‘Winter city’ should be pedestrian-friendly
WHEN the weather outside is frightful, Winnipeg’s sidewalks are often the scariest part.
The city received its first real blast of winter in mid-November, a two-day system that dropped 26 centimetres of snow and rendered most of Winnipeg’s sidewalks and active transportation paths anywhere from tricky to functionally unusable.
Crews were not expected to begin clearing sidewalks in residential neighbourhoods until nearly a week after the first snowflakes fell, which left pedestrians contending with sloppy, Slurpee-like conditions during mild daytime highs, and then treacherous sheets of rutted ice after temperatures descended at night.
For a wide swath of the population — including pedestrians, wheelchair users, disabled people, elderly people, parents with strollers — this is a significant, frustrating and baffling problem that Winnipeggers seem to encounter every winter, despite the fact ours is a winter city that can see snow accumulation as early as October and as late as May.
Poorly cleared or uncleared sidewalks and active transportation routes are a legitimate concern. Ice-covered surfaces can lead to injury- causing slips and falls, which eat up healthcare resources — a particularly pressing concern during a pandemic.
Impassable routes can also confine wheelchair users and those with mobility issues inside their homes, which is isolating, or it can send frustrated sidewalk users onto the roadways, which is dangerous.
Meanwhile, it’s well known that being able to get outside for fresh air, exercise, and a shot of that all-important vitamin D is important for people’s mental and physical health. And if we want the city’s population to become less reliant on cars — as Winnipeg’s climate action plan identifies it does, calling for a 50 per cent reduction in single-occupancy vehicle use by 2030 — then people need to be able to get around safely during the six months of the year snow is on the ground.
Still, despite the dozens of reasons cited every year about the need to prioritize improving winter conditions on the more than 3,000 kilometres of sidewalks and 400 kilometres of active transportation paths in this city — not to mention the thousands of complaints the city receives every year from fed-up residents — roads tailored to motor vehicles continue to be the focus of snow-clearing efforts.
Last January, St. Boniface Coun. Matt Allard, frustrated by the number of spills he has personally taken, called for a study on the health costs linked to slips and falls on sidewalks and how changes to snow clearing and ice treatments could make the surfaces safer.
The resulting report, which was released in July, called for the city to track how long it takes to sand sidewalks, as well as better tracking of complaints. In other words: more studies.
Other winter cities have figured this out. Oslo, Norway, and Helsinki, Finland, have heated sidewalks in high-traffic areas, for example, that keep them clear of snow and ice.
But Winnipeg isn’t just a winter city. It’s also a notoriously pedestrian-unfriendly one, and it shows in its policies and planning. Many streets don’t even have sidewalks to clear.
Perhaps it’s time for this so-called winter city to start living up to the description. Until then, however, it seems it will remain up to Winnipeggers — for the sake of their own safety, and the safety of others — to pick up their shovels and take the timely clearing of sidewalk snow into their own hands.