When I moved here, I was shocked by the lack of winter plowing. Everyone said, "You aren't used to Canadian winter," and I'd get used to it. The assumption was if I were accustomed to winter conditions, I would think the roads were fine. It's colder in Winnipeg than anywhere I've lived, but the snowfall amounts are significantly less. It's also flat, which should make both plowing and driving much easier. Yet, as most everyone acknowledges, the roads are not clear.
Winnipeg's average snowfall is 110.6 centimetres a year. That's less than in Montreal, Calgary, Toronto or Edmonton. It is also less than Buffalo (average 237.7 cm) and Ithaca (average 170 cm), two cities in New York where I'd lived previously.
In Ithaca and Buffalo, I easily got to school or work every day. I never navigated rutted, luge-like streets. Main streets were plowed down to pavement, even during heavy snowfall, from November to April, since melting rarely happened. Ithaca's mountainous terrain required good brakes and careful driving. One mistake at a sharp turn and your car could end up in an icy gorge. Yet, in winter, one rested easy, hearing the clink of the plows' chains when they plowed the hills, day and night. During blizzards, the best advice was to find and follow a snowplow. Following the plow, while slow, was the safest option when the snow fell at 7 cm an hour.
No one argued over snow tires as the only solution. No one expected newcomers just to get used to rutted, snow-covered and frankly impassable streets. The city was responsible for keeping the public's roads clear. Homeowners all shovelled their own sidewalks. (While Winnipeg's sidewalk-clearing is great, many of us still shovel until the city arrives.)
I am no expert on plowing or Winnipeg's budget. That said, here are observations from a person who has lived elsewhere, in climates with more than twice as much snow as Winnipeg.
Earth-moving equipment may not always be the most efficient for plowing. Bulldozers are not the first line of defence in upstate New York. Plowing starts at the first snowflakes and continues consistently through storms. It's easier to remove a couple of centimetres of fresh snow as it falls than to remove 15 cm of compressed, icy snow. By plowing the neighbourhoods and main streets more than once while it snowed, it remained passable at all times.
Plows worked in daylight, in the middle of the street, and motorists expected to drive slowly around them. Nighttime plowing also happened because plows were active throughout all storms. Both commercial plowing companies and the city used heavy-duty pickup trucks with plows on the front to plow tight spaces while using less fuel.
Gas is expensive; fuel efficiency is important. In Winnipeg, I see plows and earth-moving equipment navigating the streets without plowing. We once witnessed a fleet of dump trucks with plows and sanding equipment, idling on a bridge. Aside from reaching the plowing route, why aren't these plows moving around snow if their engines are running?
Clear bus stops and large snowbanks at corners a little at a time before it gets dangerous, and do it during the daytime. Last year, my entire household, including two babies, were wide awake and serenaded by beeping as bulldozers danced on my corner for days after every snowfall. The beeping lasted intermittently from about 9 p.m. until 5 a.m. According to the city's bylaws, everyone but the city must keep "quiet hours" at night. Non-emergency plowing could in these areas could be done better and faster during daylight (and allow us to sleep).
One conclusion is Winnipeg can maintain the current system because we live on the prairie. Since we lack hills, good drivers avoid calamity on snowy, icy streets. Yet, when you face a dip such as the Jubilee Overpass or a deeply rutted street such as Overdale, things can go very wrong.
There are better ways to clear snow, avoid death or injury and save money than to plow less often. Top on the list should be to consult the snowfall amounts, budgets and procedures of cities that do a good job of keeping streets clear. Winnipeggers should not be defensive about valid safety concerns and claim drivers aren't careful enough or we're just not used to snow-covered roads. Consulting the number of accidents, injuries and deaths that happen as the result of snow-covered streets in Winnipeg might remind us clearing streets properly does save money and lives.
I expect to hear things are OK, I should go back to where I came from, and that Winnipeg can't afford a better snow-clearing solution. It might be time to take a deep breath and reflect on that. Are we willing to risk our safety and that of our loved ones to maintain the fiction that those skating rinks we call streets are fine?
Joanne Seiff is the author of two books and has two-year-old twins. She lives in Winnipeg.