Vancouver’s snow struggles

Monday's storm caused gridlock around the region

For many Vancouverites, snowfalls in our city are a bit like that relative who comes to stay every few years. After arriving, there is an initial spate of anxiety, which throws our daily routine out of whack. Then, slowly, you get increasingly annoyed by its presence until you reach a boiling point and want it to go away.

Though kids and a lot of adults like to romp in the wet stuff by building snowmen and getting their skis out of storage, we forget that the cold and icy conditions can also severely impact many citizens.

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This week, Old Man Winter returned and, on Monday, Metro Vancouver almost ground to a halt. Lousy road conditions meant buses could not climb hills, and cars encountered gridlock across the region.

SkyTrain and Canada Line, by contrast, both ran like champs on Monday morning for which the systems’ operators deserve credit.

It has been reportedly more than 1,000 days since a snowflake landed here. It is true we have had very little snow — apart from a few light dustings — since the last great dump eight years ago.

It was mid-December 2008, mere weeks after the municipal election that propelled newbie politician Gregor Robertson into the mayor’s office.

An initial flurry on Dec. 12th prompted the mayor to post the following on Twitter: “can’t wait to bike in the snow.” He could not have guessed then how his new administration would be soon severely tested by the weather.

Robertson left the country on vacation, and city hall was effectively shuttered during the winter holiday break. Keep in mind that these were the days before the 3-1-1 service.

Then the temperatures dropped, turning roads and sidewalks into skating rinks. The snow storms soon followed.

Around this time, I had launched a blog called with another municipal politics enthusiast, the former chief of staff to Mayor Sam Sullivan, Daniel Fontaine. Our updates decrying the 2008 storms as “snowmageddon” attracted thousands of web hits, and a lot of attention for a pair bourgeoning political bloggers.

Meanwhile, city hall was getting a serious black eye for its lousy snow response.

Ironically, hitting the beaches in Mexico that winter that might have saved Gregor Robertson’s political career.

His counterpart in the City of Seattle, Mayor Greg Nickels, wore the blame for his city’s botched snow response and was defeated a few months later in a primary election.

Politicians all know the risk they face by failing to respond to blizzards, so why do many cities repeatedly get caught looking unprepared for winter conditions?

The best answer is that snow removal is expensive. Keeping costly equipment and staff to operate it on standby drives up property taxes, which politicians are loath to raise for a couple weeks of inclement weather. Nevertheless, Vancouver’s 2008 stumble persuaded the city to buy several new street sweepers and snowplows, which they have paraded in several news conferences since purchasing them.

Environment Canada cautioned everyone the snow was arriving last Sunday, as a result the city had 14 vehicles salting and plowing Vancouver’s main routes on Monday morning, with another 15 vehicles mobilized later in the day. On Tuesday, as the temperatures dropped below zero, the city’s main routes were looking pretty clear.

If forecasts for another dump of snow are correct, local municipalities will face their first big test since 2008.

Is there more all of us can do, however, to prepare for winter’s icy grip?

Last weekend, the City of Vancouver issued a reminder to citizens across the region to make sure sidewalks adjacent to their properties are cleared by 10 a.m., seven days per week. Those who do not clear them may be subject to fines. The advisory was a joint release with the B.C. Care Providers Association (full disclosure: it is my employer), an organization that advocates for seniors care.

Those who are hardest hit by snowy conditions are seniors and others with mobility challenges, as well as those who take care of them. It is for them that we should all try to be “snow angels,” says the city, and keep sidewalks clear or dial 3-1-1 for help.

So keep that snow shovel and rock salt handy, so we can all enjoy this little blast of winter.


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