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Vancouver ‘snow’ place for transit in a storm

If the forecast for Metro Vancouver holds true this weekend, we're in for a rare January treat: that elusive combination of mild temperatures and sunshine that makes people in this city giddy. The tennis courts will be full, people will be wearing shorts, the laptops will migrate to the outdoor tables.

It's exactly the kind of weather that makes Vancouverites smug.

Does it mean winter is over? Don't bet on it.

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I've seen more than a couple of February snowfalls that have wiped the smirks off the faces of beach volleyball players mid-spike.

Like anyone who's lived here for even a few years, city councillor George Affleck knows that it takes just a couple of centimetres of snow to bring this city to its knees. He also knows that the city's plan for dealing with snow is less than ideal. This week, Mr. Affleck brought a motion to council born out of our mid-December brush with winter and this week's slippery morning commutes.

Part of this is no doubt a reaction to the outrage that followed December's relatively minor – but paralyzing – snowfall, when it was learned that some streets that also happen to be dedicated bike routes may have been given priority when it came to snow clearing. Hard to swallow for people trying get up their own side streets.

A larger part of it, though, comes from the fact that when it does snow in this city, people understandably tend to leave their cars at home and rely on transit – which is, well, unreliable. We know that by the forlorn faces of people huddled at bus stops, while down the route and out of view, hobbled trolley buses are pulled over to the side of the road. We saw that last month. We've seen it many times in the past.

Invariably, Translink blames road conditions and especially a lack of snow-clearing at bus-stops for its failure to keep buses moving, rather than the fact that its buses may not be designed or equipped to handle a Canadian winter.

It also blames car drivers who have the audacity to take to the roads for clogging up traffic.

But with Translink providing spotty service, what choice do they have?

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In his motion, which was unanimously endorsed by council this week, Mr. Affleck makes the point that we have to stop looking at snowfalls and icy conditions as rare occurrences.

He cites a report by city staff that followed what's become known (unofficially) as Snowmageddon four years ago. The report plays down Vancouver's winter woes, noting that only eight major winter storms have hit the city in the past 140 years.

But it's not the "once-in-20-years" storms we need to worry about. It's the not-at-all-rare surprise dusting of light snow, or the frosty mornings when the temperature drops below zero, turning the streets into skating rinks.

The city invariably insists its efforts to salt and brine and sand the roads have been a success. The fact that cars keep slamming into each other must be unrelated to the state of the roads.

Clearly, whatever the city is doing isn't working, or working to the expectations of people who live in a major Canadian city. If it were working, buses would be on time and basic services like garbage pick-up wouldn't have to be put on hold, crippled by frost.

I grew up in Ottawa, where snow clearing occurs with military precision and is carried out by an army of graders, sidewalk plows, snow blowers, dump trucks, and front end-loaders. It is something to behold.

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I'm not expecting the same effort or suggesting that anything even close is needed in this city. It wouldn't make any sense to spend millions of dollars on equipment that would be called into action just a few days a year.

But people do expect the city to do better.

Transit has to be at its best when people need it the most.

The city has to do everything it can to keep the buses, and everything else moving.

It's not good enough to point fingers and lay blame and suggest that only people who really need to go to work should venture out.

Stephen Quinn is the host of On the Coast on CBC Radio One, 690 AM and 88.1 FM in Vancouver. 88.1 FM @cbcstephenquinn

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