Montreal city crews use heavy equipment to break up thick ice on Jan. 29, 2018.
Allen McInnis / Montreal Gazette
I walked through downtown exactly like every other pedestrian there last week.I waddled like a penguin across Ste-Catherine St. ice, then leapt gazelle-like across slush puddles at Peel St., then danced like a ballerina along a tiny strip of visible sidewalk.I felt like an all-terrain vehicle, and only one thought screamed in my brain: “Where are our heated sidewalks?”Sorry to rant aboutthis issueagain, but there’s recent reason to rant. Downtown and much of the city are disaster zones, elderly people are scared to step outside and many of us are walking on roads, not sidewalks — preferring our odds against cars rather than ice.Mayor Plante keeps promising to clear our vast urban icefield, but that might eventually take dynamite.You may remember city hall nixed former Mayor Coderre’s plan to heat Ste-Catherine’s sidewalks during the Great Downtown Reconstruction. But this winter is a showcase for why we need them.The city claimed heated sidewalks were too difficult and costly, but several cities I’ve visited in winter have long had them, from Oslo and Helsinki to Sapporo, Japan.Even here in North America the tiny city of Holland, Mich., (population 34,000) has been heating its downtown sidewalks for more than 20 years, with a system called “Snowmelt.”Since Holland gets 193 cm of snow annually, similar to Montreal’s 206 cm, I called their city hall to ask what Snowmelt’s like.“Fantastic!” said Holland’s downtown development coordinator, Amy Sasamoto. “We just came through a polar vortex blizzard, but our downtown is totally ice and snowflake-free.”Holland started heating some sidewalks in the early 1990s to stave off the threat of a new mall — and its ever-expanding Snowmelt network is now so successful it’s the mall that’s failing.“People love to come downtown to be outdoors in winter — kids, seniors, the handicapped, mothers with strollers, everyone!” Sasamoto says. “I love it because I’m a jogger and I wear running shoes all year round.”Holland adds new heated sidewalks to its grid during major repairs, installing underground hot water tubes that melt snow and ice. They recently topped five miles of heated sidewalks — enough to heat Ste-Catherine from St-Denis to Greene Ave. — and they even have several blocks of heated downtown road.“We don’t even plow those downtown streets anymore,” says Holland’s street superintendent, Scott Boeve. “Ice never forms because rain evaporates as it falls, and Snowmelt gets rid of slush pretty fast, too.”Adds Sasamoto: “Fewer people fall and get hurt, while shoppers don’t track snow or salt into stores, so our merchants love it. There’s just no downside.”Helsinki, Finland, also heats sidewalks with a hot water system, while Oslo uses either electricity or exhaust from factories. I loved them both because their downtowns were snow-free and pedestrian-filled in winter.I’ve also talked to city engineers from Sapporo, where downtown sidewalks have been routinely heated for many years, even though they get 17 feet of snow to our seven.Does this cost cities a fortune? Since the 1990s, Holland has spent about $12 million in all.That’s pricey for a small city, but a drop in the ice bucket for Montreal, which budgeted $160 million for snow removal alone this winter.As in Norway, officials in Holland say heating sidewalks is cheaper than plowing — and they can’t afford not to heat them.So why did we abandon our own plan? The city tried a pilot project in Old Montreal’s Place-Vauquelin and botched the job, so costs spiralled, as they do for everything in this town.(Anyone want an overpriced Montreal composting plant?)Instead of learning from Vauquelin by consulting other winter cities, we threw out the baby with the ice water — and dashed our dreams.Imagine Ste-Catherine as a snow and ice-free oasis this winter. Imagine the crowds swarming there to walk, instead of hiding in malls. Imagine the other downtown streets and commercial districts that would be clamouring for their own heated sidewalks.In Holland, Snowmelt proved so popular that private citizens recently gathered $500,000 to expand it to a commercial zone outside downtown — and paid for it themselves!It’s too late to heat up the first phase of Ste-Catherine’s renovation. We missed the ice-breaking boat. But there’s plenty of time to reconsider Phase 2, as well as our planned McGill College Ave. plaza.Mayor Plante is focussed on a Pink Line, a great idea for someday, but a far-off dream with highway-loving Premier Legault at the provincial budget wheel.Yet a “Heat Line” cutting through downtown Montreal is a realistic project we can fund ourselves. If it was electric-powered, it might even appeal to Quebec as a Hydro “sidewalk” showcase.Environment Canada predicts many more weather-swinging winters like this one, so let’s start winterizing our city like we do our homes.If Holland can do it, why can’t we? Citizens of Montreal unite — and demand a heat line!You have nothing to lose but your firstname.lastname@example.orgRelated