Trampled under foot

January 13, 2010

Guelph Mercury, 13/01/10sidewalk

We spend most of our time trampling over them, taking for granted that they’ll always be there, underfoot, when we need them.

And sure, they’re not much to look at. Flat, heavy slabs of concrete that are about as unsexy as it gets.

But sidewalks are as big a part of city life as public transit and parks. Too bad we don’t seem to notice them until they’re missing, or buried under snow.

Back in December, city council considered cutting sidewalk plowing in winter as part of budget trimming. They ultimately decided to keep the service, and vowed to trim $100,000 from somewhere else.

We should consider ourselves lucky. Plenty of cities expect property owners to do the work themselves.

In Kitchener, you have 24 hours after a snowfall to clear the sidewalk that fronts your property. If you don’t, your neighbor can snitch on you and you’ll get a visit from a city bylaw officer. If they issue a warning and the work still isn’t done the next day, they’ll do it for you – and slap a $300 to $500 bill on your property taxes.

But what a city plow could do in one sweep takes days of enforcement and paper work. Even those steep fines don’t seem to work. Once the snow flies, it becomes a full-time job trying to keep on top of lazy property owners who can’t be bothered to clear their sidewalks.

Last winter, Kitchener issued some 1,400 of these fines. That may be money in the city’s pocket, but it also shows that the everyone-do-their-part system simply isn’t working.

And if you’re in a wheelchair, or elderly and have a hard time getting around, it means you’d better make alternative plans if you want to use city streets in the winter. Because though a few inches of snow might mean a chance to leave a footprint for most of us, it might as well be a wall for someone with mobility issues.

This is stuff Guelph ought to remember next time it considers getting out of the business of plowing sidewalks. Leaving the work to residents means sidewalks that are plowed in piecemeal form, always at different times, and by people who have different ideas about how to do a good job.

And never mind the problem of vacant lots or buildings with absentee landlords. In that case, who is around to get the message to plow the sidewalk? Kitchener bylaw officials will tell you this is one of their biggest headaches.

Still don’t think sidewalks are a big deal? Consider this: a Kitchener woman may have died this week because of them. Or, more accurately, because of a lack of them.

Veronica Walsh, 51, was killed Sunday night when she was trying to cross Victoria Street North in Kitchener to get to her home. There are no sidewalks on this stretch of Victoria Street, which means any able-bodied person has to climb over snow banks, across parking lots and through ditches to walk along the street. That’s not an option for someone in a wheelchair.

Walsh was using the only route available to a person in a wheelchair – straight across the road in the middle of the block – when she was hit.

Victoria Street is among some 55 kilometres of regional roads in Kitchener that should have sidewalks but don’t. Regional councilors considered a plan to fix the problem last year, but decided to save money instead.

So the next time you’re strolling down a plowed city sidewalk in the middle of January, consider yourself lucky.

Or, if you find yourself griping about how the city plow hasn’t been by in days, how about trying something else—like getting out there with your own shovel, and giving a helping hand.

Greg Mercer is a Guelph-based freelance writer. His column appears Wednesdays. He can be reached at, and past columns can be read at

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