A woman contemplates her next move after disembarking a bus on Gottingen Street, in the afternoon on Wednesday, February 15th. Sidewalks in either direction of the stop remained untouched at the time. Photo: Erica Butler.

According to the 2011 sort-of-census, over 77 per cent of people in downtown Halifax get to their jobs by walking, biking, or using transit. In the university district, it’s about 72 per cent. And in the near north end, where I live, it’s about 69 per cent.

That’s a whole heck of a lot of people who use sidewalks on a daily basis. And ideally, we’d like it to be more. Halifax is trying to increase the share of trips that people make without cars, region-wide, to help keep traffic congestion and our GHG emissions from spiralling out of control as the city grows.

Which is why it’s surprising that we’ve built such a poor system to keep our sidewalks clear in winter.

Now I know last week’s blizzard dumped a lot of snow on us: 60 cm on Monday and 20 cm more on Thursday. Obviously I knew it would take longer than usual to execute our snow clearing operations. But an event of this magnitude really brings into high relief the way we have prioritized snow clearing operations. Our sidewalks, despite being the daily route to work of so many in central Halifax (and Dartmouth too), are very low on our priority list.

When I set out with my kid last Wednesday, our route to school along Gottingen Street (a relatively busy transit route) was a patchwork of plowed sidewalks dead-ending at untouched curb cuts, and plowed bus stop islands surrounded by untouched stretches of sidewalk. Work had been done, efforts had been expended, but the benefits couldn’t be reaped by anyone, because almost every clearing effort was bookended by enormous obstacles. Baffled and frustrated, I turned back, dug out my car, and drove my kid to school. The streets were narrow, yes, but easily passable. It was clear that after that storm, my city wanted me to drive. So I did, because I happen to have the choice. My carless neighbours were just out of luck. They either braved mixing with traffic, or they stayed home from work and school.

It took the city until Tuesday morning, seven days post-blizzard, to declare that the sidewalks of arterial streets and transit routes were cleared. The city says it will finish clearing residential sidewalks by tonight. And for some, the remaining snow and ice on cleared sidewalks will continue to be an obstacle for the rest of the winter.

We can and should do better.

This spring, when our sidewalk clearing contracts expire, we will have the opportunity to rethink both our strategy for sidewalk clearing, and the resources that we are willing to throw at it. Because as bad as this and past storms have been, we know it’s possible to do better. We can see it, right in our own city.

After dropping my kid at school last Wednesday, I went to Dalhousie’s main campus. With fully cleared walks and curb cuts, it was like walking into a perfectly accessible pedestrian dream.

Photos of Dalhousie sidewalks and curb cuts on February 15, 2017 showing cleared to bare pavement.
Dalhousie sidewalks and curb cuts on the morning of February 15, 2017.  Photos: Erica Butler.

Dalhousie clears about nine kilometres of sidewalks and 50,000 square metres of roadways, parking lots, and building podiums. The university uses a combination of in-house and contracted snow removal crews. In-house crews do the tricky parts like steps, building entrances, wheelchair accessible ramps, and bike racks. Contracted snow removal crews do the roadways, sidewalks, and parking lots.

“We require a bare pavement level of service within a certain time frame after the storm has finished,” says Michael Wilkinson of Dalhousie’s facilities management department. The time frame depends on the event. ”Sometimes that is easier to achieve than other times,” says Wilkinson. For last Monday’s storm, it seemed to be about 24 hours.

Wilkinson and staff are responsible for managing the snow clearing operations. “Myself and my foreman monitor the campus conditions constantly and we rely on the large campus population and our security team to notify us of dangerous conditions or areas that have not been cleared or not cleared to the level of expectation.”

Because the university doesn’t track the time its in-house staff spends on clearing, it can’t say the exact cost of their efforts, but Dal’s director of operations estimates the range for the past three-to-four winters has been from $500,000 to $1,000,000 each year, depending on the weather.

Dal’s contractors are not paid a fixed price per season, but rather charge on a per-event basis, “to ensure we can maintain a high standard of service,” says Wilkinson, “as opposed to paying a fixed price and having a contractor run at a loss and consequently perform a substandard service in snow heavy years.”

There’s no apples to apples comparison between costs at Dal and the rest of the city, but it’s interesting to note that Dal’s snow clearing budget fluctuates dramatically, some years doubling over other years. The university could try to stabilize its costs by having fixed price contracts, but it choses not to because forcing the risk onto contractors will just lead to substandard results on campus.

HRM has some hourly contracted snow clearance staff, but the majority of the city’s contracts are what it calls “performance-based contracts.”

From a January 26, 2016 report to council titled “Winter Service Standards for Streets and Sidewalks.”  Staff and hourly based contracts handle about 29 per cent of street clearing, and about 13 per cent of sidewalk clearing. The rest is covered by performance-based contracts.

