Sorry: sidewalks closed for winter

Pam Frampton
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The driver of the pickup truck didn’t see Joseph Brown until it was too late to avoid hitting him. It was 5:45 on a winter’s morning and Brown was wearing dark clothes. When the driver saw him, he couldn’t swerve because a snowplow was in the next lane. He hit the  brakes. The truck slid.

A pedestrian makes her way through traffic on busy Empire Avenue in St. John’s on March 5. — Photo by Joe Gibbons/The Telegram

The impact caused a spinal fracture that killed Brown three days later — after he received a notice of infraction from the police for walking in the road because the sidewalk wasn’t cleared.

Death for Joseph Brown, sorrow for his family, harrowing trauma for the pickup driver.

It happed last month in Washington, D.C.

How many times could that have happened to you?

How many times have you driven down a slippery, snow-narrowed road and had to swerve to avoid a pedestrian, almost slamming into the traffic lane next to you?

How many times have you had to walk in the street for lack of cleared sidewalks, feeling a tugging gust of wind with every vehicle that nearly skims you, hoping against hope that you will not slip and fall into oncoming traffic?

It’s a scenario that plays out in many municipalities in winter. It happens in places that have no sidewalks and in places where they have them, but they are rendered inaccessible by snow and ice.

It can happen whether a person is wearing light clothes or dark, walking towards or away from traffic — provided visibility is bad or it’s slippery enough, or both.

If you are a pedestrian in a community without sidewalks, as I was, growing up around the bay, you have no choice but to try to clamber up into a snowbank when you spot oncoming traffic.

That’s fine, if you’re agile enough. But you shouldn’t have to do that when you live in a city that does have sidewalks.

Aside from all the valid arguments about why cities and towns should keep sidewalks clear year-round to encourage physical activity, sidewalks should be kept clear of snow and ice to keep pedestrians safe — period.

And not just sidewalks in front of schools or hospitals, but everywhere they exist.

Of course, your municipality may not be legally bound to provide that service.

As with many cities, St. John’s has a clearly defined policy about which sidewalks, steps and public paths it is responsible for keeping clear.

Slip and fall on an icy sidewalk on your own street, and you could find yourself injured and with no legal recourse.

“The liability for injuries on snow and ice is very restricted,” said Ernest Gittens, an experienced personal injury lawyer and senior partner with Gittens & Associates in St. John’s.

“Our courts have set the threshold very high. For areas where the city has taken responsibility, you have to show that they didn’t maintain the clearing and salting regime that was required to maintain safety, but there is a very high onus on the pedestrian to maintain a good lookout, to use proper footwear and to act appropriately for the overall conditions.”

“I just feel like he lost his life for nothing.” — Crystal Adams, sister of Joseph Brown

So, the city doesn’t have to keep every sidewalk clear, but it should. And not just sidewalks, but bus stops, too.

Sidewalks and public transit are municipal responsibilities. If they build those systems, shouldn’t they have to maintain them? No one should have to walk in traffic or climb a snowbank to wait for a bus, only to nearly slide under it when it arrives.

Sidewalk snowclearing has a price tag — that’s understood. Some municipalities put the onus for sidewalk snowclearing on homeowners and businesses, but that has to be enforced and certain standards maintained, which also costs money.

Safety has to be a spending priority.

I’ve had one too many close calls, both as a winter pedestrian and as a winter driver. I have no desire to take someone’s life through a traffic accident, nor lose my own.

As I write this, some sidewalks in St. John’s are plowed, but many aren’t. I certainly don’t blame city street crews, who’ve had plenty to contend with this winter. It’s up to city fathers to lead the way and make citizen safety priority No. 1.

Everyone who can get around in this city — people in wheelchairs, parents pushing strollers, dog-walkers, the old, the young — should be able to access sidewalks all year long, not just during cruiseship and convention season.

