Snow Big Deal: Could snow clearing improve this winter?

Snow Big Deal: Could snow clearing improve this winter?


Many of Toronto’s bike lanes are not permanent, they are part of ActiveTO. If City Council does not hear support from constituents, they could be ripped out faster than they were installed. Sign the petition to keep ActiveTO bike lanes now.


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Snow Big Deal: Could snow clearing improve this winter?

Each winter, Cycle Toronto calls on the City of Toronto to improve snow removal strategies across the city. Now more than ever, we need to respond rapidly and adapt quickly to make our city safe and accessible this winter due to the pandemic. The quick planning and execution of ActiveTO saw Quiet Streets, Major Road Openings, and nearly 25km of temporary bike lanes installed so that people are able to move about their neighbourhoods in a safe, physically distant manner. With winter approaching we need to enable people to continue to choose active transportation. 

Councillor Matlow’s Petition: Support Snow Clearing

Current Winter Cycling Challenges

The biggest barriers to cycling through a Canadian winter are the weather conditions and the maintenance of roads and cycling infrastructure. Cold temperatures are something that nearly every Torontonian is prepared for: layer up, wear thick gloves, and pull on your warm boots. While residents can get the gear, maintaining snow and ice-free places to ride requires municipal services’ intervention.

Currently the City clears roads and cycle tracks (protected bike lanes) when there has been 5cm of snow or more. The city clears routes according to these guidelines:

Road Category When does the City start plowing?    How many hours after the snow stops falling will it take to clear?
Cycle Tracks 5.0 cm 6-8 hours
Arterial roads and streetcar routes 5.0 cm 6-8 hours
Collector roads, bus routes and local streets with hills     5.0 cm – 8.0 cm 8-10 hours


Based on the number of days per month on average in Toronto with 5, 10, or 20 cm of snowfall, we would meet this threshold for snow clearing less than 8 times while having snow on the ground for 65 days:

  Average days with at least 5 cm of fresh snowfall Average days with at least 1 cm of snow on the ground
January 2.5 20.0
February 1.6 19.4
March 1.2 11.4
April 0.4 1.2
November 0.5 1.9
December 1.6 10.7
Year 7.7 64.5


Source: Current Results: Toronto Snowfall Totals & Accumulation Averages

Providing snow clearing for people on bikes just eight times a year is not enough. Bikes handle snow and ice differently than cars and thus require cleaner pavement to operate. When the roads are well-plowed, snow is often left in the places usually occupied by people on bikes (bike lanes and on the edge of the road). On roads without bike lanes, this can mean that people riding bicycles have only narrow tracks made by vehicle tires or that the road is narrowed significantly, making it more challenging for people to pass a cyclist when driving a car. In many cases a bike lane can be cleared one day and even without a weather event, it will be blocked the next day due to cars naturally dragging snow into windrows.

Conditions such as these dampen people’s ability to travel about their neighbourhoods. Bike trips are typically less than 5 km and connect people with businesses, schools, and workplaces nearby. A 5 km trip by bike would take less than 20 minutes to complete. For many residents, hopping on the bus can involve a trek down an unshoveled sidewalk and then a wait for the bus, which can sometimes take a total of 20 minutes — not even counting the bus trip. 

What snow clearing could look like in 2021

At the November meeting of the Infrastructure and Environment Committee (IEC), Cycle Toronto wrote and spoke in favour of the motion that could have taken the first steps to expanding snow clearing in three ways:



City Council direct the General Manager, Transportation Services to provide an update on the Winter Maintenance Program Review that includes, but is not limited to, a plan on harmonizing sidewalk clearing standards for neighbourhoods in Midtown, East York and the downtown core, equipment procurement, and budget impact assessment to the October 6, 2020 (item was delayed until November) Infrastructure and Environment Committee Meeting.



City Council direct the General Manager, Transportation Services to investigate the appropriate equipment required to clear bike lanes and cycle tracks.



