Dear Winnipeg

A Fun Blog About Infrastructure and Municipal Finance

Snow Money, Snow Problems

Dear Winnipeg,

The quality of snow clearing on sidewalks and bike paths, or lack of it, has been in the news lately. As it should. After all, we know this isn’t simply a matter of preferences… as we’ve seen here so many times, our City simply can’t afford to have this many people driving all the time. To improve our City finances and avoid eventual bankruptcy, we don’t actually have a choice but to shift more people to walking, biking and transit, even in winter. But people will only switch to those modes if we prioritize them, and that means changing how we do snow clearing.

Despite all that, given that we had already spent about 150% of this year’s snow clearing budget 9 months ago, and that we’re on track to hit about 215% by year’s end, there’s still some talk about whether increasing sidewalk clearing efforts to the needed level would be money well spent.

Well, let’s look at that. After all, that’s what we do around here.

In the past, the City has only cleared sidewalks to a level of compacted snow, except for some spots Downtown.

But as the effects of climate change are increasingly felt, we’re seeing a lot more freeze-thaw cycles throughout a typical winter, which leaves those sidewalks sometimes slushy, sometimes icy and rutted. And it’s a problem that’s not going away.

Which is why many people have started advocating for sidewalks to be cleared down to the bare pavement.

“When that ice builds up it just continues to build ruts. Imagine trying to push a wheelchair or a walker… on (a walkway) that isn’t (cleared) down to the pavement. It’s very challenging.”

— Samantha Rodeck, Executive Director of Transportation Options Network for Seniors

And when sidewalks work well for seniors, children, and people with disabilities, we know they work well for everyone.

Unfortunately, we’re told that less than 1% of the city’s sidewalks and bike paths are in good enough condition for plows to consistently clear them to the pavement. That in itself is a discussion for another day, but it doesn’t need to be a deal-killer.

Clearly, it’s just that different equipment would be required.

But, with constant shifts in temperature, varying levels of use, and a million other factors, even sidewalks cleared to bare pavement require constant grooming in order to keep them clear of ice and safe for everyone to use.

Which is where people usually start to worry about the costs, because “constant grooming” sounds expensive.

But first, let’s look at some of the potential costs of NOT doing it.

Last year, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that municipalities can be sued over injuries caused by improperly cleared snow, after a Nelson BC woman injured her leg climbing over a snowbank trying to get access to the sidewalk.

How many of us know at least one person who has slipped and hurt themselves on a City sidewalk? That on its own should be enough to make City lawyers nervous.

But what if the City tried to weasel out of that by shifting sidewalk snow clearing responsibility to homeowners?

Turns out Canadian courts have ruled on that too. Actually, more than once even. The law of the land says that even if a City makes homeowners responsible for clearing snow from the sidewalk beside their property, if someone gets hurt using it, it’s the city that gets sued, not the homeowner. Homeowners are not legally liable for improper snow clearing on the public sidewalk, even when homeowners are expected to do the clearing.

Jim “The Hammer” Shapiro would have a field day.

Obviously, it is entirely in the City’s best interest to ensure sidewalks are promptly, and properly, cleared of snow and ice. And if you want something done right, you usually have to do it yourself.

So let’s talk money then.

As residents, it’s so easy to be disconnected from what municipal services actually cost. Figures are regularly quoted in millions, or even billions, of dollars. What does it even mean to say it would cost x amount to clear the sidewalks to the level of service we would need? They’re just numbers.

To truly understand them, I find it helpful sometimes to look at numbers in relation to others. And what better comparison than to put snow clearing costs up against, well, other snow clearing costs.

In 2020, the most recent year we have detailed publicly available data for, all of our snow clearing operations cost us $42.357 million (page 115). What’s even more interesting though, is seeing the breakdown of that number:

  • $17.29 million for regional streets
  • $18.01 million for local streets
  • $4.059 million for sidewalks
  • $0.917 million for parks and City facilities
  • $2.081 million for snow disposal sites

On page 113, we see that our $4.059 million cleared 42,349 km of sidewalks. Given that we have about 3,400 km of sidewalks in total, that means our money let us clear every sidewalk about 12 times, which jives with the reported number of days of snowfall of 3 cm or more (which was 13, also found on page 113). That’s an average cost of $338,250 every time we clear all the sidewalks in the city.

On the other hand, according to the City, a single snow clearing operation for our residential streets can cost between $4.5 million and $8 million.

The point is: clearing sidewalks is cheap. Just with the amount we’ll end up over budget this year, we could clear all the sidewalks in the city nearly 160 times. That’s enough to do it every single day from November 1st to April 9th.

Talk about constant grooming.

We often underline the equity benefits of ensuring passable sidewalks for everyone, while lamenting that we just don’t have the money to do it. But given that doing this is key to getting the mode shift we so desperately need for the City to ever be financially sustainable, it seems insane that we wouldn’t be willing to go just one residential street clearing fewer in order to double or triple the amount of sidewalk clearing we do. The financial return on investment is huge.

“I’m not sure why we prioritize streets so heavily when a 3,000-pound car can plow through snow a lot easier than someone on a wheelchair or a scooter, or someone who uses a cane to get around.”

— Allen Mankewich, accessibility advocate

Plus, I’m not even convinced we’d even have to live with one residential street clearing fewer… snow clearing seems to be the one budget line item we never stick to. We just clear now, find the money later.

Whether social or financial, there’s absolutely no good reason not to do this.

We should keep that in mind when we start up the process for our next 4-year budget in January.

Frostily,

Elmwood Guy