Barry Wellar, professor emeritus of geography at the University of Ottawa and creator of a walkability index for Canadian cities, has it straight. He’s quoted in Maclean’s magazine on March 17, 2011: “Sidewalks are a fundamental element of the urban transportation infrastructure. It is bizarre that any city would fail to provide the same level of service for sidewalks that it does for roads. This makes its pedestrians second-class citizens.”

Elected officials in St. John’s love to tout the city’s hot economy, the growth, the bright future. But there’s nothing laudable about not providing a vital service.

Make yourselves heard to the powers that be, fellow citizens.

Let this be the last winter of our discontent.

Pam Frampton is a columnist and The Telegram’s associate

managing editor. Email pframpton@thetelegram.

Organizations: Gittens Associates, University of Ottawa

Geographic location: Washington, D.C.How

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Recent comments

  • ian
    March 13, 2014 - 11:02

    Look at Raleigh street, not cleared once this winter. A lone lane through mountains of snow, a regular route for students on their way to school. Why hasn't that street been cleared even once this winter. Also look at Pennywell road, a major thoroughfare through the center of the city. one lone part of the sidewalk in front of the schools cleared and that is only when there is snow in the forecast. I have seen Children as young as 10 having t scramble t get out of the way of traffic. Something needs to be done. Look at Brookfield road where the sidewalks there havent been cleared at all the whole of this winter. snow banks as high as Eight Feet in some places or the fact that you dump it all on my friends front yard. during the Blizzard in January it was 12 feet high and I had to climb over it and shovel his doorway out because You the City workers had plowed his front door in and continue to dump the streets snow into his front yard. Fix it now before more people are hurt by the lack of plowing. this is absolutely unacceptable.

  • Ryan
    March 13, 2014 - 10:46

    Every Christmas when I go home to St. John's to visit my family, I am absolutely shocked and dismayed at the condition of the sidewalks in the city. It seems to have become so normalized that whenever I ask anyone what they think about it, they just sort of shrug as if to say 'there's nothing to be done about it'. Let me be clear here, it is NOT the responsibility of drivers to pay closer attention to people walking on the road when driving. It is NOT the responsibility of pedestrians to take out their earbuds and stop texting while they are walking on the road. It IS the responsibility of THE CITY to clear the sidewalks so that people don't have to risk there lives when trying to get around the city. Does a child have to get struck and killed before someone will take this seriously? Honestly, we have printers that can print three dimensional objects, we have people orbiting earth in a space station, we have developed prosthetic limbs that can be interfaced with the brain. Can we really not figure out a way to clear the sidewalks of St. John's? I can't figure out why everyone is so apathetic about this.

  • J
    March 10, 2014 - 13:45

    I have to wonder about the commenters who seem to think the solution is to walk against traffic -- have you never actually been a pedestrian here in winter? Walking against traffic sounds great in theory, but in practice it's often impossible. If you need to use a crosswalk in order to do so, you have to be able to access the button to activate the walk light; these are frequently inaccessible or malfunctioning in winter. Not to mention the distances between crosswalks and traffic lights mean you could be walking 10-20 minutes in the wrong direction only to cross the road and come back the way you came -- not always possible when you're walking in the dead of winter, which can easily turn a walk into a physically demanding task. .

  • Be safe out there! part 2
    March 10, 2014 - 09:40

    Drivers need to: Be alert. -Turn the music down, turn the bass down, if your vibrating the street, your brain is most likely vibrating too. How can you concentrate? -watch for pedestrians! while they must be alert too THEY CANNOT SEE EVERYTHING! - Stop at stop signs! look in all directions looking for cars AND pedestrians -stop at crosswalks when someone is TRYING to cross the street! pedestrians at SIDEWALKS have the right away! -Can't see around a snow bank? don't go blazing fast speeds. don't decide you wanna try drifting at that moment. -drive in the MIDDLE of the street, not on the line, not on the edge by the sidewalk. Middle. -Say it with me: SNOW TIRES. you live in Newfoundland, welcome to winter. welcome to the land of ice. We have it here half of the year sometimes even in summer. have a car? "all seasons" don't cut it here. you need SNOW TIRES. cant afford them? don't drive in the winter. Wanna drive with out snow tires? first take a walk and see how far you make it when someone DRIVING WITHOUT snow tires stomps on the breaks because they didn't see you because they were going too fast and boom bang right in to your body. Now imagine doing that everyday, with a stroller, with little babies holding your hands or with animals that NEED exercise. It takes two to tango! or in this case dance the fine dance of safety on the streets

