For several months every year, the sidewalks in St. John’s are covered in snow and ice. Even though sidewalk snow clearing is only offered on about 1/10 of the City’s roads, it usually takes between four and seven days to clear the sidewalks after a snowfall. Given that St. John’s receives over 5 cm of snow more than twenty times per year, that essentially means that as soon as we’ve finished clearing the sidewalks they are covered with snow and ice again.
As a result, it’s difficult and dangerous to travel on the sidewalks. This results in both able-bodied walkers and persons using mobility aids choosing to travel in the street alongside cars, because the sidewalks are inaccessible or too dangerous to use. In addition to affecting walkers and rollers, this problem affects anyone who travels by bus or who has to walk a little distance for parking. It also affects people who drive, who can never be sure when a pedestrian will be in the road. To summarize, I hear concerns from people from both sides of the windshield who fear a collision. For months every year, residents are forced to choose between avoiding travel and staying inside their homes, or risking injury and death by travelling unsafely. How did we get to this point, where this is considered normal, inevitable, acceptable? Will we ever get to a point where active mobility is considered a must-have and not a nice-to-have, and access to a privately-owned vehicle is a nice-to-have and not a must-have?
While many longtime St. John’s residents may be used to icy, snow-covered sidewalks, one of the core functions of municipal government is to provide a safe way to get around the city. St. John’s is failing at that core function and has been for many years. Our failure to clear our sidewalks adequately leads to unnecessary injuries and losses of life and income; forces people to stay inside or purchase expensive vehicles; and causes people who prefer to travel by active transportation to think twice about living here. We cannot afford to lose the young people who choose to make their homes here, Newfoundland’s demographics speak clearly about the future of our island if we do not attract younger residents.
And of course, there are those who do not have the privilege of a choice of mode of transportation.
Our failure to clean our sidewalks makes us a less attractive centre for businesses, as many young workers expect the pedestrian culture that’s available in other cities. It is also unjust. It has a disproportionate impact on those who don’t have the option to drive because of age, disability, or poverty. It also aggravates climate change by penalizing people for travelling sustainably. Sidewalk clearing is a climate, economic, and social justice issue.
The City’s recent consultation reveals a very widespread and justified dissatisfaction with the way things are. In particular, two thirds of respondents were willing to pay increased taxes in order to improve sidewalk snow clearing.
This public feedback is particularly significant because the only argument anyone presents against improving sidewalk snow clearing is cost. Improving sidewalk snow clearing would have a financial cost; but it has to be viewed in context.
Of the six options staff provided, the most extensive is Option 6. It would have a one-time capital cost of $3.3 million: half of what we budgeted for the Mews Centre replacement, or one twentieth of what we budgeted for the Convention Centre, or one third of Phase I of the Kenmount Road Storm Sewer project.
In addition, there’d be an annual operating cost of $1.2 million. That represents a less than 1% increase in the mill rate. If we had to increase taxes to pay for the operation of our sidewalks, it would represent a 0.7% tax increase. It’s one third of what we spend on St. John’s Sports and Entertainment every year.
In the end, it’s simply not true that we can’t afford to clear our sidewalks. This is a question of priorities.