At best, it has been a winter of walking inelegantly. At worst, Toronto’s sidewalks and streets have become a danger zone of ice and snow, where injuries from falls have become the new urban narrative, matched by frustration at what many consider the city’s lack of effort to keep passageways clear.
On Saturday morning, after six weeks of intense snowfall and a few rounds of freezing rain, Toronto snow crews began a 24-hour snow-removal blitz, with a focus on narrow downtown streets where massive snow banks create challenges for emergency vehicles.
“We’ve received a year’s worth of snow in the last six weeks,” said Mark Mills, Toronto’s superintendent of transportation services. “Combined with frequent periods of extreme wind and cold, it is important that we now take steps to ensure that our emergency vehicles can pass our streets in a timely manner, as we don’t expect a thaw until sometime in mid-March.”
For the next five to seven days, the snow-clearing machines will remove snow and ice (and snow encased in ice) from the sidewalks and roads, Mills said. For some residents, the overnight work will create noise but it is a “necessary evil” to clear the roads, he said during a Saturday morning media event near Yonge St. and Davisville Ave.
The work comes with the warning of “friendly towing.” Cars that block the plows will be towed to a nearby street with no cost to the owner, other than the time needed to find it. Mills said drivers should call Toronto police for the car’s location.
Before the snow blitz commenced, Mills said the city had already spent $50 million of its $87.45-million budget for 2019. He said the mass removal will likely cost “in the millions,” but won’t know until the job is complete.
Mills said property owners and residents should look out for their fellow citizens by shovelling sidewalks. In many instances, however, sidewalks either are not cleared or the expanding snowbanks have crept onto them, creating treacherous conditions for older people and impassable conditions for those using wheelchairs or pushing strollers.
Soon after Mills finished speaking, the snow began anew, with several centimetres falling by mid-afternoon.
Toronto residents have voiced their displeasure. The city’s 311 lines have logged a 185-per-cent increase in snow-removal complaints this winter. The Star’s David Rider reports that there were more than 20,000 calls about winter snow removal and salting from Jan. 1 to Feb. 19, compared to 7,046 in the same period last year. According to the 311 data, there were two calls in 2018 for laneway salting and sanding compared to 34 calls this year and requests for sidewalk snow-clearing more than tripled.
Don Peat, spokesperson for Mayor John Tory, said his boss has requested a review of winter services, including the possibility of offering snow removal from sidewalks in locations where it is not currently provided by the city.
“Mayor Tory knows snow and ice can be a real challenge for people — especially after several large snowstorms including one of the biggest in 10 years,” Peat said in an email.
In a Feb. 5 letter to Barbara Gray, general manager of Toronto’s transportation services, Tory asked for a review that would look at increasing snow-removal service levels; a new threshold for a major storm event, allowing the city to remove cars to plow streets; snow-clearing technology used in other Canadian cities; and better parking enforcement of cars that block streetcars and bike lanes.