If you walk, roll, bike, or bus around Halifax in the winter, even the relatively mild one we are currently having, you have probably muttered under your breath at some point, “when will they figure out how to clear the *&^%$ snow in this city?”
The short answer, for another year, is: not quite yet.
“Sidewalk service levels cannot mirror what is possible on streets,” reads an April 2017 report on sidewalk clearing by Halifax’s Department of Transportation and Public Works (TPW). “This reflects the physical characteristics of sidewalks (limited width and lack of direct drainage), effects of pedestrian traffic versus vehicles, and limitations of sidewalk equipment.”
If I didn’t know better, I might think that TPW staff believe our winter sidewalk conditions are by definition meant to be inferior to our street conditions, as if decisions about where we spend our collective tax dollars have nothing to do with it.
In contrast, in the same report, TPW staff outline the reasons why sidewalk snow clearing in the Capital District (aka downtown Halifax and Dartmouth) is so much better than everywhere else. Spoiler: it has to do with factors under human control.
It is easier to achieve bare concrete within the Capital District, weather conditions aside, because sidewalks that fall within the Capital District are in better condition and they are designed to facilitate proper drainage and avoid water pooling and subsequent freezing. In the Capital District the service standard is greater than that of other areas which decreases the potential for sidewalks to become snow packed from pedestrian traffic. The district receives priority incremental snow removal (removal of snow banks) which allows for better drainage of the sidewalks. In the downtown area there is also reduced impact from residential snow removal and run off from residential properties, causing ice flows.
So, the Capital District has well-cleared sidewalks because: the sidewalks are properly designed, snow banks get removed, and — here’s the kicker — the standards are higher. Yes, indeed. Even in the thankless world of snow clearing in Halifax, higher standards do tend to yield better results.
But even that’s not all the factors. The TPW report also goes on to describe the rather significant difference between supervision levels in the Capital District versus the rest of HRM. Downtown, there are five people coordinating, dispatching, and supervising the in-house snow removal operations for about 200 kms of sidewalks. In the rest of HRM, there are six people supervising and monitoring contracted snow clearing services for about 800 kms of sidewalks. That’s 40 kilometres per supervisor in the tight downtown Halifax and Dartmouth street grid, and 133 kilometres per supervisor in the rest of municipality. Perhaps we can add “level of oversight” to the list of factors that impact the quality of sidewalk clearing?
The difference in quality and standards, of course, plays out in the costs. According to the staff report, HRM in-house clearing of downtown sidewalks clocked in at about $8,681/km for 2015/16. On average, the rest of the sidewalks cost $5,230/km in contracted services. So we pay more for sidewalks in the Capital District (with a 12-hour standard) than we do in the rest of the municipality (with standards ranging from 12 to 36 hours, but mostly 36 hours, the standard for residential streets). That cost difference makes intuitive sense, considering the difference in standards. But, TPW staff go on to estimate that if HRM were to expand in-house services to cover all 1,000 kilometres of sidewalks, the cost would actually balloon further to $12,336/km.
Even with this somewhat questionable estimate, which mysteriously prices in-house work at 236 per cent the cost of contracted work, the total impact to HRM’s budget would be an additional $6 million spent on sidewalk snow clearing. That would still keep the total cost below the $14.3 million the city budgeted in 2015/16 for contracted street clearing.
“We have been historically prioritizing cars higher than every other mode,” says councillor Shawn Cleary. And he’s hoping the new Integrated Mobility Plan will help turn that around.
Snow clearing was a campaign issue for Cleary. In the past, he focussed on the ability for homeowners to opt out of city sidewalk clearing, and also for moving services in-house in an effort to better achieve the ’bare pavement’ standards. (It was his motion that prompted the April 2017 information report which attempts to annihilate that idea.)
On February 1, he gave notice that he plans to ask for “recommendations on changes to snow clearing standards and timelines of active transportation infrastructure, given that the Integrated Mobility Plan that was adopted in November 2017 explicitly prioritizes walking, cycling, and transit over private vehicles.”
This will be the first time council has a discussion around snow clearing with the Integrated Mobility Plan (IMP) in its back pocket. And the first time council will be talking about clearing for “active transportation infrastructure” as a whole (including for the newer, growing collection of bike lanes along with boring old sidewalks.)
