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Tory's Toronto

Metro's Matt Elliott, formerly of Ford For Toronto, keeps the light shining on Mayor John Tory's city hall.

Matt Elliott: Toronto's dangerous, icy, slushy sidewalks have got to go

Other cities are doing more for pedestrians, so can we.

Two people brave slushy sidewalks for a walk near High Park.

Eduardo Lima / Metro

Two people brave slushy sidewalks for a walk near High Park.

Call it the pedestrian’s dilemma. It happens every winter.

On days when the snow has started to melt away, large swaths of sidewalk become covered in slushy ponds — especially near intersections. These ponds are a terrible mix of water, snow and slush, with slippery ice lurking underneath.

Trying to walk through the city, you have two choices when you encounter one of these slushy obstacles.

You can just keep walking — straight on through to the other side — risking soaked feet at best and a slip-and-fall at worst.

Or you can try to walk around the ice pond, which in a lot of cases — Toronto has narrow sidewalks — means stepping into the roadway, where you risk getting hit by some distracted driver who is probably texting, or eating a burrito, or eating a burrito while texting. 

Both these options suck.

This winter, with its ridiculous yo-yo temperature swings, I’ve been facing this kind of dilemma on an almost weekly basis. I haven’t fallen yet, but there have been a lot of close calls — and too many wet socks.

This may feel like whining. I get it. This is Canada, after all. Snow and ice are part of our heritage. But this is, at its core, an accessibility issue. Since I’ve started writing about this issue, I’ve heard from Toronto residents, many of whom live with disabilities and use mobility devices, who feel trapped in their homes during the winter months.

The sidewalks are too dangerous.

The data bears this out. An analysis by Toronto Public Health published in 2016 revealed that there were almost 30,000 emergency department visits caused by people falling on snow or ice between 2006 and 2015, with injuries increasing in winters with more snow.

Injury rates were higher amongst seniors — one of Toronto’s fastest growing demographics.

And these injuries come at a cost to all of us. Millions in health-care costs and more in legal costs. Toronto paid out nearly $67 million in costs related to 2,300 claims filed after falls on icy sidewalks between 2006 and 2015.

This is not something residents should just accept as part of living in a city with winters. Our status quo, where many streets in the downtown area don’t get any sidewalk snow clearing service at all, lags far behind other cold weather cities, many of whom have turned to technology to make sidewalks safer.

Our friends in Montreal, for instance, have been having a debate this winter about the possibility of installing heated sidewalks that could automatically melt accumulated snow and keep routes clear. It’s an idea that’s tried and tested — in Reykjavik, Oslo and Michigan.

In recent days, Montreal’s municipal government has balked at the idea, worrying about mounting costs. Mayor Valerie Plante has instead unveiled a plan to purchase “ice crushers” that will cruise along the sidewalk and, well, crush ice.

Whatever the outcome, there’s an urgency to Montreal’s move to make sidewalks safe that doesn’t exist in Toronto.

Not for pedestrians, anyway. It didn’t escape my notice that during last week’s much-heralded re-opening of the Gardiner Expressway ramp to York/Bay/Yonge came with a new feature: a de-icing system that activates automatically when temperatures drop and precipitation falls.

A good idea for safety. A good idea for car commuters. Pedestrians could use some good ideas too.

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