The Politics of Snow Removal

Some people think that Canada’s national sport is hockey; I think I was in my 20’s when I was told that it is, in fact, lacrosse. Turns out it’s both. (Yup, there’s a law for that.) But whatever our national sport is, I think it almost goes without saying that our national pastime, official or not, is shoveling snow.

We’ve had a lot of weird storms this winter: several bouts of freezing rain, the fantastic thundersnow, and an emerging pattern of dumping and melting and dumping again that’s enough to test the patience of the hardiest of Canadians–and test the backs of anyone who doesn’t own a snow blower.

Snow removal in the 1930's, men with shovels loading flatbed pickup trucks.
Ah, the “good old days”. This photo from the Brighton Digital Archives shows what snow removal used to be like.

Unfortunately, we can expect to have these “weird” weather patterns moving forward: the climate is changing, global average temperatures are rising, and the “normal” weather patterns that have dominated everyone’s lifetime up to now are disrupted by all of the extra energy in our atmosphere. That means more freeze/thaw cycles, wet and heavy snow, and sudden dumps. And all of those come with costs.

The cost of freeze/thaw cycles will be felt on our roads and roofs. When the ground freezes and then thaws, we see frost heaves. Expect the cost of road maintenance to increase. When a snow pack on our roofs melts, it runs into our eaves; if it freezes again before it runs down, it causes ice dams, which damage eaves, which leads to water infiltration into our basements. Expect the cost of home insurance to increase.

Heavy snow is harder to move, too, which is linked to heart attacks, not to mention broken snow plows.

Snow removal in the 1930's, showing horse-drawn sleighs being hand-loaded with snow.
Another gem from the Brighton Digital Archives. Not what I meant by “snow plow.”

Legitimate Concerns

With snowfall comes complaints. So many complaints that I’ve noticed that I no longer react to the beautiful, fluffy flakes with the wonder my children express, or even the good-natured but weary resignation to more shoveling; now, the forecast has me waiting for the emails and social media posts to pile up.

Some of it can be written off as venting frustration: none of us are happy that roads are impassable, or that the process of making the roads passable includes getting the end of my driveway filled in by the passing plow. I get that; I don’t have a snow-blower, and the end of my driveway adds another half hour of shoveling, sometimes more. We even received emails blaming us for vehicle damage when someone crashed their car the day after a storm, and while I don’t take credit for it, I don’t mind sometimes taking the blame in the moment if it helps someone feel better. (Note, though, that venting doesn’t actually help make us feel better, especially not in the long term.)

Oof, my back hurts just looking at it. Thanks again to the Brighton Digital Archives for these gems!

Most complaints address very legitimate and important issues. It is really important to public safety that the roads be plowed in a timely fashion. Sidewalks need to be passable, and they also need to be accessible: if there’s a snowbank blocking the sidewalk in, it doesn’t matter if the sidewalk itself has been plowed. Mailboxes and parking meters need to be accessible to all, not just to people who can vault over snowbanks and trudge through slush. All of this matters, and people are right to point to these conditions as problematic.

I’ve noticed, though, how quickly the complaints come: we usually start getting them on the day of a storm large enough to warrant an Environment Canada weather warning. And it’s this disconnect between the legitimate concerns about snow removal and the time frame we receive those complaints in that tells me that people with the right motives are missing some of the information. So here’s how snow removal works, and why it takes more than a day or two.

When the snow starts falling…

Municipal crews monitor the forecast, and while they always strive to keep our equipment in good condition and ready for anything, they take special steps to prepare for storms: they might pre-load the trucks with salt, and give them an extra pass when servicing to make sure that everything is ready. This is especially important because this can be dangerous work: they drive through the worst conditions so that we don’t have to.

The timing is important, and out of our control: the snow falls when it falls, and it stops when it stops. But generally the worst part of a snowfall happens overnight, and generally our crews hit the road sometime between 2 and 4am to begin plowing. Provincial guidelines and regulations require that they deploy 30 minutes after the snow starts falling, and that they meet a “bare pavement” standard within 24 hours of the snow stopping. Brighton’s own road maintenance standards can be found here.

