Snow left on the city's sidewalks can make it difficult and sometimes dangerous for people who use wheelchairs to navigate. (Photo: LA Alfonso)
Brett Throop  - 
January 28, 2022

East City resident Sioux Lily Dickson was crossing the Hunter Street bridge on her way to a doctor’s appointment on Monday morning, when her wheelchair began to skid through a thick layer of compacted snow.

It was all she could do to keep from veering off the narrow sidewalk into the busy morning traffic, she said. “It was very scary.”

“I nearly ended up on the road about five times.”

It had been one week since the major snow storm that buried the city in about 34 centimetres of snow, on January 17th. 

Dickson said clearing the sidewalks along the Hunter Street bridge should have been a higher priority after the storm, since it’s such a vital link between East City and the rest of Peterborough.

“Although it’s the main thoroughfare for both pedestrians and vehicles coming to and from East City, the sidewalk is often neglected,” said Dickson, who is vice-chair of the City’s accessibility advisory committee and chair of its built environment subcommittee. 

When she managed to get downtown, Dickson emailed City Hall and a sidewalk plow was sent to clear the sidewalks along the bridge shortly after, she said.

Skidding out of control and colliding with traffic is one concern for wheelchair users we spoke to for this article. Another is getting stuck in the snow.

Sioux Lily Dickson uses a motorized wheelchair to move around the city. When she met with Peterborough Currents on Friday January 28, her wheelchair got caught and stuck in the snow on Hunter Street Bridge. In an email she wrote, “It is so frustrating when such a small amount of snow can derail one’s [activities]. The video shows that frustration.” (Video: LA Alfonso)

It happens to Dickson almost every winter. One time, her wheelchair got stuck multiple times crossing the Hunter Street bridge and two good Samaritans had to repeatedly push her out. It can take as many as three people to get her wheelchair, which weighs around 180 kilograms (400 lbs), unstuck, she said.

The risks of navigating snowy sidewalks lead many wheelchair users to drive directly on the street, Dickson said.

It’s a common sight on Peterborough streets in winter, and something Dickson has resorted to when she has no other option.

“If we have to go play in traffic to be safe, there’s something wrong,” she said. 

She gets lots of angry honks from motorists when she abandons the sidewalk. “I want to make a sign sometime that says, ‘if I’m on the road, I’m not happy about it either’,” she said. 

It’s very “disconcerting” when people with assistive devices feel like they have no option but to travel on the road, said Leslie Yee, vice chair of the Peterborough Council for Persons with Disabilities. “That’s not where anybody should be, unless you’re in a car or on a bike lane,” she said.

Even a small amount of snow can be a barrier for people with mobility limitations, said Yee, who is legally blind and uses a guide dog.

Tire ruts in compacted snow left by sidewalk plows can be difficult to navigate with an assistive device, such as a walker, she said.

Piles of snow that plows leave in front of curb entrances are another major barrier.

The City’s standard is to clear sidewalks down to no more than eight centimetres of snow within 48 hours of a snowfall, according to a policy document on the City’s website. 

However, when the City declares a significant weather event, as it did on January 17th, its usual snow clearing standards don’t apply until the declaration is lifted.

Some snow gets left on sidewalks because scraping them down to the bare surface could damage the City’s sidewalk plows, public works manager Brian Jobbitt wrote in an email. 

Crews apply salt and sand to help with traction and “encourage melting to the bare surface,” however that is difficult to achieve below -15°C, he wrote.

Sioux Lily Dickson sits on the City’s accessibility advisory committee. (Photo: LA Alfonso)

It is easier to clear roads right down to the pavement because vehicle traffic raises the surface temperature and helps disperse road salt, he wrote. 

As for curb entrances, Jobbitt wrote that “every effort” is made to keep them free of snow. But he said they “do require additional clean up after an event of the recent magnitude.”

Still, Yee thinks more could be done to make sidewalks easier for people with disabilities to navigate in winter.

More sidewalk plows would help, she said. The City has 16 plow trucks, six loaders and two grades to clear roadways, according to its website. But it only has nine sidewalk plows.

Peterborough has a large senior population, Yee pointed out. “So there are a lot of people that do rely on … public transit, or using the sidewalks, to get somewhere. I do think sidewalks need to be cleared out pretty quickly.”

As for Dickson, she said she doesn’t expect sidewalks to be “perfect.” She just wants them to be consistently clear enough that she doesn’t have to take her wheelchair on the road.

“If we prioritize people over automobiles, then sidewalks should be prioritized,” she said.

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