Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

This is no snow job

There are many reasons to bash the city, but the way it clears the streets isn't one of them

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If you want to beat up on the City of Winnipeg, there's no shortage of services or functions to criticize.

Inner-city residents would love to see the police devote more officers to beat patrols. Developers would love to speed up the permit-approval process. People all over the city would love trees to be pruned more than once every few years, grass to be cut in parks at least a couple of times each summer and recreational facilities to be maintained to a degree that doesn't require the budgetary equivalent of emergency triage.

Urbanists would love to see city planners lay down the somewhat-nonexistent law when it comes to putting the brakes on low-density development. Suburban residents really just want road improvements, such as the long-delayed widening of Kenaston Boulevard.

Fiscal hawks want less overall spending. Social-service groups want more funding for anti-poverty initiatives. People under the age 30, recent immigrants and other people who largely don't drive cars would really love public transit options to improve.

In short, everyone wants something more from their city, all for entirely legitimate reasons, because they perceive they deserve better from the public servants they support with their tax dollars and the elected officials they place in office.

There are, however, a number of functions the City of Winnipeg performs about as well as could be expected from any municipality, anywhere on the planet.

Our flood-protection protocols are amazing. Our insect-control programs are excellent. And at the risk of annoying the significant minority of Winnipeggers who don't appreciate change of any sort, this city also does a fantastic job of clearing snow.

Yes, you read that correctly: Winnipeg's public works department ought to be commended for the efficient manner in which snow is cleared from the city's major arteries and residential streets.

In 2012, this city devoted $30.4 million toward snow-clearing operations. That represents about 3.4 per cent of the $900 million the city intended to spend this year on all services, including big-ticket items such as policing, firefighting and paramedics.

While emergency-service costs consistently rise, snow-clearing tabs tend to vary widely from year to year. That's because Winnipeg is just as likely to experience a warm, dry winter such as the one we enjoyed last year as it is a winter like 1996-97, when blizzards hit the city in November, March and April.

To make up for this variability, Winnipeg maintains a snow-clearing reserve, which is topped up after mild years and drained during snowy ones. But this bit of budget wisdom pales in comparison to the city's actual snow-clearing operations, which have been fine-tuned over the past quarter century.

Following the Blizzard of '86, a November storm that wound up crippling Winnipeg for days, the city decided it would be smarter to clear streets during heavy snowfall events instead of waiting for all the white stuff to descend first.

Over the ensuing decades, this snow-clearing policy was refined to ensure major arteries were cleared first, followed by secondary and residential streets, with the latter deemed deserving of a visit from plows and graders only when they're rutted or congested. Generations of officials concluded it would be a waste of money to plow residential streets more frequently, as the goal is merely to make them passable to ordinary vehicles.

In 2008, after a flurry of complaints about tows and tickets resulting from street-clearing operations, the city decided it was time to refine the way it enforces overnight parking bans on residential streets.

That resulted in a new enforcement system in which bans are only in place on streets actually slated to be cleared. This new system, entitled Know Your Zone, was a logical response to the complaints of 2008.

An early version of this system was actually implemented in January 2011, when the city started posting detailed snow-clearing plans on Winnipeg.ca

This was refined into the zone system, which was announced on Nov. 28, 2011, when the city launched a Know Your Zone advertising campaign as well as a Know Your Zone press conference.

"We're hoping people will take the time to find out what letter their zone is," public works spokesman Ken Allen said at the time.

Given the meager amount of snow that fell last winter, not many Winnipeggers did.

So almost a year later, with actual snow on the ground, some residents are now crying foul. The city should have done more to inform them, they complain.

When it comes to any new service initiative, the city tends to take a multi-pronged approach to public education. It sends letters in the mail, takes out newspaper and radio ads and posts information on Winnipeg.ca.

That's because there's no single way to reach the public any more. Some people immediately recycle any form letter that arrives in their mailbox. Others have no access to the Internet. Still others don't read newspapers, listen to radio stations or watch the news on television.

There are, in fact, some people who are all but immune to public-education efforts, as they take extraordinary efforts to insulate themselves from any information they do not actively choose to encounter.

They have their iPods. They log on to Facebook. They have their PVRs set to The X Factor. To be blunt, there's no bloody way the City of Winnipeg could ever hope to reach these solipsists, about snow-clearing, property-assessment notices, municipal elections or frankly anything.

To be fair, the vast majority of Winnipeggers are receptive to some form of media, whether it's the traditional mainstream or social variety. Also to be fair, the city could do way more when it comes to beefing up its presence on Twitter and Facebook.

But it is not the city's fault when the public chooses to disengage itself from civic life. And this societal trend is certainly not the fault of Winnipeg's public works department.

As Winnipeggers who've lived in other Canadian cities can attest, snow-clearing in this climate is unusual, in that we don't receive all that much snow but wind up with all of it remaining on the ground.

Toronto, which receives a bit more snow than we do every year, simply lets it melt. Quebec City, Ottawa and Montreal, which all receive far more snow than us, have no choice but to rush out and clear it all immediately.

Winnipeg, meanwhile, has achieved a reasonable balance in that we keep streets clean without breaking the bank. Refinements to this system should be applauded, not harangued.

So yes, while there are many valid reasons to blast the City of Winnipeg, snow clearing simply isn't one of them.

Unless, of course, you use a wheelchair. But that's another topic for another day.

We're hardly

No. 1

Average annual snowfall for selected Canadian cities, 1971-2000

Quebec City: 315.9 centimetres

Ottawa: 235.7 cm

Halifax: 230.5 cm

Montreal: 217.5 cm

London: 202.4 cm

Hamilton: 161.8 cm

Toronto: 133.1 cm

Calgary: 126.7 cm

Edmonton: 121.4 cm

Winnipeg: 110.6 cm

Regina: 105.9 cm

Saskatoon: 97.2 cm

Vancouver: 48.2 cm

-- Source: Environment Canada

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 18, 2012 A8

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About Bartley Kives

Bartley Kives wants you to know his last name rhymes with Beavis, as in Beavis and Butthead. He aspires to match the wit, grace and intelligence of the 1990s cartoon series.

Bartley joined the Free Press in 1998 as a music critic. He spent the ensuing 7.5 years interviewing the likes of Neil Young and David Bowie and trying to stay out of trouble at the Winnipeg Folk Festival before deciding it was far more exciting to sit through zoning-variance appeals at city hall.

In 2006, Bartley followed Winnipeg Mayor Sam Katz from the music business into civic politics. He spent seven years covering city hall from a windowless basement office.

He is now reporter-at-large for the Free Press and also writes an outdoor-recreation column called Offroad for the Outdoors page.

A canoeist, backpacker and food geek, Bartley is fond of conventional and wilderness travel. He is the author of A Daytripper’s Guide to Manitoba: Exploring Canada’s Undiscovered Province, the only comprehensive travel guidebook for Manitoba – and a Canadian bestseller, to boot. He is also co-author of Stuck In The Middle: Dissenting Views of Winnipeg, a collaboration with photographer Bryan Scott.

Bartley appears every second Wednesday on CityTV’s Breakfast Television. His work has also appeared on CBC Radio and in publications such as National Geographic Traveler, explore magazine and Western Living.

Born in Winnipeg, he has an arts degree from the University of Winnipeg and a master’s degree in journalism from Ottawa’s Carleton University. He is the proud owner of a blender.

On Twitter: @bkives
Email: bartley.kives@freepress.mb.ca

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