Snow

Why Victoria, Like Other Cities, Always Seems to Plow the Bike Lanes First

There's actually a pretty logical explanation

By Tristin Hopper
January 17, 2020
Snow

Why Victoria, Like Other Cities, Always Seems to Plow the Bike Lanes First

There's actually a pretty logical explanation

By Tristin Hopper
Jan 17, 2020
Three social media images showing cleared bike lanes next toapparently unplowed city streets. Credit (from left to right): Twitter.com/JaJaFett,Facebook.com/VirginRadioVictoria Facebook.com/tom.fletcher.395.
Snow

Why Victoria, Like Other Cities, Always Seems to Plow the Bike Lanes First

There's actually a pretty logical explanation

By Tristin Hopper
January 17, 2020
Why Victoria, Like Other Cities, Always Seems to Plow the Bike Lanes First
Three social media images showing cleared bike lanes next toapparently unplowed city streets. Credit (from left to right): Twitter.com/JaJaFett,Facebook.com/VirginRadioVictoria Facebook.com/tom.fletcher.395.

As the Capital Region lay paralyzed by snow this week, a number of photos made the rounds of social media showing beautifully cleared bike lanes laying directly alongside treacherous roadways still piled with ice and snow.

"Bike lanes perfect. Roads ... not so much," wrote one widely circulated post on the Facebook page of Virgin Radio Victoria.

It’s not a complaint unique to Victoria. In Vancouver, Toronto and even Edmonton, the immediate hours after snowfalls all seem to yield maddening images of empty but snow-free bike lanes coursing their way through landscapes of impassable roadways and sidewalks.   

“The sidewalks and roads are disastrous but instead you plow the bike lanes!?” wrote one typical Victoria critic in a Wednesday Twitter post.

The explanation for the apparent disparity isn’t due to any cycle supremacy in plow schedules. Neither is the city prioritizing bike lanes ahead of more critical infrastructure such as emergency routes or main arteries. Rather, it comes down to an issue of equipment and differentials in coverage area.

The machine used to clear snow from Victoria’s separated bike lanes is a Bobcat compact loader fitted with a rotating brush attachment. The brush spends most of the year as a street cleaner, but during snowfalls does double duty as an ersatz snowblower.

When snow hits the City of Victoria, the immediate priority for the Bobcat is to clear pedestrian approaches to the Johnson Street Bridge, explained the city’s director of public works, Fraser Work, in a conversation with The Capital. Then, the machine is directed to clear the several kilometres of  the city’s separated bike lane network.

The Bobcat, with rotating brush attachment, that is used to clear Victoria's bike lanes (Courtesy of the City of Victoria).

Completing both tasks can take as little as an hour, and once complete the machine drops its rotating brush attachment, picks up a bucket attachment and begins doing detail work on snow removal, such as clearing accumulated snow from parkades or high-traffic intersections. On snow days, the Bobcat will actually spend the vast majority of its time as a conventional front-loader for piled snow, rather than in its rotating brush configuration.   

The machine is too small and underpowered to plow city streets with its brush attachment. With a width of only about one metre, it would need up to three passes to clear a single two-lane road. The brush attachment is also much slower and more disruptive than a plow: Snow is blasted away, rather than swiftly pushed to the side as with a plow. It’s fine for setting a narrow track through a limited bike lane network, but it would be catastrophically slow in clearing any meaningful portion of Victoria’s 258 total kilometres of asphalt roadway.

"You can't allocate that resource to larger jobs," said Work.

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The machine is simultaneously too large to plow sidewalks without leaving a trail of snapped trees and shattered benches in its wake. The City of Victoria does send around crews to clear snow from priority sidewalk areas such as transit stops and wheelchair ramps, but that’s done manually by shovel.   

Victoria's inventory of snow-clearing equipment also includes these, but they're exclusively used for the deck of the Johnson Street Bridge (Courtesy of the City of Victoria)

Plowing city streets, meanwhile, is a whole different operation. A total of seven plow-equipped trucks are deployed 24 hours a day by the City of Victoria during snowfalls, and directed to a carefully planned list of priority streets. According to the city’s website, the “first priority” for plows includes “emergency routes” and “major arterial streets.” This essentially means that in the first minutes of a snow deployment, Victorians can expect to see plows along Douglas, Blanshard, Bay, Hillside, Pandora and Johnson, said Fraser Work.  

A City of Victoria heavy snow plow in action (Victoria.ca)

In a heavy snowfall, these trucks may never actually finish their first priority plow targets, as they keep having to circle back to clear fresh snow. They are also never deployed to bike lanes; the plows are far too large.

Bike lanes also get salted, but here too they are able to exploit a differential in city equipment which means that they aren't diverting resources from priority roadways. While salting of city streets is done by heavy trucks, the City of Victoria maintains a 4x4 pickup in its fleet specially configured for more fastidious de-icing. The pickup is intended primarily for hills; after a heavy truck has passed, the pickup moves in to areas that are particularly prone to sliding and adds a few extra coats of salt or brine.

The pickup truck can only effectively salt a hill after a plow has already passed, which means it usually attends to Victoria's bike lanes before any work on priority routes is available. "I've asked 'should the truck have been deployed to a hill?' and crews will respond 'no, they weren't ready for it,'" said Work.

One reason that a bike lane may appear to be beautifully cleared while an adjacent road is not may be due to timing. Even with seven trucks, the dozens of kilometres of priority roadway in Victoria utterly dwarf the comparatively short network of separated bike lanes. The rotating brush is also more thorough on snow. A city street may still have packed snow on the road surface after even several passes by a plow, while a single pass with the brush is sufficient to expose black asphalt in a bike lane. Said Work, many of the social media posts of cleared bike lanes next to snow-covered streets are actually showing roadways that have in fact been plowed, but not enough to expose the blacktop.

And while downtown’s separated bike lanes might get immediate treatment in a snowstorm, bike infrastructure in the rest of the city is a distant priority when snow comes. Curbside bike lanes often become impassable repositories for plowed snow for days after a snowfall. The Galloping Goose Trail, the single most trafficked bike path in the entire region, is explicitly given third priority for attention from city plows, meaning that it almost never gets plowed before a thaw tackles snow clearance naturally.  

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