Snow presents many logistical challenges for Canadian cities. Street parking is difficult; snow plows exacerbate traffic congestion; excessive snow needs to be trucked out of the core; and melting snow turns streets and neighbourhoods into swamps.
These challenges are magnified in major cities. Toronto became a national joke in 1999 when it called in the military for snow removal. But, running out of room to put snow in a dense urban core is a legitimate emergency.
Since clearing roads for motorists is typically the priority, snow is often sloughed off onto sidewalks, impeding pedestrians. While a snow bank at the end of a driveway is an inconvenience, icy sidewalks and two-foot snow banks are treacherous for pedestrians.
Given Canada’s ageing demographics, we need to take accessibility concerns seriously. What better place to start than allowing seniors to walk down the street without fearing a broken hip?
Snow removal is expensive, but necessary – unless we can find a way to avoid removing it in the first place. The American Midwest provides us with one solution: melt it.
For example, Holland, Michigan, installed a water recirculation system under 167,000 square feet of downtown sidewalks. This reduced the need for shovelling, plowing, sanding, and salting the sidewalks. The heat is recovered from a local powerplant.
While Holland is a small city of 30,000, there is no reason this idea couldn’t work in larger cities. The city gets lots of snow, and has a climate similar to most Canadian cities. Reykjavik, Iceland has a more extensive system, though it isn’t a good analogue, since the country’s geology happens to provide it with nearly free geothermal heat. Closer to home, Richmond, BC has a heated sidewalk pilot project. Both Edmonton and Saskatoon are considering this approach.
Ultimately, whether heated sidewalks are viable for cities depends on two things. First, the cost. The installation cost might well be prohibitive. One estimate suggests that installation could cost $10-$15 per square foot.
Second, is willingness to pay. Ideally, heated sidewalks would be paid for by those who benefit most: adjacent businesses. Business improvement zones often pay for improvements to attract more consumers, since they recognize that it is in their own interests. It makes little sense to charge city-wide residents for something with a narrow benefit. This would ensure that heated sidewalks only get built if local businesses see the value, whereas if it was financed through general revenue everyone would have the incentive to lobby for heated sidewalks.
Given the immense value of real estate on streets like Bay Street, and the cost and inconvenience of snow removal from such a dense area, it’s not a stretch to imagine that property owners would be willing to pay to avoid having Bobcats running down sidewalks to clear snow. There would also be less slush, salt, and sand getting on shoes, carpets, and floors. In addition, heated sidewalks would also mitigate liability concerns for businesses, who could be sued for accidents. Additionally, it could make sidewalk beautification businesses invest in more durable (sidewalks often crack during winter due to expansion and contraction as the ground freezes). Property owners paying the capital cost with cities picking up the electricity tab as compensation for reducing snow removal costs seems like a reasonable compromise.
Another approach to financing the capital costs would be to emulate Pasadena, California: use downtown parking revenue to pay for local improvements. While businesses may worry that this policy would dissuade shoppers, allowing local business to set rates would ensure that they balance revenue generation with parking rates that customers are willing to pay. This could have the salutary effect of increasing parking turnover, since drivers often abuse underpriced street parking. And unlike simply increasing rates, this could work out as a net benefit to downtown businesses, since making downtown more walkable and attractive could result in more people coming downtown – especially during winter.
Not every neighbourhood could justify heated sidewalks. Some likely could. It would especially be useful if several contiguous major streets decided on heated sidewalks, creating routes where pedestrians could walk without trepidation in winter.
Given the poor state of Canadian sidewalks, this approach is worth serious consideration.