British Columbia

Axe-wielding dad shows frustration with snow and ice in Metro Vancouver

Even the cities have admitted: waiting for the snow and ice to melt isn't working this time. Clearly, Vancouver has something to learn about a winter that won't quit.

We've got a lot to learn about handling snow and ice, but when it happens so seldom, can the lessons stick?

Pete Bigby, who calls himself the Phantom Shovel on Twitter, was so frustrated with City of Port Moody sidewalks that hadn't been cleared, he took an axe and shovel to them himself. (The Phantom Shovel/Twitter)

If ice rage gripping Metro Vancouver right now has a face, it might be Pete Bigby's — aka the 'Phantom Shovel.'

The axe-wielding Port Moody father is so fed up with his municipality's response to snow-covered, city-owned sidewalks, he's started shoveling — and shaming them — himself.

Yesterday, he spent hours chipping away in front of a Port Moody police detachment, posting a video of his efforts online calling those who haven't shoveled "hosers."

"Where I grew up in Ontario, everybody gets outside as soon as it snows and starts shoveling, but everybody [here] has kind of been waiting for it to melt," said Bigby, 27.

"So I figured, just lead by example and hope people will follow."

Bigby's approach may be unique, but his frustration is not. Our newsroom has been flooded with complaints from around Metro Vancouver about streets turned to skating rinks, salt supplies running out and city sidewalks so treacherous people feel trapped.

Clearly, our region is learning something about managing winter, when "waiting for a melt" isn't an effective strategy. But when it happens so seldom, can the lessons stick?

Vancouver has received nearly 2,000 complaints as of Tuesday about snow and ice on sidewalks and residential streets. Many, like this one in West Point Grey, became sheets of ice after the New Year's Eve snowfall. (Lisa Johnson/CBC)

'People are frustrated'

Across the region, people seem to be expecting more than the cities are ready — as in budgeted — to give.

In the case of Port Moody, the city manager said now that most roads are clear, it's "all hands on deck" to tackle priority sidewalks.

Even so, in a small city, "all hands" means 17 people and it will take a few days, said Tim Savoie.

"I completely appreciate that people are frustrated. This snow event is unprecedented for us."

Similar story in Coquitlam, where landscaper Dan Curtis said the city should have been clearing his street, where a thick sheet of ice has built up for a month.

"We've been neglected," he told CBC News. "I've not seen neighbourhood conditions like this in my life."

But there, as in Vancouver, Coquitlam clears residential streets only after people complain.

"Our priorities are the major roads, so the local roads don't get plowed," said Jamie Umpleby, director of public works.

Coquitlam landscaper Dan Curtis removes a thick layer of ice from under his truck. (CBC)

Waiting for a melt isn't working

In Vancouver, which has arguably faced the largest share of ice wrath this winter, the nearly 2,000 complaints to the city have led to some change.

On Tuesday, about 300 city staff were redeployed from construction and other duties to clear snow and ice where people have complained — including from city-owned sidewalks that haven't been tackled, despite a bylaw requiring it.

When quizzed by reporters about why that wasn't done sooner, the city's general manager of engineering said they'd hoped for a melt.

"We were hoping, even in the last week, we had temperatures above zero ... continuous rain, the expectation was that that would start to break up a lot of the ice, as it did in past years," said Jerry Dobrovolny.

"But it didn't break up the ice this time."

While Dobrovolny asked residents to bear with the city's response to "atypical" and "not traditionally Vancouver weather," he also encouraged people to take care of themselves — with snow tires, warm clothes, and spikes on their shoes if necessary.

"Virtually all of the cars that I've seen or vehicles that I've seen having problems on the icy streets are not using snow tires."

Vancouver's general manager of engineering, Jerry Dobrovolny, said one reason crews weren't mobilized faster is the city had been hoping the ice would melt. (CBC)

Risk of lawsuits

Of course, cities that don't clear ice and snow face a greater risk than angry Twitter storms — like actual legal claims.

"We've certainly seen a lot of people get injured in just the last week or so, just slipping and falling on ice," said Scott Stanley, a personal injury lawyer with Murphy Battista in Vancouver.

His office has been getting a lot of calls, and slip-and-fall injuries tend to be worse than car accidents, he said.

"More broken bones, more concussions. It's nothing to scoff at."

The callers might have a case. In 2013, for example, Ontario's Superior Court awarded more than $20,000 to a man who broke his right leg slipping and falling in the City of Toronto's Nathan Phillips Square.

But it all depends what city you fall in, said Stanley.

Unlike other landowners, if a city has a policy not to clear sidewalks or side streets, then someone slipping on ice or snow there wouldn't have a valid claim, he said.

"Because governments don't have unending sums of money, they can determine the types of things they spend their money on," said Stanley.

Either way, the plaintiff bears responsibility to have proper tires or footwear and exercise reasonable caution to spot and avoid hazards, he said.

Fend for yourself?

It remains to be seen whether this "atypical" winter and the current frustration of residents, will be relevant or even remembered when municipal budgets get made next year.

Port Moody says it's trying to take lessons from this, to "get a jump on" the snow right after a snow event.

It will look to buy more equipment, but the gear has to be multi-purpose for years without snow.

"We want to do better for our residents, and I have no doubt that we will," said Savoie.

For the Phantom Shovel, he thinks the only answer is more shovels on the ground.

"It's part of life in this country," said Bigby, who is back out tackling sidewalks today.

"Public institutions and even individuals should be out there. It's a nice sunny day and we can all get it done."

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