COLUMN: Cities should enlist teenagers to clear sidewalks for absentee owners

Connecting shovelers with property owners could make cities more walkable after a snow storm

Snow falls rarely in Abbotsford and the Lower Mainland, but we can do better at shovelling our sidewalks after a snowstorm.

Doing better, though, probably requires doing something differently.

Many already do their civic duty, but even days after the snowstorm, you could look around on Monday and find sidewalks that were slippery at best and unpassable at worst – particularly for anyone with a wheelchair or walker.

The sidewalk situation in the city’s residential neighbourhoods isn’t complicated. You should shovel your own sidewalk and help those neighbours who can’t do so themselves.

(Having neighbours who are slackers isn’t a good excuse: one cleared frontage is an excellent way to subtly shame others who are neglecting their civic duty.)

In Abbotsford’s core, sidewalks represent a key part of the city’s long-term plans to create a community that gets more people out of their cars. They are also key to allowing people to access the city’s buses. Thankfully – perhaps because foot traffic is much heavier, perhaps because many businesses have a vested interest in the state of the sidewalks – pedestrian routes get more attention.

While a few strip malls had meticulously plowed parking lots and heavily neglected sidewalks, many did their duty. The same couldn’t be said for the corporate owners of large lots set for development.

The sidewalks along many of these vacant lots in Central Abbotsford went entirely ignored.

It’s easy to see why it doesn’t get done: No one lives on site, and it would be inconvenient and cost money.

RELATED: Snow-clearing facts: One fine issued last year for not clearing sidewalks in Abbotsford

But “it’s annoying” isn’t a good reason to abdicate your city responsibility. If it were, no sidewalks would get cleared.

The city’s own bylaws require shovelling within 24 hours. But that bylaw is rarely enforced to the full extent of the law. Last year, just one fine was handed out. Faced with the prospect of spending money to clear sidewalks, or not spending money and still avoiding a fine, many companies have taken a predictable approach.

The city isn’t innocent itself. It owns a vacant property at the corner of Cyril Street and Gladys Avenue along which the sidewalks haven’t seen a shovel. The city obviously had other snow-clearing priorities and only so many staffers. But if it can’t keep its sidewalks clear, how can it expect others to do the same?

A snowy sidewalk isn’t an impossible challenge, whether for the city or local developers. But some sidewalks require more thought than others.

There isn’t much money in simple sidewalk clearing, so those next to isolated properties with absentee landlords don’t receive much attention.

Here’s what could be done: The city could set up a registry of young casual workers, let’s call them “teenagers,” who are willing and able to clear any sidewalks in their neighbourhood.

Residents, developers and the city itself could use that list to find ready and eager snow-shovellers who live nearby and thus don’t have to worry about all the problems sidewalks pose to larger contractors.

Or the city could do the reverse, and maintain a list of sidewalks in need of a shovel, along with a phone number to call to get the micro-contract. Even more ambitious: build an app that allows people to say they need help clearing their sidewalks. Someone calls a teenager, and a modest sum of money gets added to the property tax bill.

Yes, there’s probably some legal stuff that needs to be worked out. Yes, the two ideas above may not work. But the issue demands a little thought, since it’s clear that the city cannot depend on developers or businesses – or itself – to ensure all of Abbotsford’s sidewalks can be navigated when winter shows up.

Tyler Olsen is a reporter at The Abbotsford News

Do you have something to add to this story, or something else we should report on? Email:
tolsen@abbynews.com


@ty_olsen
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