Snowed in with bad metrics

Our cities need to understand the extent of the problem that uncleared sidewalks pose to mobility and safety in winter. Unfortunately, the things they focus on give about as much clarity as a blizzard.

Nearly two years after City Council’s request, Kitchener staff have finally brought forward a report on winter sidewalk clearing. Their recommendation?

Do nothing.

You read that right. Despite calls by TriTAG and the Grand River Accessibility Advisory Committee to improve the state of our sidewalks in winter, staff are recommending no changes to the way sidewalks are cleared. Based on this report, and prior to any attempt at public consultation, councillors voted unanimously not to pursue municipal sidewalk plowing. This leaves in place the present system of wishing residents will follow the bylaw to shovel their walks, with enforcement only when someone can be bothered to file a complaint.

It’s not that municipal sidewalk clearing is cost-prohibitive. The report finds that additional taxes required to plow all sidewalks would cost each household an average of just $26.29, or a one-time 2.5% tax increase. That’s not nothing, but it’s low enough to make it politically palatable for a lot of people.

No, staff argue against sidewalk plowing not based on cost, but based on whether they believe it’s worth the effort. But how they determine this leaves much to be desired.

The metric by which staff compare the do-it-yourself approach vs municipal plowing is by complaints. Last winter, which staff note was “unseasonably mild,” 902 complaints were made about uncleared sidewalks. Based on the experiences of other cities that plow however, staff anticipate more than 1000 complaints to be filed each winter if the city took care of its own sidewalks.

Complaint volumes may be a politically motivating rationale, but they’re a lousy metric. Consider that complaints about uncleared walks are not accepted unless there have been 24 hours without snowfall, and follow-up can take days, if not weeks, discouraging people from reporting chronic offenders. Residents may be more likely to complain about a city plow than to tattle on their neighbours. Complaints about municipal plowing also include those concerning damage to sod or questions as to when your cul-de-sac will be visited while staff are busy clearing arterial routes.

But the biggest shortcoming of complaint volumes as a metric is that it neglects the heart of the issue – the impact our uncleared walks have on people’s mobility and safety. If you walk regularly or take transit, you experience first-hand the impact of unshovelled sidewalks. But too many city staff and politicians don’t understand the scope of the problem. 

You can’t fix what you don’t measure.

The report does not investigate the level of sidewalk shovelling compliance by property owners, nor the impact on mobility and safety it may have on residents. These factors should be considered when evaluating whether $26.29 is a worthwhile cost, not how many phone calls the city receives.

In the absence of municipal initiative in investigating the mobility impact of our present sidewalk-clearing regime, TriTAG will endeavour this winter to develop tools for measuring and assessing the state of our sidewalks. We want to look at rates of compliance and what limits they impose on freedom of movement and access to transit. With this data, we hope the case will be made for something more than the status quo, and point us towards better policies for sidewalk snow clearing.

That’s where we need your help. We’re looking for volunteers to help us collect data on sidewalk snow clearing in Kitchener. Volunteers will be asked to visit specified streets a few evenings over the course of 5 weeks this winter to report on the walking conditions of the sidewalks on those blocks, using a simple, straightforward survey. If you participate, you’ll be asked to sign up for a few specific data-collection times, (likely Monday or Thursday evenings).

If you’re interested in helping out, please add your name and email to our volunteer sign-up form and we’ll be in touch shortly.

2 thoughts on “Snowed in with bad metrics”

  1. My wife broke her left elbow as she slipped on the uncleared side walk in Kitchener two years ago. I doubt the city councillors took account of the health cost associated with many of such incidents.

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