'What's taking so long?': City's subpar snow clearing prompts groups to take action

Toronto cyclists fed up with ice-laden bike lanes are putting pressure on the city to live up to its snow removal commitments, as more and more residents vent their frustration with what they say is a lacklustre effort to clear roads, paths and sidewalks.

'City is overwhelmed and under-resourced and unprepared,' says Coun. Josh Matlow

Members of the group Ward 14 Bikes dug out part of the Dundas Street E. bike lane this weekend as part of a "symbolic gesture" to signal to the city that it's not doing enough to keep cycling paths useable. (CBC)

Toronto cyclists fed up with ice-laden bike lanes are putting pressure on the city to live up to its snow removal commitments, as more and more residents vent their frustration with what they say is a lacklustre effort to clear roads, paths and sidewalks. 

Over the weekend, cyclists with Ward 14 Bikes and 32 Spokes, from neighbouring Ward 19, gathered to chip away ice and snow built up in the Dundas Street E. bike lane in a "symbolic gesture" aimed at getting city hall's attention. 

"We're not just people who ride bikes. We're also people who live in the neighbourhood and we want to see the city do more," said Kathleen Mackey, a member of 32 Spokes and the organizer of the exercise. 

"The main traffic lanes are clear but you have all this ice and snow in the bike lanes, so people just won't ride. Or those who do decide to do it will be pushed into the main traffic lane and that's frustrating for both drivers and people on bikes," she continued.

After a series of winter storms and freeze-and-thaw cycles, the shoddy shape of many of Toronto's bike lanes has either made them entirely impassible or extremely dangerous, Mackey explained.

Repeated calls to 311 have been met with promises that crews will address the situation on Dundas Street within 24 hours, she says, only to have nothing done.

Kathleen Mackey said the conditions on many of the city's bike lanes are dangerous and force cyclists into traffic lanes. (CBC)

In 2014, the city's Public Works Committee adopted a staff report that laid out a number of recommendations for winter snow removal along various cycling routes. It committed to clearing bike lanes down to bare pavement within 48 to 72 hours of a snowfall. 

Members of these local cycling advocacy groups say the city hasn't even come close to maintaining that standard. 

"It's a big deterrent, so people are frustrated ... The big question is: what's taking so long?" Mackey told CBC Toronto.

Cyclists aren't the only ones

Cyclists are certainly not alone in their fight for timely and effective snow removal and salting. A wave of complaints to his office and more than 3,000 to 311 after a recent winter storm prompted Mayor John Tory to call for a review of Toronto's winter operations in a letter to the head of the transportation services department

"Many of the complaints focused on sidewalk and windrow clearing," he wrote at the time. 

Coun. Josh Matlow, who represents Toronto–St. Paul's echoed that sentiment on Sunday, saying he has received "countless" complaints from residents who have found themselves unable to use local sidewalks and some roads in recent weeks. The situation is particularly dire for those who live with mobility issues, disabilities and young children. 

"I'm requesting higher standards for road snow clearing — including sidewalks in every neighbourhood to make our city more safe & accessible for all. I don't accept this shouldn't be a basic service a Canadian city provides," Matlow wrote in a tweet yesterday.

His post quickly gained traction online, with more than 180 people joining the conversation to express dismay about the state of snow removal in the city. 

In an interview, Matlow said that while he's encouraged by Tory's call for a review, the issue of sub-par snow removal services "has just not been prioritized" by consecutive city councils. 

"We get what we pay for and we don't get what we don't pay for," he said. 

"We are a Canadian city that should expect large snowfalls and it seems like the city is overwhelmed and under-resourced and unprepared for even some of the basic tests."

According to Matlow, sidewalks and bike lanes are simply an "afterthought" when it comes to snow removal. Many neighbourhoods in the downtown core, for example, don't get any sidewalk plowing at all. Instead, the city relies on individual residents to clear walks outside their homes, which often doesn't happen. 

"We are a city that has decided, I think wrongly, to only prioritize plowing car lanes while we leave bike lanes and sidewalks buried in the snow."

Coun. Gary Crawford, who represents Scarborough Southwest and serves as Toronto's budget chief, responded to Matlow's tweet, saying he would move a motion this week for an even broader look at what can be done to improve snow removal efforts.

"Clearly standards city wide are not acceptable and need to be reviewed with proper analysis by staff," he said in a tweet.

The motion will ask for "cost and considerations for the delivery of enhanced snow clearing on sidewalks on every residential street in Toronto; pathways in parks; and enforcement of parking that obstructs TTC and bike lanes." Further, it will ask staff to examine the cost of "increasing the amount of snow removal city-wide."

Crawford said the motion should go before council on March 7. 

For his part, Matlow said he's encouraged by the movement on the issue at city hall, but cautions that producing a report without real follow-through will amount to meaningless politicking.

"We have to invest to ensure that we never have a winter like this again," he said. 


Lucas Powers

Senior Writer

Lucas Powers is a Toronto-based reporter and writer. He's reported for CBC News from across Canada. Have a story to tell? Email any time.


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