This article was written and submitted by Devin Glim and Matthew Ing, Youth Advisory Council members of the Disability Justice Network of Ontario.
Picture an average winter morning. You eat breakfast, get bundled up, and begin your journey to wherever you need to be. Everything is great — until your journey is over before it even began. You will not be going anywhere due to the uncleared, snow-covered sidewalks preventing you from even reaching the street. What’s worse is that the snow is from three days ago. This scenario is a reality facing untold Hamiltonians every snow storm. The disabled and the elderly are the overwhelming majority: Hamilton has the largest proportion of disabled people of any Ontario municipality, while the aging boomer generation has contributed to the greatest increase in the proportion of seniors since Confederation.
Access to cleared sidewalks is a right, and plowing should be publicly funded by the City of Hamilton.
As Hamilton recovers from the first major snowfalls of the year, city council is once again debating who should be responsible for clearing the sidewalks. The arguments for public snow clearance are many. For starters, sidewalks are public infrastructure, just like roads. We all pay for them, yet in winter they are accessible only to some. For those individuals hindered by snow, life grinds to a standstill. Getting to work or school? Forget about it. Ditto the ability to access the supports needed to survive — groceries, healthcare, public transit — among others. In other words, we lose our independence and our dignity. This is a matter of justice, as well as of public health. Being cut off from outdoor travel for four months of the year also compounds social isolation, already a public health crisis of epidemic proportions.
Secondly, the current approach to snow removal is failing. The Snow Angels volunteer shoveling program is consistently overwhelmed — this year, once again they are not accepting any new applications from disabled and elderly folks who need a hand. Even if it had enough volunteers, Snow Angels can’t address properties uncleared by people who don’t qualify for the service. Recent attempts to “beef up” enforcement of shoveling bylaws have been woefully ineffective. Of the 387 complaints received during the Jan 20-21 storm, the city issued only 62 cleanup orders and sent in private contractors in just five cases. Bylaw enforcement, in general, is retroactive: by the time officers approach a scofflaw, their sidewalk has been dangerous and inaccessible for an unconscionable amount of time. Clearly, the present arrangement is not working. To their credit, councillors Nrinder Nann (Ward 3) and Maureen Wilson (Ward 1) have pledged their support for public snow clearance. Yet this debate has been raging for over 20 years. Why has council after council been happy with the status quo?
The main objection to the city taking on responsibility is the cost. Based on Ancaster’s public snow removal program, a staff report in 2014 estimated the cost of servicing all 2300 km of sidewalk at $3.6 million a year, or on average $34 per household. But in the rush to spare taxpayers, critics overlook all the savings. Try finding a private outfit that would shovel your property for the entire year for just $34. Public snow clearance could also save lives: Hamilton is second only to Windsor in pedestrian deaths, and the city’s pedestrian mobility plan recommends better winter maintenance as a solution. More than half of all pedestrian deaths occur in the winter; public snow clearance should be a central pillar of the city’s Vision Zero campaign. Snowfall is also associated with increased population rates of heart attack.
Everyone benefits from public snow clearance, not just seniors and people with disabilities. We reduce our carbon footprint by making non-car options like walking, public transit, and biking more feasible in winter. Instead of the current patchwork of treacherously icy sidewalks – courtesy of vacant properties, absentee landlords, and apathetic residents – they would be uniformly and promptly cleared. Accessible sidewalks close the transportation gender gap: in 2015, Stockholm began prioritizing sidewalk, bike path, and bus lane clearance over streets after realizing that women are statistically less likely to drive than men.
Given the manifest economic, public health, and human rights benefits, it’s no wonder that the cities of Ancaster, Fredericton, Montreal, Quebec City, and Winnipeg pick up the tab for sidewalk plowing. Hamilton is 20 years too late in joining their ranks. No more debates or staff reports or pilot projects. It’s time for city council to deliver on the right to snow removal — on the right to our dignity and safety.