Peterborough is slipping

Why wasn't the City better prepared to plow side streets and public sidewalks?

A pedestrian walks in the bike lane on Hunter St. bridge (photo: Michael Fazackerly)
A pedestrian walks in the bike lane on Hunter St. bridge (photo: Michael Fazackerly)

Winter is always a funny season in Canada, a country that’s synonymous around the world with wintery conditions. We curl, play hockey, ski, snow shoe and generally complain about the cold whenever we’re given the chance. It’s in our blood and I’m pretty sure that if you read our constitution, somewhere in the fine print you’d find that each citizen has the given right to complain about it.

Everyone has a different take on winter. Some love it and some hate it. Some go out and play in the snow, while others hide under a blanket on the couch and wait for April to arrive. One thing that’s a constant is people saying that winters just aren’t as bad as they used to be. Everyone knows someone that tells a story of their childhood in the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s or ’80s when the snow was so high they couldn’t get out the door. Then they have a “get off my lawn” kind of moment and say that we just don’t get hit as hard as we used to. But is that true?

Look out east this past week at places like Nova Scotia and Newfoundland. Pictures flooded Twitter and Facebook of people opening their doors only to find snow three quarters of the way up the door. Look at the weather we’ve had. Plenty of snow and plenty of freezing rain, things that we’ve had before but likely — due to a few recent mild winters — we’ve easily forgot was the norm.

The Ontario Centre for Climate Impacts and Adaption Resources obtained information from Environment Canada plotting weather trends from 1939 to 2011 in Ottawa. What the data showed is that over a 72-year stretch, the annual average temperature rose 1.1 degrees. It also showed that while annual precipitation increased by 142mm, annual winter precipitation actually flatlined, with a slight decrease of 9mm.

People, snow happens. If you live anywhere north of the 46th parallel you will see it and unless you live in the arctic, winter weather will be mixed. That’s something that we all should know by now.

Not only should we all be aware of those type of conditions being the norm, our city should be prepared to handle whatever mother nature throws at us between December and March.

The thing about Earth’s orbit is that it’s pretty consistent. I believe there’s been some research on the topic. As we spin around the sun, the weather changes. Every December, the days get short and the wind gets cold and precipitation changes from drops to flakes and ice. Yet every year, our city manages to forget how to handle the impending “doom”.

Before I start off on a “Pat’s Pissed” rant here, I want it to be clear that my issue is not with the men and women of the public works department who spend hours behind the wheels of difficult-to-drive machinery to try and clear the roads and sidewalks. My issue is with the system that they’re forced to use that was clearly designed by someone without the working knowledge of snow removal.

Some side streets in Peterborough weren't plowed for days (photo: Jason Wells)
Some side streets in Peterborough weren’t plowed for days (photo: Jason Wells)
The city streets are classified as being either main arteries or side streets. The top priority for snow removal on both streets and sidewalks is main arteries. Lansdowne, Clonsilla, George, Parkhill. These main roads get cleared first and then the side streets are taken care of.

This is a great idea, but in practice it’s just not working to an acceptable level.

Jason Wells (@JasonWells72 on Twitter) has been very vocal on the subject this year. Jason and his family live on a street in the city’s west end. When we had the snow/ice storm on Thursday December 19, it took three full days for a plow to make it down their road. So, from Thursday night until Sunday at 4:30pm, his family was stuck at their house because they couldn’t get out of their driveway.

I also live in the city’s west end and, between 11:30pm on Thursday the 19th and 3:00am on Friday the 20th, a plow went by my quiet side street three times.

How is it that two streets in the same ward with the same populations and same classifications could be treated so differently?

To add fuel to the fire, Jason worked in snow removal for the city of Ottawa so he’s likely better informed on the subject than most of us. Resorting to social media Jason tweeted the city and the Mayor repeatedly over those three days and received exactly zero responses.

Now, if main roads like Clonsilla are a priority, why is it then that the sidewalks on Clonsilla remained snow and ice covered from the December 19th storm until last week when crews finally cleared them? One section in particular (between Whitefield and The Parkway) was absolutely impassible. What’s significant about this section of road? Condos and apartment buildings that house many seniors are located there and anyone with mobility issues or the lack of a vehicle could not get out safely.

A Reid St. sidewalk next to Cathedral Court, which has many elderly and disabled tenants (photo: Sara Harrington)
A Reid St. sidewalk next to Cathedral Court, which has many elderly and disabled tenants (photo: Sara Harrington)
Now here’s a dandy point: yesterday a person claiming to be a city employee started posting to a Facebook group called “Pedestrians of Peterborough Reclaiming the Sidewalks”. Other than being ignorant and rude, he posted a section of Peterborough’s by-law on snow removal. This by-law was enacted in 1991, and was the first such amendment to the by-law since 1900. Basically what this by-law says is that the city is only responsible for sidewalks that aren’t directly adjacent to a dwelling or business.

Now I’m no city planner, but wouldn’t that mean sidwalks on about 80% of the streets? Not only that, but why the hell hasn’t there been any enforcement of such a by-law? Can you think of anyone you know who’s been fined for not clearing the sidewalks near their home? I know I can’t.

So the roads are crap, the sidewalks are crap and angry city workers who are lacking in effective communication skills are blabbing about 23-year-old by-laws that no one enforces and the public doesn’t even know about on Facebook.

What’s the solution?

Well, I can tell you this: the guys in the trucks and sidewalk plows are not the problem. They work long hours doing the job they’re sent out to do. The problem is leadership and planning. In my job, it’s my responsibility to carefully and effectively plan. If I do a good job, no one complains. If I did a bad job at carefully and effectively planning consistently year after year, it would likely no longer be my job to worry about.

CHEX TV report on sidewalk clearing