  • Be safe out there!
    March 10, 2014 - 09:28

    It's really not that hard to walk and drive around on the streets in Newfoundland. Pedestrians need to:Be alert. -Put your phone in your pocket. -Take a earbud out while walking, or even just turn down the volume. If you can't hear a car approaching your in DANGER - Walk facing TOWARDS traffic. NEVER have your back to traffic. while drivers need to be alert too THEY CANNOT SEE EVERYTHING -Wear bright colors, and something reflective! nothing reflective on your coat/ hoody/ boots? buy some reflective tape or iron ons, Safety comes first, Fashion second. There are even stretchy bracelets! put them on your upper arm/ around your ankle, slip them on before you start walking, take them off at your destination. - walk on the edge of snow/ice, not on the ice, not in the middle of the street. so you don't slip and fall into traffic. grip on boots suck? buy some slip on traction. you can get them at Walmart $10 they're like snow tires, for your feet. have someone with you? don't take up 3/4 of the road, single file. one after another. small child that needs his/her hand held? plop them in front of you lead them with your hand in theirs directing them where to go with your other. -Cross at the crosswalks. Not at a crosswalk? don't cross the street. If you MUST, use hand signals. Putting your hand directly in front of you at a 90 degree angle to your body with your fingers together means" i wish to cross", it is up to a driver to stop and allow you to pass as you DO NOT HAVE THE RIGHT AWAY. Don't jump out in front of cars thinking they will be able to stop with a moments notice. One word: ICE, if your slipping on it, cars can too.

  • David
    March 09, 2014 - 12:15

    I'm disappointed that Pam Frampton feels that taking onus for your own safety while outside in winter is a matter of contention (in regard to seeking legal recourse for slipping on ice). As for the sidewalks, in many cases, there is no more physical space to move the snow to, and that's just the way it is. I feel that the number and severity of pedestrian-vehicle accidents pales in comparison to those between vehicles, despite salted /cleared roads. Wear appropriate footwear and pay attention to your surroundings. Believe it or not, you have a great deal of control over your own safety.

  • writer
    March 09, 2014 - 10:46

    Spelling mistakes in a published article? Unacceptable.

  • kerry gamberg
    March 09, 2014 - 09:41

    THANK YOU!!!! Not everybody in this city is able bodied with a car! Some are disabled and therefore housebound 5 months of the year. But hey, out of sight, out of mind.

  • Corporate Psycho
    March 09, 2014 - 08:41

    We voted in a Mayor who treats it's citizens as second class. We get what we vote for. If you want the sidewalks cleared don't vote for him. Pretty simple.

  • ruff
    March 09, 2014 - 07:08

    I,m new to the city, I lived here about 1 1/2 years on Barachois Street I,m shocked about the amount of people that have to walk on the roads because the sidewalks are not plowed I know the sidewalks are there . I seen them in the summer. Now its time to widen the streets when its not snowing. One of the funnies think I heard this winter , the mayor wants to keeps the mailmen, maybe if the sidewalks were plowed, I pray for the small kids that use this road , that they don't get run over by a car

  • annieabrown
    March 09, 2014 - 07:04

    This is why I didn't come to st john's in winter. I had read on social media about the lack of clearing snow off the footpaths. I would have had to extensive travel insurance because I would have had a serious accident because I am not use to snow. St John's is hard enough to walk around in spring and summer let alone winter. See you in spring.

  • Barney
    March 08, 2014 - 21:28

    I walk downtown all the time facing traffic, safety vest on and let me tell you I thank the powers to be every time I get to work alive and well and get home alive and well................I don't think it makes a row of beans weather sidewalks are cleared or not - drivers today just do not care...........

