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Winter sidewalk clearing system 'fails' in Kitchener, says TriTAG report

The active transportation group TriTAG has released a winter sidewalk survey which they say shows sidewalk clearing by residents isn't enough to keep sidewalks clear for people who need to walk on them.

'Probability of being obstructed along a very short walk of 50 metres exceeds 50 per cent'

Sidewalks being power-plowed in Kitchener in January 2017. The active transportation group TriTAG has released a survey of winter sidewalks and recommends the city should consider finding a way to plow all sidewalks in winter to make it easier for people to walk on them. (Gary Graves/CBC)

Asking residents to shovel the sidewalks in front of their homes is not enough to ensure safety for those who walk along them, an active transportation advocacy group says.

Tri-Cities Transport Action Group, or TriTAG, released a winter sidewalk study Thursday morning and said leaving sidewalk clearing up to the homeowners "fails us, especially our most vulnerable."

The group suggests Kitchener should conduct a pilot project to evaluate sidewalk enforcement and plowing options.

As part of the study, TriTag had 29 volunteers go out and check the condition of the sidewalks in a particular area. Of the 29 volunteers from both Kitchener and Waterloo.

In total, 12 Kitchener streets and one in Waterloo were studied on five different days.

The survey was conducted in the first part of 2017, so the group noted there was an anomaly of a very warm February that cut the survey short — they had hoped to do 10 audits. On a sixth day of checks, five volunteers skipped doing a check because the snow had melted.

TriTAG says their report confirms what they've heard from members of the community: Residents can't always be relied on to clear their sidewalks. (TriTAG)

Volunteers counted icy, snow-covered sidewalks

Only streets that were predominantly residential were picked, five were on a transit route and they were classified as being "central neighbourhood," "suburban neighbourhood" and "arterial."

"Our volunteers walked their assigned routes and counted the number of uncleared or icy sidewalks in front of properties," the group's report said.

A sidewalk was considered to be cleared if it was not slippery and it would be easy for someone in a wheelchair or an "unsteady gait" to walk over.

The fact is, in Kitchener, sidewalk plowing has not been tried and found wanting — it has merely been left untried.- TriTag report

Arterial streets had fewer issues than central neighbourhood and suburban streets, the report noted.

"The greater compliance on arterial streets may be a reflection of their foot traffic and visibility," it read. "Social pressure and greater likelihood of complaints may prompt residents to shovel their walks more quickly."

Asking homeowners to clear sidewalks "fails us, especially our most vulnerable," the report from TriTAG says. (Matthew Kang/CBC)

More clear near transit routes

Streets with a transit route also tended to be more clear than those without.

Still, the obstruction rate for all Kitchener streets was between 12 and 22 "failures" per kilometre and "in all cases, the probability of being obstructed along a very short walk of 50 metres exceeds 50 per cent."

The probability of encountering snow or ice on the average walking distance to transit — determined to be about 160 metres — was greater than 80 per cent in all cases, the report found.

This is the list of streets monitored as part of TriTAG's sidewalk audit. The one street in Waterloo was left out of the analysis in the report, although TriTAG noted it saw similar problems to the streets in Kitchener. (TriTAG)

No budget to clear snow

In Kitchener, the city says staff does outreach each year to remind residents its their responsibility to clear snow and ice from sidewalk.

The city doesn't have the funding to plow everyone's sidewalks, the city's website about snow removal said. In a November 2016 report evaluating the municipality's snow clearing options, the city found other municipalities that implemented city-wide sidewalk snow-clearing had inconsistent results. In some cases, sidewalks were not cleared to be bare, but instead became snow-packed.

The staff report only considered complaints to municipalities, and in looking at the complaints it currently receives about residents not clearing sidewalks, staff estimated it would be about the same as if the city was in charge of snow clearing.

"Complaints are certainly something that council needs to consider and they're sort of a gauge of how happy people may be with a particular service, but what they don't tell us is how well our sidewalks actually enable people to get around," said Mike Boos, an executive committee member with TriTAG.

He noted councillors were concerned about the cost of sidewalk clearing, but "what we didn't have was a debate over whether the cost was actually worth it."

Other options to clear snow

TriTAG has suggested the city should consider looking at either clearing all snow and say the cost would be about $26.29 per household each year. The group's report recommends doing a pilot project in one neighbourhood to get a sense of if it would help.

"We recognize that even at this relatively low cost, there are some who would question whether city plowing of sidewalks would be as effective or responsive as the status quo," the report said.

Currently, residents and some businesses have to shovel their own sidewalks. If they don't and there's a complaint to the city, the homeowner is first given a warning, but they could be fined. (Matthew Kang/CBC)

"The fact is, in Kitchener, sidewalk plowing has not been tried and found wanting — it has merely been left untried."

Boos noted there's more than one way to clear a sidewalk, including the use of a sweeper instead of a plow or utilizing sand differently.

"There are a number of different technologies and we haven't actually taken the time to thoroughly investigate them. We've just said here's what it costs to plow and left it at that," he said.

Proactive enforcement

The report also recommends looking at more proactive enforcement of snow-clearing bylaws. Currently residents can complain to the city if snow isn't removed, staff will inspect the property and issue a notice to the resident.

"If the sidewalk is not cleared upon re-inspection, city staff will remove the snow and invoice the resident," the city says.

For people unable to clear their own sidewalks, the city said there are community groups that can provide the service or residents can take part in the city's Snow Angel program, where neighbours are asked to help others in their areas.

But Boos said TriTAG heard from residents that even when a complaint is made, the response can be slow.

"A lot of people either don't know about bylaw enforcement or have given up on it and that's why we're seeing sidewalks persist for long periods of time without actually being cleared properly," he said.

Boos said the group hopes the city will consider their report and he noted TriTAG would be willing to work with the city to do more sidewalk audits.

"I really hope it spurs a debate over how we prioritize our transportation systems and how we actually make sure the people who are walking to work, to shop, to school or taking transit are actually able to get where they need to go, because we can't be trapping people indoors for months on end when our sidewalks are slippery or having them walk out in traffic," he said.

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