Budget flexibility is surely a huge factor in Dal’s successful snow clearing, but so too are the university’s standards. While Dal requires bare pavement, HRM’s contracts either “target” bare pavement (according to a staff report), or require clear and passable sidewalks (according to staff comments at council meetings.) Either way, bare pavement is not the actual standard, as evidenced by the “after” picture listed on HRM’s Sidewalk Clearing Timelines, under “What clearing should look like.”

A sidewalk that has been cleared but with pockets of residual snow, one to several inches in depth.

In February 2015, Dal standards helped spare the university from the effects of Ice-mageddon. While the rest of Halifax slipped around on comically thick sidewalk ice for about six weeks, Dal students safely walked or rolled from class to class on bare pavement.

The city has the added complication of separate contracts and contract areas for streets and sidewalks. There’s no incentive for, or even possibility of, cooperation between those responsible for streets and those responsible for sidewalks. In fact, quite often, street snow clearing actually impedes or delays sidewalk clearing.

Thankfully, it seems like staff and council might be on track to change this. A January 2016 Winter Service Standards report to council pointed out: “With the expiry in Spring 2017 of the sidewalk clearing contracts and two area street clearing contracts, there be the opportunity to make a single contractor responsible for clearing snow from all elements within a given geographic area.”

Spring 2017 is what Shawn Cleary is waiting for. In April, the newly elected councillor’s requested report on snow clearing standards and costs is due back, and council will be asked to decide on our plan of attack for the next four years.

Snow clearing, in part, is what motivated Cleary to run for council in the first place. His main beef originates with the takeover of residential sidewalk snow clearing from residents back in 2013 (still very much an issue for both Cleary and Waye Mason, who would like to see it returned to residents’ responsibility). But the information Cleary is asking for on snow clearing standards could also impact the main sidewalk network along transit routes and arterial roads.

“The thing I’m interested in,” says Cleary, “is what would it cost us to have a standard of bare concrete? So to actually make it work so what people get is the same thing they would have if they shovelled it themselves.” Setting aside whether or not residents have actually been known to clear to bare pavement consistently, there’s another angle to Cleary’s request. It’s not just about standards. It’s also about execution: “I asked for two different analyses. I want to know what it would cost if contractors do it the way we do it now, or if we brought those services in-house.”

Cleary thinks that the control and flexibility that an in-house snow clearing operation would provide could improve our results.

“Once you are in a contract, and the service standard isn’t what you want, if it’s stated in the contract, there’s very little you can do. But if you are doing it yourself, you can go and say, look, this isn’t working very well, let’s change it and do it this way. And it doesn’t have to cost you anything extra to try it a different way.”

Of course the popular narrative is that snow clearing run in-house by the city would cost a king’s ransom. And certainly, the sections of the city currently handled by in-house staff appear to be the most expensive, per kilometre.

From a January 26, 2016 report to council titled Winter Service Standards for Streets and Sidewalks. Because the types of streets and sidewalks cleared by in-house staff and through performance-based contracts are very different and also have different standards, a straight comparison of kilometre to kilometre rates is not really practical. But here it is anyway.

But Cleary points out that the sections handled by the city, like downtown Halifax and Dartmouth, are typically the most complex, with narrow setbacks and more obstacles to manoeuvre around. Coupled with higher standards, they are objectively more expensive to clear, regardless of who’s doing it. In addition, the sections bid on by contractors are likely in many cases to be underbid. (In 2013, when sidewalk clearing contracts for the peninsula were introduced, the cost of the contracts came in well under what staff had predicted they would cost.)

“The standard wisdom says if you get the private sector to do it, they do it better, they do it cheaper,” says Cleary. “But the research actually says that’s not the case.” Cleary cites a report out of the union-funded Centre of Civic Governance in BC which details 15 cases of municipal services being brought in-house across Canada. In 12 of the 15 cases, costs actually went down. One of those cases is Nova Scotia’s own Port Hawkesbury, where snow clearing brought in-house turned into a cost savings of about one-third of the budget.

“If it would be cheaper,” says Cleary, “then gosh that would be fantastic, because not only would it be cheaper but we’d have more control. If it is more expensive, we need to have an honest and mature discussion about whether we’re willing to pay for it.”

Let’s face it, the chances of staff reporting back that bringing services in-house will be cheaper is next to nil. Since we’re currently already underspending, the cost of doing it right will almost certainly be more. But there are other potential values to having more control over snow clearing, and it will be interesting to see if staff’s April report will attempt to illustrate or even quantify some of them.

