Being a pedestrian in Whitehorse can be risky at the best of times.
You must be aware of wildlife on the trails, and the city’s notoriously aggressive drivers, some of whom appear to regard people in crosswalks as being worth bonus points.
But the last week or so of unseasonably warm weather has made the city’s sidewalks and trails more treacherous than usual. The snow melted by above-freezing temperatures, predictably, turned into ice, making walking for even the most fleet of foot among us a dicey proposition.
An example: My commute home, down Third Avenue, was made considerably safer by walking down the middle of the street, through the snow and dirt, which at least offered some traction over the sheer ice that formed over most of the sidewalk. I saw a couple of other people make the same calculation on Third and others have been spotted walking down Lewes Boulevard.
Typically, of course, walking in the street is not a good idea. But Third is a relatively low-traffic street and was far safer than risking the linear skating rink that was the sidewalk.
I’m a relatively fit, able-bodied guy. But for those who have mobility issues, greasy sidewalks are a nightmare. One of our reporters walks with canes and has bailed a couple of times during the recent warm snap.
The only thing wounded was her pride. But the consequences of uncleared sidewalks can be fatal. In February 2016, Margaret Johnson, 71, maneuvered her wheelchair into Second Avenue, where a pickup truck struck her head-on. She died later in hospital.
In a judgment of inquiry issued in November 2016, Chief Coroner Kirsten Macdonald found that a section of sidewalk near where Johnson was struck had not been cleared of snow and ice.
While the sidewalk immediately next to where Johnson was travelling when she was hit was clear, the circumstances led Macdonald to note sidewalks “need to be free and clear of ice, snow, sand, and other debris to ensure accessibility for persons with mobility issues.”
It’s the property owner’s responsibility to make sure those sidewalks are clear. But the extent to which that work is done varies widely.
Plenty of owners do an excellent job of making sure their sidewalks are clear — whether it’s out of altruism or fear of liability doesn’t really matter, but kudos to them. There are also plenty of property owners who appear to not care at all.
There are also people who try to keep their sidewalks clear, but just can’t keep up because it snowed while they were at work, or they went away for the weekend, or because they’re seniors and shovelling isn’t as easy as it used to be. It’s not malice or laziness. It’s just because life gets in the way sometimes.
Still, tell that to the little old lady who just fell down and broke her hip.
Part of the problem is that the city’s bylaw workers don’t actively enforce the rules. The system is instead complaint-based, which is tough to accept. You cannot leave your car parked downtown for five seconds without getting written up by a meter maid, but the city can’t be bothered to crack down on snow clearing scofflaws? Please.
This is why it’s time for the City of Whitehorse to consider biting the bullet and talking over responsibility for keeping sidewalks clear and sanded. Plenty of snowy Canadian cities already do this, according to a 2011 piece in Maclean’s: Winnipeg, Ottawa, Fredericton and parts of Toronto all plow sidewalks.
“Cities that require citizens to do their own shovelling frequently cite the heavy cost of sidewalk clearing and limited budgets,” Maclean’s writes. “But sidewalk plowing appears to be one of the great bargains of municipal governance.” Winnipeg plows the entire city’s sidewalks at a cost of $7 per household.
This is not an onerous burden. It is an article of faith that the city plows, salts and sands the roads for cars, trucks and buses. Of course the city should keep vital transportation routes open.
So why don’t we consider sidewalks to be transportation? They are, for drivers and pedestrians alike. Despite the strides the city has made in recent years improving transit and active transportation, the overall policy bias still regards walking as a form of getting around reserved for weirdos, hippies, and poors.
It is true that the warm weather of the last few weeks is unusual. But warm snaps aren’t unheard of and even when it’s cold, you may have noticed that snow is not exactly uncommon around here.
Be it snow, slush or ice, Whitehorse’s sidewalks can be a danger. In the interest of safety and simplicity, the city should just plow them.
Contact Chris Windeyer at firstname.lastname@example.org