Treacherous walkways

Wacky winter weather is making sidewalks a risky, slippery mess

WENDY Scharf watched from the steps of her home in the Central St. Boniface neighbourhood Wednesday afternoon as passing pedestrians shuffled, slid and sidestepped over slick sections of ice and pools of water covering the northbound sidewalk.

It’s a common sight, she said, and part of living in a residential area typically considered lower priority by city street-clearing crews.

“It’s like this all the time. I mean, all the time,” Scharf said, pointing toward the brown, slush-covered sidewalk.

“It is very dangerous this time of year to be out here. I think it adds a level of difficulty, especially for the elderly and people who have strollers.”

Winnipeg is experiencing an uncommon pattern of weather conditions that have contributed to the issue this winter, with mild temperatures causing a freeze-thaw cycle that generates ice on roads and sidewalks and in gutters and drains.

Reports of slippery conditions have spiked as a result, with the city receiving 562 requests for service related to icy sidewalks and active transportation pathways since Oct. 1. During the same period the previous year, it received just 121 such complaints, city data shows.

Last year, when there was more snow, the city received 1,622 requests for service related to blocked sidewalks and active transportation pathways. The same period this year generated just 402 complaints, the data show.

Overall, the requests for sidewalk maintenance are down by 44 per cent so far this season, the city said.

Coun. Janice Lukes, who leads the public works committee, and Coun. Matt Allard, who has been a vocal proponent of improved snow clearing, traded barbs on the subject during a committee meeting last week.

Allard (St. Boniface) demanded better service on sidewalks, saying they should be plowed to the pavement, while Lukes (Waverley West) argued the city is doing everything it can to stay ahead of challenging conditions on major thoroughfares.

Up to four centimetres of snowfall and sub-zero temperatures were forecast for Winnipeg beginning Thursday afternoon.

The city organizes its snow-clearing schedule in order of priority, with major thoroughfares and adjacent sidewalks classified as Priority 1, non-regional bus routes and collector streets designated as Priority 2 and followed by Priority 3 residential streets.

P1 areas are typically plowed to bare pavement within 36-hours of snowfall and then salted.

Sidewalks along P1 and P2 streets are plowed after a five-centimetre snowfall and maintained to “a compacted snow surface,” except for downtown sidewalks, which are supposed to be cleared to bare pavement.

Sidewalks in residential areas are considered the lowest priority and are plowed to a compacted snow surface only after all the other sidewalks have been plowed.

Recently, a number of groups advocating for persons with disabilities launched the S(NO)w Plow campaign to lobby for better clearing of sidewalks. The groups say for persons with disabilties, sidewalks can be impassable when not properly cleared of snow.

Michael Cantor, manager of streets and maintenance, said the current sidewalk-clearing equipment operated by the city is incapable of stripping pathways to bare pavement, owing to their uneven surfaces.

Clearing sidewalks in such a way could damage equipment or infrastructure — whichever breaks first, he said.

City workers would need to use salt and chemicals to reach bare pavement, but current bylaws restrict the use of such materials to P1 streets in an effort to reduce their associated negative environmental impacts, he said.

Cantor said he’s looking forward to colder temperatures that will temporarily halt the thaw and allow workers to spread sand to improve traction. In the current conditions, sand mixes with melting ice and has a negligible effect.

Allard noted the city has unsuccessfully attempted to pass various motions approving a plow-to-pavement pilot project for P3 zones at least three times in recent years.

He believes investments in improved sidewalk-clearing equipment could improve maintenance quality without draining the city’s coffers, saying the snow-clearing budget reserved for roadways is often overspent, while the sidewalk clearing budget is underspent.

Lukes pushed back on the idea, saying even if equipment was able to clear pathways to the pavement, the resulting ice and snow would need to be hauled to one of the city’s snow storage locations at an exorbitant cost.

She pointed out that Winnipeg’s approach to sidewalk clearing is unique, given that some other municipalities — including Calgary, Edmonton, Regina, Saskatoon, Toronto and Vancouver — require homeowners to clear walks in front of their homes.

The topic has been raised in recent years, but as snow-clearing bylaws are currently written, the City of Winnipeg can fine residents who take it upon themselves to clear snow and ice from city property.

Allard said he is opposed to the idea of residents being asked to clear walkways, given such maintenance is an expected return on taxpayer funds. However, he believes the current bylaw should be amended to protect residents from fines, should they choose to do so.

Martin Pollock, a Winnipeg lawyer specializing in personal-injury cases, said it is difficult, but not impossible to prevail in a slip-and-fall lawsuit against the city on its property.

Municipalities are exempt from certain sections of the Occupiers Liability Act, meaning they cannot be held liable under the legislation for injuries occurring on their property.

“Now, that doesn’t mean you can’t sue them for negligence,” Pollock said. “The question becomes, how often did they inspect that piece of the sidewalk? Did they know about it? Did somebody call them five times?

“It all depends on the circumstances.”

The Winnipeg Regional Health Authority said it does not reliably track slip-and-fall injuries, but noted “hundreds of Manitobans are injured from slipping on snow and ice, most commonly in and around parking lots and on sidewalks and especially when temperatures fluctuate around freezing temperature.”