After days of non-stop snowfall caused chaos on Metro Vancouver roads, drivers say cities and highway contractors need to do more to keep traffic moving during winter storms.
But experts say spending more taxpayer money to manage weather events that can’t be planned for is missing the bigger picture.
Complaints quickly mounted throughout the week as crews scrambled to plow major routes, which still saw dangerous conditions that led to multiple crashes and a dizzying number of ICBC claims.
Even Vancouver Park Board commissioners and city councillors said staff did not have the right priorities in place, as crews opted to clear bike lanes ahead of pedestrian routes.
Coun. Sarah Kirby-Yung says she plans to introduce a motion to council that would ask staff to explore an increase in both the city’s snow-removal fleet and resources to clear public sidewalks.
“We’ve seen how much the dedicated equipment can clear the bike lanes very quickly, so can we do the same for pedestrians?” she asked Thursday.
Kirby-Yung says she’s not criticizing the hard work crews are already doing but that there’s no protocol for clearing public paths that don’t fall in front of a home or business. Property owners or residents are currently required by law to clear their own walks or face fines.
She wants staff to explore bringing in new equipment that would allow crews to clear sidewalks and bus shelters more easily, requiring fewer workers to manually shovel snow and reposition them in order to clear roads.
“We’re encouraging people to take transit during inclement weather, but they need to be able to get to those transit stops,” she said.
“We know with climate change, as the arctic air is warming, that probably means colder winters in North America, so we need to ensure we’re taking care of our pedestrians as well.”
Vancouver budgets roughly $4 million a year for snow and ice removal. Other cities in Metro Vancouver, like Surrey, have similar winter budgets, while still others, like Richmond, have even lower budgets at around $1 million.
Those costs pale in comparison to the $40-million snow budget in Calgary, which sees a lot more snow throughout the year.
Despite only seeing large snowfalls once or twice per winter — if at all — drivers say Vancouver should still be spending more money to keep the snow out of sight when it does fall.
But Andy Yan, city program director at Simon Fraser University, says calls to expand those budgets and add more equipment are difficult to follow through on, considering how unpredictable the weather can be.
“I think it would be like the Bear Patrol on The Simpsons: it would probably be a very expensive series of industrial art that would just sit in some maintenance yard for most of these cities,” he said.
He said rather than focus on buying more snow plows, municipalities should look at planning their transportation networks for unusual weather events.
“It’s really an issue of talking about the resilience of our city,” he said. “It’s not necessarily about plowing through snow but making sure that our systems of transportation and mobility are really sensitive toward how things can change and can adapt to change.”
Kirby-Yung says she’s not looking to increase the snow-removal budget or raise taxes. Instead, she simply wants the city to consider reallocating resources with the funds it already has.
“I think it’s about working smart and making sure we have a protocol that’s responsive,” she said.
“We also have to think about the economic cost of people not being able to get to work. What are those costs?”
Criticism has also been levelled against Mainroad, the contractor responsible for clearing most of the region’s highways, including parts of the Trans-Canada Highway.
But general manager Darren Ell says his fleet of 24 snow plows is adequate for what crews saw this week.
“It’s hard to keep up with those bursts of snow, but we’re out there keeping up as best we can,” he said.
Yan said the grumbles and gripes will quickly fade as the snow melts and will likely not be part of the conversation during the next budget cycle.
“This type of weather is incredibly inconvenient and it disrupts the lives of many Metro Vancouverites, but then, at the same time, it occurs pretty infrequently here,” he said. “It’s not the top type of threat to moving around in the region.”
— With files from Jordan Armstrong