  • Stef
    March 08, 2014 - 19:47

    Well "read the article", I AM from here and I disagree with your 'suck it up and walk against traffic' sentiment. That does not solve the incredibly dangerous problem of people still walking IN traffic. We aren't pointing the finger and blaming people for the weather by refusing to accept the city's awful attempts at "snow clearing". I hate the fact that our city has avoided dealing with this issue for all the time that it has because something absolutely NEEDS to be done. Unfortunately, the city doesn't seem to care. How many deaths will it take for a change to come?

  • Newfoundlander in Halifax
    March 08, 2014 - 19:18

    I live in Halifax. I'm a pedestrian/transit user. Couldn't move back to St. John's if I wanted to because in the winter I would have no transportation. Not because the buses aren't working, but because I don't have superpowers and can't freaking fly to the freaking bus stops! If Halifax can manage to clear it's sidewalks, St. John's can too. It's called a "Sidewalk Plow." Buy them and use them. They both clear and salt the sidewalks. If it costs a few $ more, so what? What is the cost of a life? If people could use the sidewalks, they might actually use transit. Aren't all cities supposed to strive to be more green? It's too ridiculous a topic - ridiculous that it has to be discussed! Sidewalks must be cleared. Period.

  • Paula
    March 08, 2014 - 17:41

    Our City Officials (top to bottom) have lost their way. Blinded by big salaries, trips to cruise line conventions and other, perhaps, unnecessary travel. Citizens First...hmmm oh yes those people who pay taxes for street lights, garbage pick-up, paved roads and yip snow clearing. It's time these City officials got back to their first love of taking care of the business of the basics. To top heavy on the salary/travel side and not enough on the "take care of the people" side. Time for action City...clear the sidwalks.

  • JH
    March 08, 2014 - 17:18

    Vehicle drivers are often aggressive and undisciplined, but pedestrians should wear safety reflective vests, especially after dark and during the winter months.

  • Anna
    March 08, 2014 - 16:13

    The problem has been getting worse instead of better. Even when the sidewalks are cleared, they become icy and not fit to walk on so you still end up in the street. I was walking on sidewalk on Parade Street and then it ended and I had to climb over a huge bank of ice to walk onto the street. This city has money for a Communications group that won't speak to the media, the bike lanes, the harbour fence, and any other non essential project that comes its way but ignores anyone who has to walk. They send Paul Mackey out every now and then to tell us how hard it is to keep the sidewalks clear and the rest of the time ignore us.

  • Anon
    March 08, 2014 - 15:44

    We will have to pay more taxes if we want the city to take on this enormous expensive task. It should be the residents and businesses responsibility to clear the snow on the sidewalk in front of his/her residence or the business owner or the landlord in the case of multifamily housing and multibusiness buildings. That's the city bylaw in most cities and townships outside of NL. We should follow their lead. It works astoundingly well.

    • DM
      March 09, 2014 - 09:04

      In theory the idea of residents clearing snow in front of their property is a solid one. In Theory. In the downtown, and central residential areas, with the amount of snow that has fallen, where do we put this snow? Certainly not the street. The plows that Have been out just push the snow from the street onto the sidewalks! and I mean mountains of it making it impossible to move. I have done my best every year to clear the sidewalk around my home for myself and other pedestrians but this year proved impossible.

  • NEC
    March 08, 2014 - 15:31

    St. John's is seeing a lot of growth which ultimately should mean more tax dollars. Why can't they be used to keep the sidewalks clear in the winter. I walk outside for exercise in the spring and summer but go indoors for the winter. I can't even imagine having to walk in the city of St. John's everyday. I am terrified that someone is going to lose their footing while walking and end up under my car. We have definitely had rough winters before but it seems like this is one of the worst for keep the snow clear. I sincerely hope it doesn't take a tragedy for the city to wake up and realize this is a problem.

