Gambling on Winter Weather

by Markus O'Brien Fehr, Chief of Staff

On January 17, 2022, the weather took us by surprise. Over that day, 55 centimetres of snow fell on Toronto streets. That amount of snow in such a short time, followed by a long period of freezing temperatures, was more that the city could handle.

And oh, we felt it. Some streets were snow-clogged for weeks; many sidewalks were impassible for as long; schools turned into dangerous turf without safe paths in or out; PlowTO, the City's online app that was supposed to tell residents when their street might be cleared, couldn't even get that right.

The "major weather event," as the City calls it, made for a hard and dangerous winter for residents and offered hard lessons for those expected to manage it.

At the April 6-7 meeting of Toronto Council, John and his colleagues grappled with those lessons, considering a major post-mortem report from the Transportation department.

That report did call for immediate changes. The city is streamlining its snow removal contracts, so that one contractor takes care of all the snow removal issues in a region: sidewalks, cycling facilities, local roads, arterial roads.

That will make things run more smoothly during typical winter events. But at this point, Toronto doesn't yet have a plan for the kind extreme winter weather that climatologists warn we're likely to see more frequently. A draft Extreme Winter Weather Response Plan won't be prepared until early 2023.

In this proposal, staff are looking at ways to have the Office of Emergency Management get involved in extreme situations. In many ways, 55 cm of snow across the city is not much different than an extreme flood. Residents need to know that in such situations, we're dealing with a form of natural disaster, not snowfall as usual, so they can plan accordingly. Better communication from staff, both to the public, and to Councillor's offices, would have been helpful in January as we worked with residents through the aftermath.

A review of accessibility for vulnerable communities is also critical. Sidewalks around schools should be prioritized where pedestrian safety is paramount. Designated seniors safety zones, TTC boarding areas, and other sensitive areas should be addressed similarly.

Work is also being done with the vendors of the City's new sidewalk plows to ensure that there are sufficient parts on hand to address breakdowns as they happen. The deep banks of hard-packed frozen snow caused excessive breakdowns this year. Without parts on hand, many plows were out of commission for weeks – a situation that cannot be repeated.

Though we'll be comforted to have a plan addressing extreme winter weather, waiting until 2023 for a draft outline is a risky bet. Though several Councillors, including John, called for some solutions to be tabled this summer, they were not supported by the majority as most of Council was prepared to wait.

That will leave many of us worried about what next season will bring as we wait for changes that can't come fast enough. We can only hope that next winter won't deliver another nasty surprise.

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