Effective snow clearing policy or snow job?

Get used to seeing this sign, and if you don’t obey it, a $50 fine.

By Alain Saffel

It would seem from the City of Edmonton’s new snow clearing policy that it’s all your fault. Why are you parking on the street in the winter? You ought to be ashamed of yourself.

Oh, if only it were so simple.

If you’re wondering what the city came up with after all the soul searching and a peer review committee consisting of officials from Winnipeg, Calgary, Grand Prairie and one of Edmonton’s frontline workers, here it is:

  • Prioritizing Edmonton’s snow and ice clearing responsibilities
  • Increasing use of contract snow removal services
  • Implementing parking restrictions
  • Creating new performance measurement and evaluation tools
  • Designing an interactive map to provide real-time public information about snow maintenance activities
  • Improving urban design guidelines for future road construction

Had they done some consultation with Edmontonians, I’m sure those recommendations would likely include a great deal of cursing.

On the surface it seems like the city is actually getting somewhere. I am highly skeptical. I haven’t been in Edmonton long, but what I’ve seen would indicate the problem is not with parking or a lack of an interactive online map.

The problem is that they just don’t know what they’re doing! Oh, you say, how can I insult the fine workers of the City of Edmonton? How about by using examples? I’ve written about them many times before too.

And of course it’s not everyone, but enough that it’s a problem. Perhaps it’s the contractors. Or maybe it’s city supervisors who don’t know what they’re doing. Either way, the techniques used for snow clearing are the main problem.

Last winter is a prime example. With the series of dumps of snow we got last year, I was out in my alley clearing my driveway and the alley as well. I knew if I didn’t I’d pay for it when it warmed up.

Along came a friendly City of Edmonton plow to clear the alley, or so I thought. I discovered later that what they actually did was to pull snow off the sides to level the snow in the alley.

Oh, it was great when it was frozen and packed, but when it warmed up the inevitable happened: everyone parked on the street! I talked with others on Twitter who’ve said their alleys were scraped to the pavement. I wish.

I’ve talked with others in Spruce Grove who say their alleys are routinely plowed, to the pavement.

So, if the city isn’t going to take proper care of the alleys, how are Edmontonians expected to not park on the street (not to mention areas where street parking is the only option)? Unless this is just a revenue scheme to make up for the province’s $15 charge for plate searches from red and green light cameras? I’m such a cynic.

I know others in my area who take care of their section of the alley, and they ended up out on the street too. There are many elderly people in the city that can hardly be expected to shovel their alley.

I can guarantee you that if my alley becomes impassable, I will be parking out on the street. You might also find me in court fighting a $50 ticket. That would be fun. I took a photo for my community newsletter last winter that showed 10-inch deep ruts in my alley (where I had shoveled the snow) and that was after a few days of melting.

I like the city’s idea to review urban design guidelines for future road construction. Perhaps they could look at new developments too. Thankfully I live in an older neighbourhood with wide streets and large lots. I can’t imagine what it was like in the newer neighbourhoods that have more twists and turns than your small intestine.

One problem I have noticed is when sidewalks are right at the edge of the street. This definitely limits where the city can put the snow. In some areas it’s possible to set the sidewalk back a few feet so more of the snow can be pushed off the road. I’m sure the city already has this in mind when redoing sidewalks.

Snow plow parades aren’t the only problem

Other things I have noticed about Edmonton snow clearing? I know I’m not the only one who has seen convoys of six to ten plows wheeling down Edmonton’s boulevards, plows up, almost like it’s a parade. If you’re on your way to another part of the city, why not do a little plowing while you’re going?

Coming in from Spruce Grove on the Yellowhead one evening, I spotted 13 dump trucks and four graders just sitting on the side of the road. And to top it all off? They were being “guarded” by two EPS cars. Just sitting there. I wanted to smash my head on the steering wheel.

And then there’s the time my street was being cleared and there were three or four graders making three or four passes to clear my street. Really? I don’t drive a grader, but I’m sure I could have done that with one grader and three or four passes. I don’t live on a boulevard either.

To top it all off, at the end of the year, the city feels the need to get out the snow blowers, graders, dump trucks and flag people to clear the banks. Why not let it melt and get the street sweepers out later? Far cheaper. Can’t we take advantage of at least one aspect of global warming? Works on the glaciers.

Don’t get me wrong. I am sympathetic to the plight of the city and particularly front line workers. I can’t imagine having to be on the roads all day dealing with some of Edmonton’s legions of dumb drivers, bombing along the roads, no matter what time of year or road conditions, while texting or chatting away on cell phones.

I would really like this new plan to work, but unless the city focuses more on how the roads are cleared, it’s going to be as bad this winter as it was last winter. Look on the bright side though. At least all those $50 fines will help keep the costs down.

4 Responses to Effective snow clearing policy or snow job?

  1. You can’t write an article dumping (pun intended) on the snowplow operators then turn around in your second-last graf and say that you are “sympathetic” to the city and front line workers. The proposed plan is evidence of the city focusing more on how its roads are cleared, but you write that you fear the city won’t focus more on how its roads are cleared. There’s a logical issue with your thesis, no?