  • NEC
    March 08, 2014 - 15:30

    St. John's is seeing a lot of growth which ultimately should mean more tax dollars. Why can't they be used to keep the sidewalks clear in the winter. I walk outside for exercise in the spring and summer but go indoors for the winter. I can't even imagine having to walk in the city of St. John's everyday. I am terrified that someone is going to lose their footing while walking and end up under my car. We have definitely had rough winters before but it seems like this is one of the worst for keep the snow clear. I sincerely hope it doesn't take a tragedy for the city to wake up and realize this is a problem.

  • Megan
    March 08, 2014 - 14:32

    Honestly looking forward to moving away next year, assuming I survive this winter. It breaks my heart every time I see the elderly struggling to climb a snowbank when they're let off a bus.

  • California Pete from NFLD
    March 08, 2014 - 13:40

    I am not saying it makes it right but the pedestian is the picture is also wrong. Walking long with the traffic flow. I was always told to walk against the flow of traffic and if it had been that way, it is possible there would not have been an incident.

  • Anon
    March 08, 2014 - 12:43

    I'm originally from Newfoundland and now live elsewhere. We have a city bylaw that within 24 hours of the end of the snowfall it is the home or property owners responsibility to shovel their sidewalks and if you don't comply, you can be fined. The city takes care of the properties they own. It makes being able to walk in the winter much more simple and safe.

    • Jay
      March 08, 2014 - 15:52

      Anon, I've lived elsewhere too, but the situations are completely different. It is impossible for homeowners in this city to keep sidewalks clear. City Council uses the sidewalks as a dumping ground for snow and ice from the streets. You can shovel your sidewalk all you want, but then the city will send its snowplows out and a ton of cement-like ice will be dumped on your sidewalk. Most homeowners don't own snowplows so it's impossible to compete with the city. If the city can find a way to avoid dumping snow on sidewalks, then your point might make some sense, but I'm sorry that's not the case now.

  • saelcove
    March 08, 2014 - 10:36

    People that walk pay taxes the last time i checked

  • read the article
    March 08, 2014 - 09:41

    The reported death occurred in the Washington DC, not St. John's, NL. So the story tugs at your heart but drivers here know better that street walking in the winter is a normal practice. After being battered storm after storm this is something we have grown up with, and if you haven't than you're not from here. Major note for anyone's safety using this practice is to walk against traffic. We have to stop pointing the finger and blaming people for the weather that we have grown up with. This winter has been harsh but we have experienced winter's with more snow, and less bones chilling temperatures.

    • See Eff Eh
      March 08, 2014 - 11:59

      The author could have cited the death two winters ago here as well, but that's not the main issue. You seem to have missed the point about the article yourself: it is about the pervasive double standard in access to mobility in this city between those who drive and those who don't. Maybe it's because I'm "not from here" that this seems unreasonable.

  • Kayla Hearn
    March 08, 2014 - 09:18

    As a resident of downtown and someone who walks everywhere, I think it is absolutely disgraceful that there are no sidewalks in this city. I am 26 years old and I have fake hips. I can't climb the ice mountains that are the sidewalks around here and my only other option is to walk on the road. and downtown sometimes that is in the middle of the road because cars are parked too far out. I really can't express how disappointed I am in this city. .

  • See Eff Eh
    March 08, 2014 - 08:30

    What is most striking in St. John's is the contrast between the roads and sidewalks. The former are licked clean by plows and salt within hours of snow; the latter wait dyas or weeks to be cleared. Not only that, in clearing the streets, city plows often cover sidewalks they've previously cleared. Finally, walking as I do on a busy route to memorial, it's clear the city has no idea how to prioritize which routes to clear. Well, you voted Doc and these clowns back in, St. John's, so settle in and enjoy the status quo. Expect less!

    • DB
      March 08, 2014 - 12:32

      The main roads are cleared maybe, and thats a big maybe, but to say there "licked clean by plows and salt" is a gross overstatement. Many times I've been pushing snow with my car even the next day following a storm. It's not just the sidewalks that aren't done properly, the whole snow clearing operation is a mess.

