Toronto’s struggles with blizzard highlight its dependence on cars | Canada
Ohen a blizzard hit Toronto earlier this week, Greg Cooke did what he and his neighbors knew was expected of them. They grabbed their shovels and worked for hours clearing the sidewalks of snowdrifts that almost reached their knees. Concerned about elderly residents with walking difficulties, they made sure to clear to the edge of the street.
The next morning, Cooke came out to find that a snowplow had again come by to widen the road and pushed away all the snow on the pavement.
“They push these solid, thick blocks of snow. And so it was even worse for people to pass than it would have been if we hadn’t done anything,” Cooke said. “It was comedic nonsense.”
Monday’s storm battered the nation’s largest city for less than a day, but its effects nonetheless highlighted vulnerabilities in Toronto’s infrastructure, its lingering inequities – and its dependence on cars.
While the city’s struggles with snow have often drawn sneers from other parts of the country – the Toronto government is still mocked for calling in the military to help it out of a series of relentless snowfalls in 1999 – critics say many of the challenges are the result of policy failures that prioritize vehicles over pedestrians.
At its peak, Monday’s blizzard left hundreds of cars stranded on city roads and highways, with many vehicles simply abandoned by frustrated drivers.
The city’s transit commission said at the worst of the storm, 540 buses were stuck on the road for hours, including one recovered by a group of Torontonians – and the subway system was forced to close.
City Mayor John Tory warned on Tuesday that it would take days for roads to be fully cleared, and 600 road plows, 360 sidewalk plows and 200 salt trucks were deployed.
But on Wednesday, residents were always post pictures of sidewalks and bike paths completely covered in snow. Meanwhile, the city school board announcement eight schools remained closed for a third day after the contractor hired to clear the snow was unable to complete the work.
“The past two days have highlighted how our transportation system is running close to failure all the time – because we’re basing it on cars,” said Shoshanna Saxe, professor of civil engineering at the University of Toronto.
“For those of us who had the privilege of not having to drive, it was a fun day in the snow. But for people who needed to drive, they were forced to take risks. Some were stuck for hours on the highways. Doctors and nurses had to abandon their cars on the road to get to hospitals in the midst of the biggest wave of Covid we have ever seen,” she said.
Saxes pointed to recent efforts in Sweden, where clearing curbs takes priority on roads. The aim of the policies is to address systematic shortcomings that have an outsized effect on people with reduced mobility, including those in wheelchairs, health conditions and parents who push young children in pushchairs.
“When you decide not to plow a certain neighborhood for a few days, you are also limiting the ability of a disabled person to leave their home,” said Maayan Ziv, a Toronto-based photographer and founder of Access now. “Accessibility, in general, is often an afterthought.”
Because she uses an electric wheelchair to get around the city, Ziv says the snow often forces her to cancel meetings and appointments and can tie her up at home for days.
Toronto City Council recently approved nearly C$1.4 billion ($1.1 billion) in spending for future snow removal — a victory for residents who have long complained that sidewalks are inaccessible. But the contract’s winning bidders have warned it could take more than a year to get the hundreds of vehicles needed to do the job.
“We live in this cold part of the world where it snows every year, and yet we still face these problems. And when the city fails to recognize those needs, it kind of falls on the goodwill of neighbors,” Ziv said. “There’s beauty in that and people working together and supporting each other. But an entire city can’t – and shouldn’t – rely on good Samaritans with their shovels.