I have always hated winter, and as I get older that sentiment only seems to get worse. This year in particular – at least over the last few weeks – those of us in Halifax have taken it on the chin from winter. But that has been nothing like the pummeling the city has taken from citizens after their poor job of clearing the snowfalls after these last storms.
I remember back in the 1970s when I was still living at my parents’ home the routine of clearing the sidewalks after a snowfall. Often that job fell to me. I didn’t like doing it much, but since my Navy-man dad would get on my case if I didn’t do it to his standards, I usually did a pretty good job at it most of the time. The worst part then as now was the end of the driveway where the city plows would fill it in while clearing the streets.
Having lived in south-end Halifax for 15 years and walking to work every day, I experienced the good, bad and ugly of sidewalk snow-clearing in the 1980s and ’90s, and it was a pain. Corners, especially, even on places like Spring Garden Road, were often an obstacle course after a snowfall. Sidewalks that were not cleared quickly soon got trampled into ice, and walking was often challenging. Every year the news media would report on problems with Halifax sidewalks, and in extreme cases the city would ticket properties whose sidewalks were chronically un-cleared. The biggest problems were often attributed to rental properties whose tenants did not shovel and whose owners did not arrange for clearing otherwise. It was a particular problem for rental units near the universities in the south end.
When I bought my house in Dartmouth in 1997 I was pleased to discover that the city cleared sidewalks here. That turned out to be only a partial blessing, though, as I soon realized it still meant that I would need to shovel the front and rear walkways and stairs to my house, along with the driveway and the intersection where it meets the street. Really, the sidewalk clearing was maybe 25% of the total effort required after a snowfall, so while the city service was appreciated, as a homeowner it wasn’t a godsend. I came to the realization that the main benefit was providing a somewhat predictable and consistent level of sidewalk clearing for pedestrians, which while perhaps not as good as that done by a finicky homeowner, was at least passable and avoided the issues that Halifax had with those who did not shovel at all.
For most of that time, the equipment used for the sidewalks were dedicated sidewalk plows that I assume were leftover from the old City of Dartmouth days. They did a decent job most of the time, though never to the same standard as a conscientious person shoveling would, because the combination of a plow blade combined with uneven sidewalk slabs always left a coating of snow on the surface. Usually, though, they would drop salt afterwards and left a walkable surface most of the time. The one exception was White Juan in 2004, when close to 3 feet of snow defeated all attempts to clear it for days. Eventually some commercial snowblower equipment arrived and slowly cleared it away. I remember watching it occur and it was slow work even for those machines.
A few years ago the old sidewalk plows seemed to go away – probably having reached end of service life – and were replaced with Bobcats run by contractors. These did nowhere as good a job, leaving a surface that was worse than the plows and tearing up turf and damaging property in the process. Thankfully, this year the dedicated sidewalk plows have returned, a few times this past couple of weeks with snowblower attachments instead of plow blades. I believe they are city-owned machines and I hope they keep using these. They don’t do a perfect job either, but seem to be the best you can hope for from something mechanized. To get down to bare concrete they need a follow-up with salt or other chemicals.
The past few weeks have not been White Juan-caliber, but have unquestionably been tough. Lots of snow mixed in with an extended bout of freezing rain and some exceptionally low temperatures in between have made everything a mess. The city has been saying that the low temps make salt ineffective, but it seems pretty obvious to me that they are not using anywhere near as much salt as they once did on either the streets or sidewalks. Street clearing was not good after the latest storm, and most streets are very narrow thanks to snowbanks that have not been pushed back. Whatever the reason, the frequency of appearances by street snowplows here has been noticeably reduced, and there has not been anywhere near as much salt applied in my observation either – good for the environment, perhaps, but hazardous for driving. We have not seen salt on the sidewalks on my street this week either. There is a lot of caked ice on both surfaces and it is very slick.
The complaints I hear from residents on the Halifax side, where sidewalk clearing was just introduced last year, are legion. I have seen pictures taken by people of areas where sidewalk clearing has not been done at all, and others where a pass with a Bobcat has just made a slick surface out of the snow that had been there. It clearly is not as good as the clearing that would have been done by a responsible homeowner. Overall, is it better than the previous system where some properties were not cleared at all? I suspect it isn’t, because you could tolerate a few uncleared sections if the rest of the block was bare concrete to walk on. Now it is just all mediocre at best. It strikes me – forgive me for saying it – like our health care system, where everybody gets some level of service, but nowhere near the kind of care you would get in the USA, say, if you had good health insurance. That is often the nature of public services. Everybody gets something, but you seldom get the superior level you would like, due to cost.
Regardless of the service, be it health care or sidewalk clearing, it all comes down to funding. If the funds are there to pay for good service, that’s what you will get. For that reason I am cutting some slack for Linda Mosher, the city councillor who proposed the move to have the city clear all Halifax sidewalks. It is the job of city staff to come up with reasonably accurate budgets for providing a given level of service. It seems painfully obvious that the city is coming up short in that regard. The kind of storms we have had the last few weeks are unusual, but not unheard of around here. It is Canada, and it is winter, after all. Did the city’s estimates not take into account that we might get 3 significant snowfalls in 2 weeks during February? I can only assume they failed to construct estimates based on that scenario in terms of equipment, staff, contractor resources, and budgets. They just seemed remarkably ill-prepared this last time around. There are lots of other things one could be critical of too, like the generally poor street plowing, the encroachment of snowbanks on street widths, the failure to remove snowbanks at bus stops and hydrants, and their lack of ice-melting, but those are bigger issues than sidewalk clearing. Hopefully some hard questions will be raised by Council about the capacity and cost of providing adequate service, and what the expectations of citizens ought to reasonably be when it snows. It is a tough job, and maybe we are just expecting too much. I don’t know enough to say for certain.
Personally, I think sidewalk clearing by the city is not a necessity and at best is more of a nice-to-have. For my money, I would rather take on the sidewalks myself. But there is a role the city could, and perhaps should, play. They should use their equipment to clear intersection corners, which would have not only the advantage of removing the obstacles created by street plows for pedestrians, but which would also make visibility better for drivers. They should be ensuring that bus stops and hydrants are free of snowbanks as soon as possible. And if they really want to perform a service for homeowners, they could take responsibility for removing the snowbanks left by street plows at the end of driveways, which are always the worst thing for a homeowner to deal with. Instead of clearing sidewalks, that would be a useful service we would really appreciate.