Men clearing snow from the street by shovel, loading snow onto a horse-drawn sleigh.
No slacking, boys, we gotta get down to bare pavement by this time tomorrow!

Because road maintenance standards are provincially regulated, we don’t get to pick which roads get plowed first; it depends on the amount of traffic and road speed on a given road, which means that highways always get plowed first and residential streets get plowed last. Sidewalks are a lower priority than roads, but our sidewalk plows are deployed along with the rest of the team; they’re more limited by the speed of the sidewalk plow and the sheer number of sidewalks to be plowed.

Once the roads and streets and sidewalks are plowed, we’re left with snowbanks. Downtown, that means we need snow removal so that people can park, access sidewalks and shops, etc. But snow removal can’t take place during the day, there’s too much traffic. So if the municipal crew has managed to get the roads cleared before 5am, they may start snow removal; whether or not they are able to complete it just depends on the timing.

From our municipal website, detailing road maintenance standards for snow days.

Work Standards and Staffing

Let’s not forget that our crews are human beings, and workers subject to provincial workplace regulations and collective bargaining agreements. If snow is falling for an entire day, they can’t be working the entire day. They have a regulated work day that cannot exceed 13 hours of driving before they have to take 10 hours off. I don’t actually know how long their work day is before they begin accruing overtime pay, but I suspect it’s after 8 hours.

So when Council gets a lot of complaints about snow removal, we know that our crews are doing their best within the limitations and changing conditions they face. We know that, some of the time, they can’t possibly clear all of the snow out of downtown within 24 hours of the snow stopping, because they spent all of their allowable work hours plowing and won’t get to snow removal until they get to it. We know that sometimes their hours of work restrictions mean that one side of a street gets done and the other side has to wait 10 hours, so they can sleep. And we know that improving our response time is a matter of hiring more people for seasonal work, rather than (as the complaints often claim) a failure of our crews.

It’s worth noting that Canada Post is responsible for clearing around community mailboxes. This is a longstanding issue, across the country. I’ve been told, anecdotally, that some residents have been warned off (not by municipal staff) about clearing that snow themselves, citing liability issues. I am not a lawyer and won’t weigh in on liability, but here’s another recent example of Canada Post claiming responsibility for snow removal. I’ll make the same point here that I’ve made above: we should expect a reasonable amount of time for snow clearing, and in some storms, a few days is reasonable. In this example, the snow storm started on a Saturday, and the mailbox was cleared by Tuesday evening; Canada Post staff likely don’t work on weekends and probably wouldn’t start clearing snow until after the storm was over, and 48 hours is a reasonable time frame for clearing that much snow.

It’s also worth noting that Brighton does not have a bylaw that puts sidewalk snow removal on residents. The City of Toronto has a bylaw that requires that residents who do not have their sidewalks cleared by a plow clear it themselves. Failure to do so results in a fine, and opens them to liability for slips and falls.

A snow plow struggles to clear a road with snow banks almost as tall as the truck.
A Brighton Township snow plow after a blizzard in 1971, also borrowed from the Brighton Digital Archives page.

Given the frequency of complaints we receive about inadequate snow clearing, and how quickly and efficiently our roads and sidewalks are actually plowed, I’m left with incredible gratitude for our team. They have a difficult job, dealing with quickly changing conditions within unchangeable frameworks and with limited resources, and they take a lot of flack even when they’re doing the best job possible. They take blame for the failures of others (as when mailboxes aren’t cleared, or when people crash on snowy roads) and the side-effects of their good work (which piles up at the end of our driveways), and most of their work goes unseen but still expected. The fact that we can complain about snow removal within 24 hours of a major storm shows how far we’ve come from the horse-drawn sleighs and shovel-wielding work parties that used to clear our streets. And I’ll re-post this every year to help us keep perspective.

2 thoughts on “The Politics of Snow Removal

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: