, side streets often remain snow covered, even after a big storm, because they are the lowest priority.
So the solution lies somewhere in between. Clear sidewalks are crucial to a healthy, walkable community. We need them to effectively and efficiently get around without relying on cars, but navigating icy, bumpy sidewalks risks health and safety. Especially for older people, falls have serious consequences.
It’s an even more critical issue for people with mobility issues who can be trapped inside for days or weeks when it snows. David Kuhn, who uses a wheelchair, considers clear sidewalks a human right. He chairs KW AccessAbility’s board, and he’s right.
Yet I found myself agreeing with Kitchener Councillor Sarah Marsh when I watched the debate from the gallery. Marsh entered council chambers in favour of the city taking on the responsibility, but ended up voting against the idea because she had concerns over the quality of service the City could provide. Even if the price is right, how quickly could the City get the job done?
My pragmatic proposal for dealing with snow covered sidewalks would be to have the City take a tiered approach (and limited responsibility), prioritizing sidewalks along Regional roads and major trails, then sidewalks on any part of a street that is used by GRT buses to make it easy to get to and from public transit, and then sidewalks beside parks and other municipally owned properties.
This tiered approach means people using sidewalks can have predictable, consistently clear sidewalks on high traffic routes.
Citizens would remain responsible for clearing snow from the vast majority of sidewalks, but we can take action to improve their experience, too.
For example, we could expect sidewalks cleared within 12 hours, but if the city declares a “Snow Event” give the same time to clear sidewalks as the city has for streets. Citizens should be able to use the Pingstreet app to report offenders.
While I expect this won’t satisfy many debating the issue, it would be a huge improvement over the status quo.