The snow is here and some downtown residents say it's time the city plowed their sidewalks

As Toronto digs itself out of an unusually heavy mid-November snowfall, critics of city hall's snow-clearing policy say more needs to be done to keep sidewalks clear in the old city.

City will offer expanded sidewalk snow clearing in a pilot project later this winter

A worker shovels snow outside a daycare in midtown Toronto, a part of the city that does not receive municipal snow clearing services. (Nick Boisvert/CBC)

As Toronto digs itself out of an unusually heavy mid-November snowfall, critics of city hall's snow-clearing policy say more needs to be done to keep sidewalks clear in the old city.

Standing outside his home in Deer Park, Stephen Cameron-Smith points to the snowy, slippery sidewalk that stretches across his block.

"As you can see, this is the worst piece of sidewalk. It's embarrassing for me," he said.

Cameron-Smith's street, Oriole Gardens near Yonge Street and St. Clair Avenue, contains just a fraction of the 1,400 kilometres of Toronto sidewalks that do not get plowed by city workers, even after major winter storms. That represents around 18 per cent of all sidewalks in the city.

"All you need is one section of a block clogged with snow or ice and anybody with disabilities or anybody with a stroller or a cane or anything like that, it basically makes the block impassable," added Cameron-Smith, vice president of the Deer Park Residents Group.

The situation dates back to Toronto's amalgamation, which maintained sidewalk clearing services for the inner suburbs, but did not expand the service to the old city of Toronto.

People in those areas are expected to shovel their own sidewalks, though exceptions are made for residents who are unable to do so. The city is launching a pilot project as early as next month to test the feasibility of plowing sidewalks in the old city, but some residents like Cameron-Smith aren't optimistic that anything will change.   

Stephen Cameron-Smith, vice president of the Deer Park Residents Group, says the lack of plowing services makes it dangerous for seniors and people with disabilities to get around. (Nick Boisvert/CBC)

The longstanding policy has been under intense scrutiny since last winter, when storms battered Toronto and created a snowy, icy mess on sidewalks around the city. Concerned residents made more than 5,000 complaints to Toronto's 311 line after a single snowfall in late January.

"I think the displeasure has been there for many years," said Coun. Josh Matlow, who represents Ward 12, Toronto-St. Paul's.

"The anger is growing."

Matlow has been among the most vocal critics at city council of the piecemeal snow clearing policy, calling it unfair and hazardous for residents in his ward.

In late October, the Deer Park Residents Group launched a new campaign calling for Toronto to harmonize its snow clearing policy. Cameron-Smith says a host of neighbouring residents groups and more than 1,000 people have signed on to the initiative, simply titled Clear Our Sidewalks.

"There's some equity things going on here," he explained. "We pay taxes and people in Scarborough pay taxes, but they get their sidewalks cleared and we don't."

Coun. James Pasternak says accessibility is an increasingly important concern due to extreme weather. However, he says a new snow clearing plan must be approved during Toronto's budget process. (CBC)

New pilot to begin this winter

The city pilot project will bring snow clearing to 150 kilometres of previously unserviced sidewalks.

It's set to begin sometime after Dec. 1, when the city receives a small fleet of new sidewalk snow plows that will be tested during the pilot.

Coun. James Pasternak, chair of the infrastructure and accessibility committee, supports the pilot, though he has expressed doubt that a fully harmonized system is possible.

"Nothing will be ever fully equal," he said at a committee meeting in October where he voted against a motion to consider expanding the pilot. "That's the reality of a city that's 2.8 million people," he said at the time.

Pasternak noted that residents in his ward in North York do not have access to as many services as people in downtown Toronto, such as multiple transit options and bike lanes.

Matlow called that position "cynical" and "intellectually dishonest."

Still, Pasternak said he may eventually support a full harmonization of snow clearing services, but only after the city determines a price tag for doing so. No estimate currently exists.

"The cost of our winter operations is very high and we have to keep our eye on it," he told CBC Toronto.

Pasternak suggested that an updated snow clearing policy could be considered as part of Toronto's 2020 budget.

Until then, residents dealing with snow-covered sidewalks expect a long winter of shoveling and treacherous walking. Despite his efforts to lobby city hall, Cameron-Smith suspects it won't be the last.

"I just think that they're putting it off," he said.


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