Local policy areas like snow removal raise meaningful economic, environmental and social issues that researchers and policy-makers should not and cannot ignore.
As policy schools and think tanks across the country multiply, so too does the extent of policy research. In many ways, it is an exciting time to be a policy researcher; both the quantity and the quality of work on issues such as education, health care reform and energy policy are greater than ever before. At the same time, we still know relatively little about many areas of public policy, particularly mundane local policy issues. Local issues like garbage collection, sidewalk design and repair, and parking enforcement are typically outside the scope of policy researchers. Yet these issues have a critical and direct impact on the everyday lives of citizens, and they raise major concerns about equity, the environment and governance. They deserve much more attention.
A particularly Canadian example of this type of public policy is snow removal. Snowstorms and freezing rain can paralyze cities by disrupting the operation of business and the mobility of citizens and hampering fire, ambulance and policing services. Ineffective winter road and sidewalk maintenance can result in an increase in road accidents involving bicycles, buses, cars and pedestrians. There is surprisingly little policy research, however, on snow removal and its effects.
As in other mundane areas of public policy, the effects of decisions about snow removal are disproportionately felt by those who are socio-culturally and socio-economically vulnerable. For people with cars but without driveways, who are often of lower socio-economic status, overnight city-wide parking bans in cities like Halifax and Ottawa oblige them to find often costly space for their cars with a few hours’ notice, in order to enable snow removal and avoid towing or ticketing. Those without cars may have to navigate sidewalks that may not be effectively plowed, or they wait long periods for late-running buses and pay the consequences of delays getting to work or school. For people with limited mobility, the weather creates a “prison of ice and snow” that forces them to remain in their homes rather than try to overcome the challenges of slippery driveways and unplowed sidewalks. It is often easier to hole up for a while, no matter the cost of the isolation to one’s health and well-being.
The impact of snow removal policy was particularly apparent in Halifax in the winter of 2015. A freeze-thaw cycle, followed by a snowstorm, left the streets with a high snowpack, and plows could not make any progress on the combination of snow and ice. The sidewalks were in even worse shape than the streets, and emergency rooms were soon filled with people injured by falls or experiencing heart attacks from the strain of trying to clear their driveways and sidewalks of heavy ice. City services were disrupted, and bus drivers were forced to let people off into snowbanks. Garbage collection ceased in many places, because the trucks could not make it down the road. Reports of forced isolation and confinement emerged, as many people with limited mobility could not leave their homes. Among Haligonians, anger and frustration accumulated along with the snow; there were protests about the inaccessibility of the city and calls for change.
Snow removal and other mundane policy issues are often the responsibility of local governments. Municipalities have limited autonomy; their budgets are constrained by provincial rules and local intolerance of increases in property taxes; and, compared with provincial or federal governments, their decisions affect a limited number of citizens. However, these decisions have a direct impact on the lives of residents and the economic activity of the country. Snow removal is a particularly difficult issue for local governments to manage, because snowfall is so unpredictable. Municipalities consistently budget too little for snow removal, rarely accounting for growing cities and unpredictable weather conditions as a result of the changing climate. More accurate planning for snow removal costs could increase the predictability of municipal budgeting, improve citizen mobility and decrease the likelihood that local governments will compensate for cost overruns by cutting other services.
We do not know much about how snow removal in Canadian cities should really work. Expertise about snow removal policy largely stays within cities, as urban planners and city councils do the research themselves. Comparative analyses —within Canada or in the international context — rarely occur, and we know too little about best practices. Perhaps this is because policies like snow removal seem too small or too specific for policy schools and think tanks to consider. They may not seem exciting to researchers, in part because they are governed by municipalities and are seen to affect fewer people overall than provincial or federal policy initiatives. But it is mundane public policy that most affects our daily lives, particularly for those who most use public services. These policy areas — like snow removal, for example — raise meaningful economic, environmental and social issues that researchers and policy-makers should not and cannot ignore.
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