City Council direct the General Manager, Transportation Services and the General Manager, Parks, Forestry and Recreation to develop a comprehensive snow clearing plan for all paved pedestrian and cycling pathways in Toronto's parks.


The portions of this item that passed IEC are very promising, but do not mean bike lanes and multi-use trails across the city will be cleared using better equipment this winter. Should it pass at City Council, this will be a directive to City staff to investigate the possibility of taking on more snow clearing.

There is a lot of support for better use of public space in the winter including the City’s own Toronto Office Recover and Rebuild recommending the City develop a Winter City Plan to pursue winter solutions for ActiveTO to increase resilience on a year-round basis to help deal with the pandemic. However, there are some big challenges to implement a plan this year: 

  • The City is in the midst of its current snow clearing contract; adding additional snow routes is at the contractor’s discretion,
  • Expanding snow clearing routes for cycling and sidewalks could be negotiated when the snow clearing contract is up for renewal in early 2021, and 
  • Re-negotiating the snow clearing contract in the midst of a pandemic may be challenging as many other issues will be under discussion

Any new snow clearing would have to fit in with these challenges and balance the other needs of Torontonians.

Updates on snow clearing

On November 25, the City of Toronto announced their Welcome T.O. Winter Parks Plan, which includes new ways for residents to stay active, including: "100 parks with winter maintenance, including 60 with enhanced maintenance this year including cleared parking lots and paved pathways". This is welcome news and we look forward to learning more details about this plan, such as which parks and trails have been included in the list for enhanced maintenance as well what the enhanced maintenance will include, in the coming days and weeks.

On November 26, City Council considered the motion brought from IEC on snow clearing. The two recommendations that passed at IEC also passed at Council:

1. City Council direct the General Manager, Transportation Services to investigate the appropriate equipment required to clear bike lanes and cycle tracks.
2. City Council direct the General Manager, Transportation Services and the General Manager, Parks, Forestry and Recreation to recommend costed options for clearing snow on a subset of paved pedestrian and cycling pathways in Toronto's parks based on recreational and active transportation winter use.

Councillor Josh Matlow also introduced a motion to include two new items for consideration, which also passed:

1.  City Council direct the General Manager, Transportation Services to seek and implement measures to increase the snow clearing sidewalk pilot for this winter, including the possibility of obtaining more equipment and stretching the hours of service.
2.  City Council direct the General Manager, Transportation Services to report to the December 2, 2020 meeting of the Toronto and East York Community Council with the streets that will receive sidewalk snow clearing during the 2020-2021 winter season, the rationale for not providing full sidewalk clearing harmonization, if applicable, and a path forward to full harmonization for the 2021-2022 winter season for City Council's consideration.

Expanding and enhancing snow clearing across the city will make it safer and easier for people to get around using active transportation all winter long. We are encouraged by the incredible support at City Council to ensure that every resident can continue to get outside no matter the weather.

What can you do?

Beyond the immediate need of keeping active and physically distant in a pandemic, the City has a stated goal of increasing walking and biking to 75% of all trips under 5 km due to the ongoing climate crisis. Toronto cannot achieve either of these goals without making active transportation a viable option in all four seasons immediately and in the long term. 

Councillor Josh Matlow has put together a petition in support of all three snow clearing initiatives. Fill out the form and an email will be sent to members of Council encouraging them to support the additional snow clearing in Toronto. Council will have to decide by November 24, 2020, so sign and share widely!

Support snow clearing

When the snow clearing contract is up for renegotiation, it will be essential that it be constructed so that it is future-proofed. This can involve creating a new contract that allows for growth in future years so that it is not renegotiated during the pandemic with only pandemic budget spending in mind. The yearly budget process will also occur in early 2021, so ensuring that the city has the funds to create safe and accessible streets, bike lanes, and sidewalks will be paramount to improving accessibility and expanding active transportation all year round.

Keep riding through the winter

By on Nov 11, 2020

  snow removal, Cycling Snow Routes, snow-clearing, winter cycling, winter biking, TORR, IEC, City Council