“What the IMP is explicitly saying is we need to re-prioritize and put pedestrians and cyclists and public transit users above (especially single occupancy) private vehicles,” says Cleary. “So we need to provide services that speak to that re-prioritization.”
One key area that needs re-prioritization is the current time standards, says Cleary. “In residential neighbourhoods, although your street might, within say eight or 12 hours, have a cut down the middle, your sidewalks will not be touched for a day and a half,” points out Cleary. “Even for arterials and bus routes, sidewalks aren’t done even remotely in the same timeframe as the streets themselves.”
In case you are thinking the winter ‘active transport’ set are a fringe community and so perhaps not worthy of too much fuss over winter mobility, just consider the results of the 2016 census, which show large percentages of people living in the regional centre either walking, biking or taking transit to work.
Pull back to include the entire PEI-sized region of Halifax, and the proportion using active transport is still nothing to sneeze at: 21 per cent, or just over a fifth of all commuters.
The numbers are there, but there’s also the principle of accessibility, says Cleary. “More and more of our population has mobility challenges either because of disability or old age, and you know that’s not going to change… If we’re serious about the IMP then we have to be serious about how we actually help people get around in the winter,” says Cleary.
Eliza Jackson, sustainable transportation coordinator at the Ecology Action Centre and chair of the Halifax Cycling Coalition, is also looking to the IMP to help the city improve its sidewalk clearing program. One of Jackson’s pet peeves, besides the fact that bike lanes are simply not included in our snow clearing plans, is that even the higher standard zones are sometimes missing the mark.
“Right now the sidewalk clearing network is the same as the street clearing network,” explains Jackson, with highest priority sidewalks running along the arterial road network, which does not necessarily match up to high-use routes for pedestrians. “We should be looking at what is our pedestrian network, and basing our priority for sidewalk clearing on that,” says Jackson.
Another key issue is that “we have a level of service basically based on time, but we don’t have the level of service based on what the user experience actually is,” says Jackson. “The city has said snow clearing is their responsibility, and they should be willing to invest what it takes to get the best level of service possible and make for the best user experience at the sidewalk level,” says Jackson.
But how do we get it done? No councillors took up the option presented in last April’s information report to pony up another $6 million in order to do sidewalk clearing in-house and to higher standards. (Heck, they didn’t even go for the option to double the number of supervisors watching over our contracted sidewalk clearing, and that was only priced at $195,000.)
Cleary thinks it’s possible to bring up the standards without doubling the city’s costs, and points out that currently, the city is not spending very much on sidewalks and bike lanes.
“It is at the moment a fairly small portion of your overall tax bill,” says Cleary, quoting the roughly $35 a year the average household pays toward sidewalk snow clearing. “And you know there are places where we could find efficiencies. And if we design the infrastructure better, then it’ll cost less to do it.”
And, says Cleary, we need better equipment. He’s no fan of the Bobcat (I have yet to meet a pedestrian who is), citing the fact that they cannot hold multiple attachments (salting and plowing at the same time, for instance) and they have a hard time getting down to pavement. “If you have the right equipment then you can do it,” says Cleary. “If you have purpose-built equipment you can save yourself a driver,” by salting and plowing at the same time.
This year’s contracts changed slightly to combine sidewalk and street zones in some areas, as a pilot. But Cleary doesn’t have much faith that such a change will be the solution ultimately needed. “You can change the timelines on the contractor or put them out there so one contractor is responsible, that’s great. But if they’re still using the wrong equipment for the type of winter we have and the type of traffic a sidewalk has, then it’s still not getting what we want.”
Though Cleary has pushed for bringing clearing work in-house in the past, for this motion he says he has no “philosophical preference” for in-house over contracted work. “I’m willing to look at either case. Regardless of what it is and who does it, we should be doing it better and faster.”
Cleary’s motion will go before council’s transportation committee at its next meeting, scheduled for February 22nd at 1pm.
Want to read even more about snow clearing in Halifax? Check out this piece from last year, when we looked at snow clearing operations at Dalhousie, where sidewalks and paths get priority treatment.