For instance, there is value in being able to change strategies and techniques more often than every four years. There is value in being able to adapt and fluctuate timelines, standards, and budgets, and not have to settle on the lowest common denominator to be stipulated in a contract. There’s value in having a team of workers with a larger responsibility — the accessibility of the transportation system to all — instead of having uncleared intersections where it’s unclear who’s actually responsible. There’s value in being able to treat sidewalks like a real network, with bus stops, transit routes, and curb cuts all connecting to let people make their way around the city, instead of the current patchwork treatment.

I do have hopes for the honest and mature discussion that Cleary is calling for this spring, but I fear that somehow we will still not be addressing the larger issue of the chronic under-prioritizing of our sidewalk network each winter.

In a walkable, accessible, transit-friendly city, and a city that is trying to be more walkable, accessible, and transit-friendly, we simply can’t afford not to do better.

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  1. As I live on a very busy main street (SMB), my sidewalk is, depending on the rate of snowfall, inundated up to 8 or 9 times per day. Widening the SMB a few years back means that even more snow is deposited on the sidewalks because there is no longer any verge. Expecting a senior citizen to shovel meter-deep snow and ice up to 9 times per day is ludicrous! If the city would insist that street plowing by whomever be done using snowblower – truck combinations as in Montreal, much of these complaints would be alleviated. My Councillor, as you pointed out, is of the opinion that every one should be tasked with keeping their sidewalks clear. I’m just pointing out that the solution is not as simple as that.

  2. HRM should plan and make pedestrian mobility a priority when the usual weather emergency strikes, such as our recent ice storms and blizzards.

    On February 14th, I directed to get to an emergency room on February 14th because no other medical offices were open. The buses were not operating and I don’t have a car. Although the Halifax Infirmary is only 6 blocks from my house on major roads, I was not feeling well enough to walk the six blocks uphill. So I called a cab and paid $8 to go those 6 blocks. I am lucky in that I can afford the taxi and my trip was short. But there are many others who rely on public transit and maybe could not afford a cab because the distance to the emergency room is much further. Also, even if one owned a car, it was highly possible that it was inaccessible because it was buried in snow. Moreover, even if the roads are cleared, one still needed to navigate across the uncleaned sidewalks, through the snowbanks created by the snowplows clearing the streets, to be able to get onto the street to be picked up by a cab or to be able to walk on the street.

    I was in the emergency room long enough to realize that most of the staff and many of the patients were walking. Both patients and medical staff coming into the building were wearing clothing which was wet up to their thighs or higher. Not everyone came accompanied and honestly, many looked like their trek did not help.

    It is highly likely that a large number of the admissions were folks who experienced health issues from trying to shovel snow or maybe even just navigating in through the heavy snow and deep snow banks.
    Just as a matter of emergency management , people need to be able to walk to medical facilities, to pharmacies, to food stores etc. and need to be able to access the streets or other walkable area. Not making pedestrian access a priority is frankly poor emergency planning since as a practical matter every HRM resident is a pedestrian and is far more likely to be a pedestrian when the weather is challenging. and when people are being encouraged to stay off the road.

    I don’t think the solution is to throw the responsibility back on the individual or commercial entity. HRM needs to identify major pedestrian routes and ensure that there is access to those routes from local neighbourhoods, whether by carving entrances to the street through the snow banks, not plowing snow into crosswalk medians (so that pedestrians must stand in the middle of the road). In addition, I think there needs to be some consideration to salting and sanding the major pedestrian routes. People usually prefer to remain home during inclement weather, so if they are out they need safe ways to travel.

  3. Imagine the screaming if the municipality was to leave side streets and residential roads unplowed for a week? Again, a manifestation of the car centric planning and operation of this city. Put pedestrians if not first at least equal to cars!

  4. Apart from the inviolability of motorist privilege, is there any reason why any northern city couldn’t give humans priority in cleared streets and reduce speed limits in winter to, say, 10 mph?

  5. Great article and much needed particularly for those with mobility issues. As of today there are curb cuts and cross walk buttons along Priority 1 routes still not accessible for those in wheel chairs. But the snow clearance is much better than the storm we had a few years ago.

  6. We have lived in downtown Dartmouth since 1983 and have never expected bare sidewalk. Dartmouth always had cleaner sidewalks than peninsula Halifax because we paid taxes for city crews to clear snow whilst Halifax residents were too lazy to shovel the sidewalk and even after the 24 hour post storm grace period home owners and business owners remained lazy.
    We usually shovel our sidewalk and I like it to be bare for myself and pedestrians.
    Don’t wait for the city to clear your sidewalk, get out and get some or all of it done with your own labour – the exercise is good and you will do a better job. Or just find some young persons who will do the job for a small amount of money.
    And don’t expect a 40cm snowfall to be cleared by HRM in 2 days.
    Roads are a priority for an obvious reason.