    Last year was truly exceptional (in a bad way), with massive amounts of snow followed by long and intense melting periods. As someone who’s lived here a long time, I would argue the policy of “blading” residential roads and alleys (as opposed to plowing them down to bare pavement) is a reasonable one that balances the need to provide clear roads with the costs and disruption of plowing the entire residential road network. But what happened last year upset that balance, making roads impassable and stressing the system. That the city seemed to be caught off guard when this happened is worthy of review and comment. But this is a winter city and if we don’t want to double our snow removal budget we have to accept winter driving conditions. Expecting the norm, while planning for the exceptional, does not seem like a bad approach.

    Some specific comments –

    – Comparisons to other jurisdictions are usually pointless. Spruce Grove may plow alleys down to bare pavement, but how much does that cost? How much would it cost for Edmonton to do the same, both in fixed costs of equipment and ongoing labour costs? Sometimes what works for a smaller community doesn’t scale.

    – The proposed parking bans are on bus routes only. Unless you live on a bus route, your option to park on the street when your alley is impassable is still available to you. If push comes to shove(l), maybe you can make a deal with the guy across the alley from you (who’s presumably not on a bus route) to let you cut through his yard so you can park on his street. Call it a “get to know your neighbours” exercise.

    – It’s quite possible that the line of graders and trucks you saw parked at the side of the road was a convoy getting ready to start their shift. The drivers do have to rest sometime.

    – One of the biggest complaints last year was that people didn’t know when their areas would be plowed/bladed/fixed. You were constantly wondering if you should keep your car off the road in case that was the day they were working in your neighbourhood. If they can push out an interactive map that says with some clarity “we will be here tomorrow” that is massive improvement. As I’m sure you’re aware, a little information goes a long way to resolving tension.

    – If you let the snow drifts linger, a few things happen. First, they become safety issues as visibility is restricted. This is especially true at intersections where you’re trying to see oncoming traffic and can’t because the snow pile is too high. Second, trees and grass die because they’re inundated with salt and sand. Third, the melted water from those piles drain into the roadway and cause more potholes than we already have, and I’m already marking my calendar for your “why can’t this city fix its potholes” post next spring. Fourth, some of those snowbanks will linger until well after streetsweeping season. The sweepers were out a month later than usual this year because of all the snow.

    I realize this sounds like a vigorous defense of Edmonton’s snow clearing. It is to an extent, but not for a second do I think the system is faultless, or that it worked well last year. I’m glad they spent the time reviewing the policy (and kudos for including a few front-line staff in that review too). As someone quoted at the press conference, sometimes it takes stressing a system to find its weaknesses.

  2. I can criticize city workers for the job that is being done, but still be sympathetic. I don’t know why you feel that it’s mutually exclusive.

    What I’m getting at is that it seems from this plan that the city is not focused on all the right issues. Parking is not the issue the main issue. Even when the roads are free of cars, there are problems with snow clearing. I have witnessed it. I’m not the only one.

    While I may not have lived here a long time, I grew up in a place that got more snow (Prince George) and they dealt with it very well. I’ve been coming to Edmonton for a long time too. Having lived here for a few winters, I see how Edmonton has dealt with it.

    I am curious how snow clearing was handled in the past in Edmonton. I’ve heard comments from others that there was even more snow here in past years.

    Chris, if comparisons to other jurisdictions are usually pointless, why is it that the city brought in people from three other winter cities to consult on this? I’m guessing comparisons are worthwhile.

    I have heard, but obviously haven’t verified, that people parking on snow routes will also be fined.

    I would love to park in my garage, so if the city isn’t planning on clearing the alleys, I could continue to shovel my section. They’re already doing it, so maybe they could do it properly. It seems that some in Edmonton are getting their alleys done to pavement.

    I don’t have any objection to the online map so people will know which areas are being plowed. Is that where the focus should be? No. Helpful? Yes.

    Good point on clearing the banks re: potholes. Visibility is restricted all winter, so some extra time with snow piles isn’t a big deal.

    Maybe next spring I should be writing an article on the quality of pavement in the city and whether paving methods and pothole fixing methods are as effective as they could be.

    I know the city is very defensive about snow clearing but having been through a few winters here, I haven’t really seen much improvement. Hope it works this year. While stressing a system does expose weaknesses, I would prefer that those weaknesses were anticipated and dealt with before ever becoming problems.

  3. If they are truly wanting to improve things, they should just look to the East. Edmonton should request a meeting with those in charge of snow REMOVAL in Sherwood Park. We don’t get windrows, we don’t need places to store the snow on the roads, they take it away.

    Not sure what it costs, but although we have less roads to deal with, we also have proportionately fewer taxpayers as well. I have a hard time believing that the money available, on a per mile basis, is that much different.

  4. Oh, and I forgot! If you are parked in the street (which have had no parking, snow removal signs up for at least 24-48 hours prior to snow removal) the County tows your vehicle to the nearest cleared road and leaves behind a polite little flag telling you where you can find it. No fines.

    Oh, and our roads are done long before Edmontons.

    ps: I do not work for Strathcona County Economic Development and Tourism lol!

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