I’m planning to have a series under this title. This one will just be a short post to note this excellent article hot off the online press with an overview of issues and approaches in several US cities, “Why Cities, Not Individuals, Should Clear Snow From Sidewalks,” by Kathi Valeii from CityLab (Jan. 11, 2019). With thanks to David Brake of the Essential Transit Association.
The 2014 consultation on snow clearing in St. John’s used several other cities for comparison: Mount Pearl, Fredericton, Halifax, Québec City and Saguenay. It’s hard to find a good comparison for St. John’s because it really is unique. But the authors believed that these cities together represented most of the challenges St. John’s faces: hills, buildings directly on the street, old infrastructure, heavy snowfall. A key finding was that St. John’s actually had a higher standard of street clearing than other cities but a lower standard of sidewalk clearing. In other words, drivers were more of a priority here than in other cities and pedestrians less of a priority. I’m not sure if that’s still true or not because there have been major improvements in St. John’s sidewalk clearing since the consultation and the election of a new mayor and council who are much more supportive of active transit and accessibility. What I am sure of is that we still have a long way to go here in St. John’s before we can say that pedestrians are a priority.
In an earlier post, I compared St. John’s to Moncton — very different cities but two things they have in common are a somewhat similar size and a similar amount of snowfall. On average, St. John’s receives 335 cm of snow each year and Moncton 311. Moncton cut its sidewalk clearing budget in 2015. But what’s interesting is to compare the attitudes in Moncton and here. The cuts in Moncton led to only one side of some residential streets being cleared instead of both sides and this was considered to put children at risk when walking to school because they would have to cross the street. Here, most residential streets still have no sidewalks at all and even major streets may have only one side cleared, or none. Last year, Moncton bought two new sidewalk plows to help bring service back to former levels. City Councillor Bryan Butler said in support of improved sidewalk clearing, “‘When you turn on your tap, you expect water. When you put your garbage out, you expect it to be picked up. When you go to walk on your sidewalk, you expect it to be plowed and your streets plowed, you know.”
Would anybody in St. John’s say “When you walk on your sidewalk, you expect it to be plowed?”
I got a lot of response to a tweeted link to a video about a program in Bologna, Italy that rewards people for using active transit.
My fellow campaigner for accessibility and active transit, Sonja Boon, sent a thought-provoking response: She says she is “not a fan of ‘good behaviour’ rewards because what constitutes good behaviour? And what if you can’t access any ‘good behaviour’? Build a good system, shift focus away from cars, and people will come. The Dutch, for example, got their enviable network of cycle paths because of deliberate political decisions. The infrastructure was central. St. John’s has a series of fantastic walking trails because of similar deliberate decisions. It could make similar choices today.”
I agree, absolutely. Infrastructure and political decision making are central. Funnily enough, the article in which I read about the rewards program also made this exact point. The author, Sandy James, says that Britain’s National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) has drafted guidelines that prioritize pedestrians, cyclists and transit over cars. Britain’s Department for Transport says in response to NICE that its own guidelines are also “crystal clear that street design should explicitly consider pedestrians and cyclists first”. James contrasts these policies with Vancouver, where there is no pedestrian plan. That made me wonder what we have here in St. John’s so I looked it up.
St. John’s Transportation plan actually has quite a lot about pedestrians, for example: “…creating walkable streets … and ensuring that neighbourhoods are connected to these areas by the network of local streets, sidewalks, pathways and trails.” It also talks about increasing mobility options, community building and place making. And they’re working on a new cycling plan. It even has a very sweet ad.
I didn’t find a lot of details on the Transportation Plan though so I’ll look into it and write another post later. Publicly espousing these values is already a good start. Anything that gets positive attention for accessibility and active transit can contribute to building a culture that sees pedestrians as having the same rights of access as vehicles (or perhaps even greater rights, as proposed in Britain — after all, they are helping to lower health care costs and reduce pollution, traffic congestion and parking problems). That might include rewards and cute ads. But, far more importantly, it includes the decisions and the infrastructure that make it all possible.
The morning after the snowfall on the week-end the sidewalks in my neighbourhood were cleared! Not only that but I heard from a couple of people in other neighbourhoods that theirs were too. Councillor Ian Froude explained last fall that one of the priorities for the additional $150,000 for snow clearing in the new budget was making sidewalk clearing more efficient and it looks as though it’s happening. We still have a lot of work ahead to make our city truly accessible to everyone year round but this really is good news. Happy new year!
A fascinating article by Brent Toderian in the design magazine Fast Company discusses five steps to making better cities. Step 4 is “doing the right things badly.” I’d say that’s where we are now with sidewalk snow clearing in St. John’s. We are doing it, at least more than we used to, but it’s really hard to stay positive when it’s done so slowly and so badly. It’s even more frustrating when you see money spent on other things that make far less (if any) difference in the quality of life in the city.
The sign in the photo above was posted on our street the night before last. No problem at all to drive or park on the street but a crew was sent out to remove the last few scraps of snow. Meanwhile, so many people are prisoners in their own homes because they don’t have access to sidewalks and are (rightly) afraid to walk in traffic. Even worse to know that those people are often seniors, parents on their own with young children or people living with disabilities and that they can’t get out even to get groceries or basic health care, let alone to see their friends and enjoy this beautiful city.
Yes, the city really is doing a better job than it did at clearing sidewalks but it’s still doing far too few and very poorly. That same day I walked along Empire Avenue — a very busy street with a lot of pedestrians — and there were still no sidewalks, ten days after the last snowstorm.
I also walked around a large block (Bonaventure, Merrymeeting, Newtown and Mayor). The sidewalks there had all been cleared but they still weren’t usable by anybody with a stroller or a mobility aid.
The sections that are still blocked in were left that way because the sidewalk plow couldn’t get past the telephone poles. But, for the huge benefit this would be for so many people, couldn’t a crew do those sections with shovels? They did a staircase at the top of my street that way, but that staircase leading to a tiny one way residential street is much less important than pedestrian access on major streets like the ones in these photos. To end this post with a view of what can be (and is!) done by a couple of people with shovels, here’s the staircase:
Perambulator is a performance art project by British walking artist, Clare Qualmann. The project explores peoples’ experiences getting around with strollers, or prams as they’re called in England. According to her artist’s statement, “the project invited other pram users (predominantly mothers) to walk together exploring and highlighting the everyday awkwardness of pram use in the city.” As they walked, they encountered obstacles such as curbs that were too high, cars parked on the sidewalk, and barriers intended to keep mopeds and dirt bikes off walking trails but also making it very difficult for people with strollers. Here in St. John’s in winter, multiply this “everyday awkwardness” exponentially. The photo above is my daughter-in-law with my grandson. She agreed to pose with him but in reality they rarely dare to go out walking in winter because it’s so dangerous.
Not long after I moved to St. John’s, 28 years ago, I went to see satirical singer-songwriter, Nancy White, in concert at the Arts and Culture Centre. I still remember vividly my reaction to her song “Stroller Ladies” about pushing a stroller around Toronto, where residents are legally required to shovel their own sidewalks but some don’t. She fantasizes about what she would do if she were the judge doling out penalties for not shovelling: she would condemn offenders to be “sent to live in Moncton where you’ll soon regret your crime, you’ll be caring for twin babies… there’ll be no sidewalks shovelled…” Well, I actually did have twin babies in Moncton and I wanted to stand up and yell, “In Moncton, the City clears the sidewalks!!”
Writing the above made me start wondering whether I was remembering Moncton through rose coloured glasses so I looked online and found a map showing the sidewalks they clear, colour coded for levels of priority. Have a look. In downtown Moncton, they clear every single sidewalk except for a few dead ends on the outer edges.
Compare that with the map showing downtown St. John’s sidewalks to be cleared. (I won’t even go into whether they actually are cleared. I’ll save that for another post.)
It’s so frustrating when you reach the end of a block and discover you can’t get out to cross the street because the intersection hasn’t been maintained properly or the street plows or property owners have dumped snow there. It’s one reason you see pedestrians on the street even when the sidewalk has been cleared. They’re tired of retracing their steps when they can’t get out further down so they just don’t bother with the sidewalk if they can’t see it’s clear right to the end. I’ve often done that myself. This photo shows how to do it right: note two way access to the intersection and shovelled area near the walk sign so people can reach the crossing button. Also, the clearing is wide enough to accommodate strollers and mobility aids, I believe. It’s on Westerland Road across from the Aquarena so I’m not sure if it was done by a MUN plow or by the City. Either way, it’s a model for how to do it right!