What we value

After a December snowstorm, many Halifax sidewalks — like this one on Macara Street — remained unusable more than 24 hours later. Photo: Trevor J. Adams

We can’t end winter, but we can, and should, do more to let Haligonians move freely around their city

As I sat down to write this column, Halifax got its first major snowfall of the season.

About 32 cm of snow fell. HRM suspends its sidewalk clearing standards at 30 cm (meaning plowing deadlines are extended), so more than 24 hours after the snow stopped falling, many sidewalks were still impassable.

Social-media active councillors faced their own blizzards, as people bombarded them with messages about pedestrians walking on roads cleared for cars, alongside snow-filled sidewalks. People described being housebound, forced to miss work and appointments.

As the most Twitter-active councillors, Waye Mason and Sam Austin (who later deactivated, and then reactivated, his account) took the heat. They posted about service standards and costs. Mason tweeted that “main street sidewalk and bus stops are by and large clear.” Readers responded with photos of snow-choked sidewalks and bus stops.

Discourse grew passionate. “I can’t eliminate winter,” Austin tweeted. “So it’s a question of what the reasonable time period is before we clear. You keep making an emotional appeal and I keep asking you the policy question.”

Of course, constituents don’t get paid to make policy.

If you rely on a car to get around, you might not see why this is a big deal. What’s a day or two of impassable sidewalks?

If you’re car-free, you already understand that periodically being housebound, or forced to walk in traffic and scrabble over snowbanks, is a nightmare.

Your risk of falling or having a driver hit you goes up. If you use a wheelchair, many neighbourhoods become unreachable. Most people don’t have the freedom to take a couple days off work and cancel their appointments whenever it snows.

HRM’s frequently suspended sidewalk clearing standards send clear signals about who our government values. If you’re a motorist, you’re important. Within a few hours of clear skies, you can carry on with your life as normal.

If you’re not a motorist, your mobility isn’t as important. You lose your freedom for much longer.

The solutions aren’t complicated. Ensure sidewalks on key arteries are cleared at the same time as roads. Hold the contractors to stricter standards. Get better value for citizens.

These discussions always come down to money. And there is always money for the things government wants.

Last August, the police violently removed people from homeless encampments, most notably the one next to the old Spring Garden Road library. A Freedom of Information request by the NDP reveals that the operation involved 64 officers, and cost $50,000.

Was that great value for the money spent? Did it give anyone the freedom to go about their lives in this city, to work, go to appointments, and see loved ones?

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