    • KW
      March 08, 2014 - 12:38

      Not sure where you are to have your street licked clean after the snow...I too pay taxes and take my life in my hand every morning trying to get in my street has only seen a snow plow once this winter and a car driving on the street can barely clear the cars parked on both sides...we could never, ever dream to have sidewalks clear! I just pray a fire truck or ambulance never has to come to our street. At 8:20 am one day this week an RCMP car was stuck on the very same street!!!

  • jerome delaney
    March 08, 2014 - 08:05

    Sidewalks, where are they? The city has money to do ridiculous studies , making George St. more family friendly, where to dump snow instead of the harbour and the harbour fence, but no money for sidewalks. They wonder why Metro Bus ridership is down, commission another study, lol, no sidewalks!!! Yet, we spend a fortune on bicycle lanes that no one uses, try riding a bike in St. John's , with all the hills and wind, not easy. Then again I see Dennis O'keefe walking on the road every morning, sometimes having to serve to avoid him. One would think that he would want sidewalks clear , but I guess not.

  • Blue Ink
    March 08, 2014 - 07:58

    Sad, but too many pedestrians walking with back to traffic, no reflective gear, or even carrying a flashlight at night to make themselves visible. Ideally all the sidewalks would be clear and ice free, but they are not, so we all must take some responsibility for our safety when hoofing it.

    • king
      March 08, 2014 - 15:28

      Unfortunate but why was he walking on the wrong side of the road. People should be ticketed for doing so.

  • Kevin
    March 08, 2014 - 07:40

    Its shameful it like a city that's never seen snow. They the city said they had a 30 million surplus .During a recent snowfall I saw a sidewalk plow driving on the road salting the road maybe to much snow on the side walk. All thought students walking its just a matter of time before they get hit There should be a law that if you build a sidewalk you have to maintain it year around access There no excess period

  • Joe
    March 08, 2014 - 07:29

    The problem is the lack of responsibility and competence of city officials. Unfortunately we elect city officials on the basis of likeability and not competence.

  • Anon
    March 08, 2014 - 07:21

    Yes, there is an issue with the sidewalks. Yes, in areas were a lot of people walk they should be cleared. Yes, drivers need to slow down & be more aware of their surroundings, but pedestrians need to do their part too. Pedestrians should walk facing the traffic, so if something happens they can also see it & have an opportunity to move. Pedestrians should also walk signal file, not two or more abreast.

  • Skeptical Cynic
    March 08, 2014 - 07:04

    The solution to this issue requires a two-pronged approach and modification to municipal by-laws. Residents should be made responsible for removing snow from the sidewalks in front of their abodes, if necessary by dumping that snow into the street. The municipality is then responsible for removing that snow from the street as it becomes necessary.

  • willy
    March 08, 2014 - 06:43

    The problem seems to be the lack of equipment and manpower. Are the taxpayers of St. John's willing to pay more taxes to enable the city to purchase more equipment and hire additional staff to operate them ? Probably not.

    • Scott
      March 08, 2014 - 07:27

      Willy why is it feasible to spend millions on maintaining roads for driver safety but not spending more on pedestrians? Do you walk? Probably not. This sounds like provincial, driver-centric bias. The money is already there, it just needs to be reallocated from other areas, or distributed more evenly. Money is waste on ridiculous extravagances all the time. Is safety for our children less important? Definitely Not.

    • NNL
      March 08, 2014 - 10:59

      I use sidewalks, and not the main roads. I pay taxes so your road can be cleared, so why should you not have to pay more taxes so my sidewalk can be cleared? Rather hypocritical if you ask me.

    • Brett
      March 08, 2014 - 12:14

      Why is it affordable elsewhere in Canada but not in St. John's? That's something that needs to be looked at. How efficient are we at providing our services compared to other municipalities? Oh, and look at the top 10 cities in canada, not the also rans in atlantic canada.

    • To Scott
      March 08, 2014 - 13:30

      Ambulance/police and fire trucks need roads to move on not sidewalks. By the way I am a walker.