Last week, several days before March would come in like a snow leopard, my wife and I were leaving a Jets game, hiking and grumbling our way along stretches of downtown sidewalks that seemed more suited to mushing than walking, when I had a flashback.
It was last winter. We were leaving a Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra concert on Market Avenue, the street that runs the length of the Centennial Concert Hall, and there was an even more treacherous snow- and ice-rutted sidewalk.
Safe, accessible streets and sidewalks are the city's stated No.1 goal of its snow-clearing and ice-control policy. And the No. 1 priority is downtown, where sidewalks, like streets, are "generally" supposed to be "plowed to a paved surface whenever conditions allow," and whenever the snowfall amounts reach five centimetres.
For downtown streets and sidewalks, the city gives itself a 36-hour completion window on "average storms," but these mogul-like paths looked as if pedestrians had packed them down for a lot longer than a day and a half.
I wondered last winter, as I did last week, how well-trodden downtown sidewalks could be left in such treacherous states? Properly plowed sidewalks might not inconvenience young Jets fans but, for the much older symphony-going crowd, a slip and fall can be life-changing.
I was angry a year ago at the city's apparent lack of concern for pedestrians, and I was angry again last week.
It's sad enough when citizens are afraid to go downtown in summer because of the spectre of street crime. It's sad in a different way when the city can easily do something to make people feel safe walking downtown in winter, and they don't seem to care.
And pedestrians do fall on downtown sidewalks.
By chance Tuesday afternoon, I witnessed a middle-aged woman fall to her knees on Graham Avenue, across from the Millennium Library. Granted, it had snowed heavily Monday. On Wednesday morning, as more flakes fell, I took a tour of the downtown. By then, it appeared some of the sidewalks had been skimmed of slushy snow, but not plowed to pavement. The only bare sidewalks I saw were in front of commercial properties like the Bay department store and Earls on Main.
City hall's sidewalks and plaza area were a thin mix of old snow and the sandy salt they throw at it. Chinatown's sidewalks were narrow footpaths feet had made, but nearby Siloam Mission had ensured the sidewalk in front of their soup kitchen was scraped bare, even if the city still hadn't got around to clearing others in the general vicinity of the homeless and hungry who trod the area.
I returned to the Millennium Library across from where the woman had fallen the day before, and there, on the spot where she dropped -- where the sidewalk meets the street -- I saw something that suggested why. There was a small boulder of street-plowed snow and ice and a narrow, slushy foot path where pavement should be showing. But I'm not the only one who is questioning the competence and diligence of the city when it comes to sidewalk snow removal in the less-than-pulsing heart of the city. A newsroom colleague chimed in with an email. She and her husband had attended the Warehouse Theatre Saturday night and encountered a patch of nearby sidewalk that shocked her.
"Treacherous is no understatement," she wrote. "I am pretty hale and can navigate mounds and drifts, but this was a high-altitude goat path. Absurd. Embarrassing. There was no way anyone with even a minor disability could have navigated that piece of sidewalk between MTC and the Warehouse. You'd have to walk on the roads, which were treacherous, too."
So why isn't Winnipeg doing a better job?
I emailed the city and asked why the downtown sidewalks haven't been plowed to pavement, as the policy states. The city said it didn't have a spokesman available, but an emailed response was provided. Basically it amounted to restating the policy, about plowing downtown sidewalks to a paved surface, while bold-facing the convenient out, "whenever conditions allow."
"However," the statement acknowledged, "minor snowfalls and/or warming trends between plowing operations may result in a layer of compacted snow or ice on the sidewalk surface."
In other words, when it doesn't snow the policy-required five centimetres to send the plows up, the other flakes that fall in between cleanups can cause the kind of conditions my wife and I witnessed over the last two years. So why don't they just plow the sidewalks between significant snow events to keep them clear? Maybe it's the cost of adhering diligently to the policy's intent. But I think what it's really about is a lack of pride, a lack of believing in ourselves.
As the Broken Windows Theory on crime has demonstrated, keeping a tidy neighbourhood offers both the perception and the reality of a safer place to live, and that goes for plowing sidewalks as much as it does fixing broken windows. The city talks a good game plan when it comes to revitalizing and reinvigorating the downtown as a place to do business, to live and be entertained. But when it comes to something as basic and simple as plowing the slippery winter walk, the City of Winnipeg performs the way one would expect.
It falls flat on its face.
Let's get this clear
Sidewalks on Priority I* and II** streets within the downtown shall generally be plowed to a paved surface whenever conditions allow. However, minor snowfalls and/or warming temperatures between plowing operations may result in a layer of compacted snow or ice on the sidewalk surface. A plowing operation shall be initiated when the snow has accumulated beyond a depth of five cm. The snow-plowing operations shall be completed within thirty-six hours following the end of an average storm.
*Priority I streets include all regional streets, and some streets around the Health Sciences Centre.
**Priority II streets include non-regional bus routes and collector streets.
-- City of Winnipeg snow-clearing policy