It has been mild and wet in Toronto over the last week, but normally at this time of the year, the entire city looks like as if it was just hit by some sort of apocalyptic chalk storm. Everything is white. And that’s because we rely on rock salt and liquid salt brine to keep our roads and sidewalks free of snow and ice. Each winter, the city uses upwards of 130,000 tones of salt to maintain its service levels.
This is the tool of choice because it is both reasonably effective and cheap. However, the trade-off is that it does horrible things to the environment. It also ruins perfectly good shoes, which should tell you something about what it’s doing to the environment. So it’s a balancing act: Yeah, it’s terrible for the environment, but we want usable roads and sidewalks. People slipping and falling is also a liability problem.
That said, when I was in Montreal over the weekend, I did notice a greater use of gravel:
This causes its own set of problems in the spring when it all needs to be tidied up. But in the interim, it did allow me to wear my neon Nike Air Max 90s without the fear of them disintegrating on my feet. Sometimes there’s also no choice. Road salts only work down to a certain temperature and then they become ineffective. So there are lots of examples of cities using sand and/or gravel to improve traction.
This is not the case in Toronto. We rely on rock salt. And part of the reason for this is that our winter service levels dictate “bare pavement” on highways and arterial roads. Gravel doesn’t get you bare pavement. Salt does. Also, Ontario doesn’t require snow tires, whereas Quebec does. So there is an argument that, because of this, we are all ill-equipped to deal with anything besides bare streets. (Though have you seen our sidewalks and bike lanes?)
I am not a salt management expert. I opted out of that fascinating elective in University. But in my opinion, the goal should be to use as little rock salt as possible. Maybe that means we need to rethink our service levels and our priorities. And maybe that means we need to do things like mandate winter tires.