How We Should Respond to Snow in the Downtown

We’re working through a major challenge in the downtown right now. Businesses in the area have been calling for snow removal for almost a week during their most important season, and they feel the City is not responding effectively.

In short, businesses are seeing measurable impact on their sales and feel helpless in their attempt to rectify the situation.

Note: for those familiar with this situation, click here to jump down and read our next steps. Otherwise read on for some details about what lead us to where we are today.

Snow is Here by Darrell Edwards

Photo: D. Edwards

Council and staff have been deliberating on the snow issue since Monday’s council meeting. Staff reported several reasons for not doing a full snow removal (as opposed to a snow clearing) operation in the downtown. Namely: traffic is still flowing, spaces are cleared, and businesses have been clearing the sidewalks in front of their shops.

As well, snow removal operations are complex and generally only undertaken once all other clearing is done in throughout the city. In other words, we use all of our resources to ensure the city is ready for a storm before conducting any snow removal. The downtown is always the first to receive this service once it begins.

Finally, snow removal uses major equipment like large snowblowers and dump trucks. The streets must be fully clear of cars and pedestrians in order to be effective and safe. And on top of that, there has to be space between ships in the harbour to dump the snow. These conditions are very rare during the busy nights of Christmas.

However, it’s that very reason - the busy Christmas season - that led business owners and council to push strongly for an exception to the snow removal policy; we need snow removal downtown immediately.

The downtown is a unique area. It is a densely packed business district with narrow roads, and it relies heavily on foot traffic for its street-front shops and restaurants. It’s not like other shopping areas that generally have large parking lots that are empty at night, providing places to push snow.

People with even the slightest impediment to climbing snow banks and walking on slushy, slippery roads and sidewalks are simply unable to venture downtown right now. That’s a lot of people taking their business elsewhere during this important season. This is a big deal: Downtown businesses report that, in some cases, Christmas represents up to 50% of yearly revenue for these small operations.

Unfortunately it took until Thursday for a decision and preparations to be made for the removal of snow in the downtown. During that day, signs were put up warning motorists to remove their cars before 12:30am. Machinery begin filling the downtown around midnight.

By the next morning, however, only a small section of the two streets set for removal (Water Street and Duckworth Street) had been cleared. There had been a large number of cars that remained parked on the street, and there were several pedestrians out celebrating. A judgement call was made that the operation to tow all the cars was too much, and that there were too many pedestrians in harm’s way.

A fair point indeed, but here’s the real point: it would have been better had we been able to take care of this on Tuesday, a much calmer night, and also the night after it became clear to us that downtown was being majorly impacted by the snow.

Clearly this has been a frustrating situation. There are certainly challenges to servicing every area of the city fairly, but we have to find a way to address them.

Next Steps

So what can we do going forward?

First we have to try our best to set up a removal operation for Sunday. Conditions are much worse now, and whatever we can do to help, we should. [UPDATE: operations are scheduled to begin at 12:30AM]

Second, as council representative for Downtown St. John’s (DTSJ, previously DDC) I am calling for a meeting of our Joint Committee in early January. I will facilitate this discussion between staff (specifically representatives from Public Works) and the board of DTSJ to figure out what went wrong.

Third, from this meeting we will draft a concise, highly specific policy for responding to snow in the downtown. We will explain the justification for this policy, specify decision factors like snowfall amount and time of year (i.e., the two weeks leading to Christmas), and we’ll outline an approach that includes a response time, streets to address, and the time of night to operate.

We have a set of policies for snow clearing and removal that work well and are conducted by a skilled team of professionals. Responding to snow will always have its challenges, but when an entire business district is providing details of an issue, we should listen. They are the ones on the ground, seeing the reality of the situation.

I’m confident that we will learn from this situation and respond accordingly in the future.

Written by Dave Lane at 11:25

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