Clearing streets in winter? S’no problem for Quebec City

Date 03/04/2018

Written byTaylor Ireland

Previously in this blog we have mentioned Quebec City’s multiple distinctions, charms and assets, from history to gastronomy to economy. But, besides topping many lists in various pleasing categories, Quebec City is also the Canadian champion when it comes to snow. Love it or loathe it, we get lots of it.

That status is based on two annual measurements for cities with metropolitan populations of 200,00 or more – total snowfall, and total days when there is a minimum of snow on the ground.

St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador, gets the most snow by a comfortable margin, with a little more than 335 cm (nearly 11 feet). Quebec City is second with 316 cm.

That big dump of snow in St. John’s doesn’t hang around for long, however, due to the relatively temperate maritime climate. In Quebec City, though, it’s usually the case when the city gets the first significant snowfall in late November or December, the white stuff will be with us until March or April, with a few thaws now and then.

According to weather data, Quebec is the major city with the most days when there is at least 5 cm of snow on the ground – 141, or almost five months. Of other Canadian cities, the only rivals are Edmonton, Alberta, and Winnipeg, Manitoba.

You may find it comforting to know that while Quebec City is the snow queen, it is back of the pack when it comes to the coldest big city in Canada. I am proud (I think) to say my home province of Saskatchewan boasts the two coldest large cities in Canada. Saskatoon has an average temperature for December, January and February of – 7.3 C; Regina is – 7.6 C. Quebec is a relatively balmy – 7.7 C. Okay, that’s not much difference, but, as some say, Quebec has a much more comfortable, humid cold.

Enough about the cold, let’s get back to the snow, and there’s lots to get back to. As a matter of fact, as of last week, the amount of snowfall has already surpassed the historic average for this time of year, with well over 200 cm. With another two or so months to go in winter we’re bound to see more snow, but it would take a lot of epic storms to surpass the modern record of 550 cm in 2008.
All this snow means the city is called upon frequently to deploy what, in my view, is one of the most impressive exercises in public works you’re likely to see. Snow removal, in Canada’s snowiest city, is a true wonder to behold.

I like to think of them as the armies of the night, this massive, precisely coordinated operation involving hundreds of trucks, snowblowers, plows of all sizes, and battalions of trained workers. The city’s planners, engineers and managers have the removal of snow down to a highly efficient science.

Failure to clear streets of snow quickly could have dire consequences in a city with so many narrow streets. A major snowstorm could quickly paralyze the city, putting emergency services at risk.

It’s a massive task, and an expensive one. This year’s budget for snow removal is $43 million, which funds the clearing of 2,373 km of streets and 1,248 km of sidewalks. As many as 1,300 vehicles and 1,700 workers can be involved in a single night’s operation.

This army is always operating against the clock since, by city order, cars must be removed from streets, depending on the neighbourhood, from 11 or 9 pm until  6:30 or 7 am. This gives city crews a limited window to get the job done. For example, a snowfall of up to 15 cm can be done in four hours; more than 22 cm will take a full eight hours. It is often the case the city deploys the snow removal army two nights in a row to get the job done.

People who have to park their vehicles on the street must be ever vigilant for the flashing orange lights warning them of snow removal operations that night. The city is just as efficient at removing cars from the street with tow-trucks as it is at removing snow. Those who don’t have alternative off-street parking, or who don’t want to pay for expensive indoor parking, can take advantage of a modest fee the city offers for outdoor parking lots in all sectors of the city.

So where does all the snow go that’s been blown into hundreds of trucks in a caravan and carted off? That too, is an impressive thing. The city has a series of seven snow depots around the city where the trucks dump the approximately 3.6 cubic metres on average removed from streets each winter. Most of these don’t melt until late spring. City environmental officials say the impact of the melting of these man-made mountains of snow is minimal, and over the years the amount of salt used on streets has been reduced considerably.

Snow is one of Quebec City’s most magical features. Making sure it stays charming and not an impediment to urban living is a challenge the city has mastered impressively.