Snow in Quebec City: An enchantment and a challenge

Jean Lavoie
Director of Public Works
Quebec City, Quebec

It is only September and yet Quebec City is fully ready for winter. As for most Nordic cities, early autumn is the right time to put the final touch to the planning and the management of the snow removal for the coming winter.

Quebec City is, at anytime of the year, a fairy-like destination. That is why it was declared in 1985 a UNESCO World Heritage Site. And it deserves to be described as a winter city according to some 10 feet (320 centimetres) of snow per year (we had a record of 15 feet of snow in 1997), weather variations all around the city, and outside temperature going from 37 F to -5 F (+3 C to -20 C) in less than 24 hours.

The Quebec City snow removal operations cover a network of 385 miles (620 km) of streets, 327 miles (527 km) of sidewalks, and many public squares spread over a 36-square-mile (94 km2) territory. The snowfalls are of such an importance that for 70 percent of the street network, it is necessary to remove and carry the snow to three snow dumps where 135,000 truck loads or 132 million cubic feet of snow is stored. Budget wise, the snow removal operations cost about 22 M CAN $ ($14 million U.S.) yearly.

Thus, these operations are a challenge in many ways when one considers the urban design, the snow removal management, and the logistics involved.

The particulars of Quebec City urban design
The design of the road network is a real challenge when one addresses the problem of snow removal in Quebec City. That is because there are many narrow streets in the historic area of the city which will celebrate its 400th anniversary in 2008. On top of that, there are a great number of steep hills between the upper and lower town.

Parking is also a challenge. As long as most residents can only park their cars on the streets, it becomes necessary to deal with this situation and use special warning lights to forbid the use of streets as night parking space during a snow removal operation. In turn, it puts a lot of pressure on the city public works unit to clear the streets as soon as possible to permit parking again.

Otherwise, in the historic and tourist areas, the particular layout of public spaces and other structures using special materials located along the streets calls for an adapted and more careful method of snow removal.

Snow Dumps
In Quebec City recent history, many snow dumps have been shut down due to urban sprawl and environmental considerations. Today, only three sites are used for snow removal purposes for the entire city. Thus, these snow dumps became a very strategic element of the snow removal operations; the process can easily become paralyzed when one of these sites becomes inoperative, with the associated impacts on traffic and the economic situation as a whole.

That is why Quebec City Public Works took great care in designing performance-oriented and environment-wise snow dumps having a minimal impact on people. Each of these snow dumps has to manage 425 truck loads an hour in the peak periods. The city computerized the access to snow dumps using an electronic device identifying the carrier, origin, and time of the truck load. This information is collected by a computer located at the entrance of each dump which helps control the access and has an overall view of the snow removal operation.

Each winter, Quebec City experiences many 8- to12-inch (20- to 30-cm) snowfalls, but most of them would be eight inches or less. The snow removal operations have been designed so that a seven-inch snowfall is cleared from the streets in one night only. To do that, the territory has been divided into 57 zones, each of which is the right size to have a team (snow blower, trucks, grader operators, etc.) remove the snow in one night.

Half of the road network is the responsibility of city employees, while the rest is the responsibility of private contractors who take care of the main streets. When a contractor is involved in the process, he is responsible for the overall operation, including snow removal, spreading, and supply of abrasives and transport to dumps. The contractor follows a performance chart. To determine the performance needed, each street and sidewalk is associated with a priority level. These priorities become very handy when a major snowfall (more than 12 inches or 30 cm) is experienced and an emergency plan has to be deployed. This logistics procedure allows us to manage a variety of objectives in real time such as cost control, price comparisons, service levels on each street, and repartition of risk taking. In such occurrences, 800 people and pieces of equipment are involved.

Future challenges
In 2002, 12 suburban areas will merge with Quebec City. The city will then have 500,000 inhabitants and an additional 1,000 miles (1580 km) to the existing 385 miles (620 km) of road network. The main challenges associated with this project are to blend a variety of policies and practices into one and, even more importantly, to create a new team.

Having in mind the cost of snow removal and the need to give a better service in a more effective way, we are constantly looking for new technologies. These technologies need to fit into the Quebec City urban environment and the type of regulations we are submitted to. Better equipment, projects of implementing high capacity snow melting systems (using hot wastewater rejected by paper manufacture), alternatives to road salt, and new road weather warning systems are of great interest these days.

To contact Jean Lavoie, please call (418) 691-6379 or send e-mail to