Sidewalk Snow Clearance is a Human Rights Issue

Another winter, another raging debate in my city about who should take responsibility for sidewalk snow clearance. Currently, residents are expected to clear their own sidewalks. Most of the people who are arguing against city sponsored sidewalk snow clearance are able bodied, so I imagine that it is easy for them to take this position. Their day to day lives aren’t affected by snowy, icy sidewalks.

Maybe they’ve never encountered a wheelchair user stuck on the sidewalk, or seen an elderly person trying to get their walker over a giant barrier of snow. If they did, I would hope they would change their tune. It’s quite evident that the current sidewalk snow clearance “system” isn’t working. It’s serving to isolate vulnerable people in their homes, and putting them at considerable risk when they do decide to venture out.

A few weeks ago, I was out for a walk and saw a man stumbling on the road. At first I thought he might be intoxicated, but soon realized he was hobbling and in extreme pain. He couldn’t say much other than “my leg hurts”. He had slipped on an icy sidewalk. Someone driving by stopped, and we a realized he needed to go to the hospital, so we carried him into the truck and took him to the ER. The person driving was late for work, so I stayed with this man at the hospital until his parents arrived. Through talking to him, I gathered that he was just out for his daily walk, which was special to him. As a formal occupational therapist, I knew the injury he sustained was serious, and would have a pretty big impact on his life. His father actually called me last week and told me that his son required hip surgery as a result of his fall and would be in rehabilitation for quite a long time. All because someone didn’t clear their sidewalk of snow, which then turned to a sheet of ice. He won’t be able to go on his daily walks for the foreseeable future.

A mother and her children walking on the road because the sidewalks are covered in ice

People who are against city-sponsored snow clearance think that we can solve this problem through “neighbourliness”. That, we can all just “chip in” to ensure a universally accessible community. The reality is that many people just won’t shovel their sidewalks. Even if 99% of residents shovelled their sidewalks, the community would still be inaccessible. Sidewalk snow clearance is like cycling infrastructure. Small pieces of infrastructure here and there is useless. We need a dependable network of clear sidewalks to allow people to move safely and freely through their communities. Could you imagine if we treated our sidewalks with the same regard we treat our roadways? We’d actually have a functioning, accessible community.

And, that’s what is maddening about this “debate”. People treat sidewalk snow clearance like it’s a problem we’ve never encountered before. We’re able to keep main roadway routes mostly clear and accessible. Why can’t we do the same for our sidewalks? Or, at least try? The problem is simple and easily definable; the solution might involve some creative thinking, But, we know what needs to be done. We need to remove snow. And, that might cost money.

“The issue isn’t about our ability to solve the problem of sidewalk snow clearance; it’s about our willingness to pay for a solution.”

The issue isn’t about our ability to solve the problem of sidewalk snow clearance; it’s about our willingness to pay for a solution. And, we desperately need a solution. As it stands, people who use mobility aids or strollers are second class citizens in our cities. For a considerable portion of the year, their worlds become significantly smaller, and more dangerous. As far as I’m concerned, the ability to move safely and freely through a city is a fundamental human right. And, I don’t believe an issue of human rights is something that we can leave up to the benevolence of our neighbours. Cities should take responsibility for sidewalk snow clearance and make the accessibility of all residents a top priority.

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