Frustrated citizen takes bicycle path clearance into own hands

When I moved to Waterloo, I was initially impressed by the winter path maintenance – the fact that there was any at all.    In the part of Toronto I lived in, the city made no effort to keep any paths clear.  But this year, snow clearance of the Laurel Trail has been so poor that the path is basically unusable.

During my commute last Tuesday, the state of the path was so poor that I was really pushing my limits in terms of bike control and physical exertion.  On top of that, the ride was so bumpy that my bike’s chain jammed three times within the 300 metres I travelled along the trail.

The fact that the worst part of my commute is along a bicycle path says something about the state of the cycling network in winter. When the only way to travel by bicycle is to share space with fast-moving cars, few people will travel by bicycle.  It doesn’t matter if it’s twenty degrees below freezing or twenty degrees above.

So I decided to take things into my own hands, and shovel the path myself from Seagram to University.

The Laurel Trail after I cleared it
The Laurel Trail after I cleared it

This was not purely an act of benevolence or frustration, I wanted to see if there was some intrinsic issue with that segment of path.  I know that some paths are inherently impractical to clear, such as the unpaved segment of the Laurel Trail through Waterloo Park:

Effective snow clearance inherently ends where the asphalt does.
Effective snow clearance inherently ends where the asphalt does.

During my walk bringing the shovel from home to the trail, every single street and sidewalk I encountered was cleared to bare pavement.  After all, it was above freezing and it had been many days since the last snowfall.

King Street cleared to bare pavement
King Street cleared to bare pavement
Ezra Avenue cleared to bare pavement
Ezra Avenue cleared to bare pavement

According to this notice I recently found taped to my front door, the city expects sidewalks to be cleared to bare pavement within 24 hours of each snowfall.

Snow must be cleared within 24 hours of a snowfall, "right down to the concrete".
Unlike the City’s snow clearance crews, I am “required to clear the entire width of the sidewalk of all snow and ice right down to the concrete”.

Clearly the Laurel Trail was in violation of this standard.

The state of the Laurel Trail when I arrived (it was worse further up)
The state of the Laurel Trail when I arrived

Thanks to the warm weather, I could clear a path simply by walking along with the shovel in front.  There was clearly no characteristic making this segment of path abnormally difficult to clear.

Easy as slush
Easy as slush

It took about an hour for me to clear the 300 m segment, but if I had access to an actual snow plow, I probably could have done it in a couple minutes.  The most frustrating part is that while I was doing this, the city’s plows were sitting idle in a garage somewhere.

Of course it has snowed again since I cleared the path, so my efforts may appear to have been in vain.  But I have demonstrated that it is completely practical to maintain paved paths to a standard suitable for anyone, not just young athletic people with fat-bikes.

After all, given that we’re already paying to have these paths cleared, surely it’s worth doing the last centimetre to make them useable by everyone?


My decision to clear the Laurel Trail was unrelated to the warning I got for my own sidewalk (which ironically was in the same condition as the Laurel Trail).  I cleared the Laurel Trail last Tuesday, and didn’t get the notice about my own sidewalk until this morning.  The long delay in posting this article was because I was procrastinating researching the municipal standards for snow clearance.  The city addressed that mental block by conveniently posting them on my front door.

9 thoughts on “Frustrated citizen takes bicycle path clearance into own hands

  1. I have also found it … absolutely ridiculous that pathways are not cleared to the same extent as roadways. Extremely strange also that the City is not held to the same standard as the residents. Whom is one to complain to? However, as a resident of the City of Waterloo I also feel like phoning in a complaint about the majority of the homes in Waterloo! This is not the first City of Waterloo bylaw that I have seen that simply over-reaches. Read the solid fuels bylaw – it is illegal to smoke a cigarette within City limits. Enjoy!

  2. Nice job! The one thing I can guarantee you is that your search for anyone taking a common sense approach to things at the city will be in vain.

  3. Fyi, I tweeted this to a few people. The Mayor replied and said he would investigate why the trails aren’t being cleared properly.

  4. The City of Calgary does plough or snowbrushes the snow off its parks MUP pathways …and it began with a few citizen winter cyclists who did themselves in 1970’s. Here is Tom Babin’s 2014 article:

    I will comment that the prairie air is drier than Ontario, so on a sunny day, the melting snow dries up faster than in Ontario. It helps to clear the snow as soon as it falls, so that there’s just less icing over residue with cycles of freezing and melting over several days in winter.

  5. Wow! Just found this. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. I live around Stirling and Courtland, and was able to bike almost all the way to UW without any problem, and this segment was frustrating me every day. In fact, on Monday February 9th, at 8:56 am, I even emailed the City of Waterloo. I wrote
    “Is it possible to plow Laurel Trail? The section between Waterloo Park and the University of Waterloo is quite unpleasant to bike on. Given that many of us prefer to use the trail instead of the streets for safety reason, it is unfortunate that the path is not plowed. I should point out that I have discussed this with other bikers and also with some pedestrians, and that I am not alone wishing this trail was plower.” responded “Thanks for the email. I have forwarded it to our snow clearing team to respond.”

    This was Monday February 9th. I was surprised the same evening to see the path being somewhat cleared. Your picture above “The state of the Laurel Trail when I arrived” is what I considered cleared given the state it had been over the previous weeks. So the city must have sent their off-track vehicle for a single pass along the path. You probably intervened the next day (Tuesday) to make it even better ploughed.

    Definitely, I hope this segment will be better maintained next winter. And hopefully not by you.

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