Winter walking tour of Sapporo, Japan

Mohamed M. Alkoka, P.Eng.
Program Manager
Transportation, Utilities & Public Works
City of Ottawa, Ontario
Member, APWA Winter Maintenance Subcommittee

Ah, the Far East. It sounds so adventurous, so rich in history, tradition, and innovation. It maintains an impressive reputation for fuel-efficient cars, consumer electronics and gadgets. But this trip was not about such things. It was about snow and attending the 11th PIARC International Winter Road Congress 2002 in Sapporo, Japan.

While the scanning tour may provide an excellent report, I consider myself able to give an unofficial "walking tour" of the city. I will tell you about winter maintenance as observed by walking the streets of Sapporo (between conference sessions of course). I will give you my personal impression and comparison between our winter maintenance in Canada and the United States, and that of Japan. What I am not going to talk about is the actual 11th PIARC International Snow Conference. Many of my colleagues have done wonderful reports and articles on this topic that are readily available. To learn the most in my travels I try to go where the locals go, walking their streets for a real and honest impression that I can take home with me.

The trip begins in Ottawa so as you can imagine, it took a long time to arrive in Osaka. Once there, I had to wait for the next flight to Sapporo. By this point I was not thinking about snow (except for wondering if it could serve as a comfortable bed). But I have to admit that my exhaustion became less of a concern as the time for my arrival in Sapporo closed in. Finally I arrived and it was comforting to see familiar faces as they gathered around the flight gate. All were showing signs of what long flights can do to you.

After a good night's sleep, the winter maintenance person in me had awakened. I started to walk around downtown Sapporo looking for all the winter maintenance wonders we have heard about. One of the first things I noticed is the level of service that a municipality provides to its citizens and the level of acceptance from the residents. Some street corners looked absolutely horrible by our standards: the ice was six inches thick, even thicker on several side streets. Yet some main sidewalks looked amazingly clean with no evidence of salt or de-icer residue on the interlocking stone (which is commonly used for main street sidewalks). However, some of the street crossings were dangerously slippery with thin ice layers. Surprisingly, this did not seem to bother the locals.

As the snowfall starts during the day, equipment to clear the streets and sidewalks did not appear. I found out later, through my talks with some of the Japanese engineers, that the main snow removal operations as well as the de-icer operations take place at night. The streets remain snow-covered during the peak traffic times in favour of having less or no maintenance equipment on the road during these times.

As I continued my exploratory walks I was astounded by the amount of shops and merchandise they have. Hundreds of electronics were on display. In fact, I have seen so many styles of mobile phones. It appeared that Japanese cell phone manufacturers had made a unique handset for each person in the country.

Back to clean sidewalks. After watching the first snowfall of the day it became apparent the sidewalks are somehow heated. Each building supplies power to the sidewalks adjacent to it. I was lucky to witness a repair crew late in the evening working on a portion of sidewalk. It was no different from any sidewalk pavers repair job in Canada, except that when the sidewalk base was ready to receive the pavers, the crew went on and laid down the heating element in a zigzag shape and then overlaid the unit pavers on top after connecting the heating elements to exiting elements under the remainder of the sidewalk. It is understandable that such technology may not be a good solution for all cities and on every street. However, heated sidewalks hold merits that warrant further investigation.

I wondered how we could achieve similar success. Imagine the benefits: less salt (if any salt at all), less concrete damage, the concerns for buildings, infrastructure, and environment are addressed with this system. But what about cost, and how is the heat produced? I know that entrances to some parking garages in Ottawa are heated through a mesh of hot water pipes imbedded just below the surface of the concrete. But the Japanese for the most part use electricity. I also learned from one of the vendors who sell sidewalk heating elements that the amount of power needed to run them has been reduced to an economically feasible level.

On one of the technical tours taken, another innovation for road condition reporting and road visibility was pointed out to us: the snow pole. The snow pole is a smart roadside marker with light emitting LED, which emits coloured light based on road conditions. It emits green for clear and dry surfaces conditions, amber for "proceed with caution," and red to indicate slippery roads. They are useful on winter days with blowing snow where visibility for motorists is poor. On that day the snow poles were showing a green colour as we drove down one of the main highways.

The Japanese definitely love their trees. Everywhere you look, trees are treated with such care to ensure their survival through the winter months. Some were covered in straw mats to protect them from the wind, which is not so unusual to us in Canada, either. This is a common practice in Ottawa where young trees and sensitive vegetation are covered with burlap during the winter. Other trees on Sapporo streets were carefully strung up with ropes to support almost all the branches, thus better withstanding the weight of accumulated snow. Other smaller forms of vegetation are covered with bamboo meshes. While taking pictures of these tree coverings I was thinking how our city forester would appreciate such care. But as an operations manager I was wondering how much labour was involved, and how much it would cost. Could this be afforded?

Some other ideas are so simple that when you see them in use, you immediately recognize what they are used for and say to yourself, "Why didn't I think of that? It is so simple!" I observed a few ideas falling under this category. One that relates to maintenance concerns placing the filled garbage bags awaiting pickup in a net that is tied to the streetlight pole. This ensures the garbage bags are secured in place and protected from accidental movement, breakage or otherwise.

In certain neighbourhoods I noticed grates at the edge of the sidewalk adjacent to the curb. These grates are used by citizens to dump snow from in front of their homes and businesses. The grates are gateways to snow gutters that are built under the curb. They use flowing water to carry snow received from the street into the sewers and then the treatment plant, or into one of many snow melting tanks. The snow melting tanks are an elaborate operation for snow disposal from city streets. In Ottawa we have engineered sites where snow is piled and left to melt on its own. Apparently in Japan, unlimited amounts of land to dump snow are a luxury, so they have started to employ more of the snow melting tanks. These tanks occupy very little land, and the one we visited was capable of melting thousands of cubic meters per day. Still, what was intriguing is the snow gutters for citizen-powered, self-service, disposal facilities. To make them even more successful, the city has established and promoted community programs where neighbours and friends can help elderly and disabled people remove the snow from their portion of the sidewalk. On other city streets you may find what looks like a newspaper box, but in fact contains sand or some other mix in small bags. This is for pedestrians to spread on the walkways when necessary.

At major intersections within the city, the curb is raised or marked in a variety of ways to ensure several things. First, so that the pedestrians do not cross at the middle of the intersection as they are directed properly to the cross walk. This style of curbing may ensure snow is cleared from the turning radius on the road, to the edge of the raised curb. On occasion, railings or some other type of pollards enhance the raised curb. It may have also been designed to protect pedestrians from vehicles overriding the curb while turning.

An old Arabian adage, loosely translated, says that if you live long enough you will see and witness a lot. And if you travel, you will see and witness even more. There is so much that I can say about this short trip. Aside from all the interesting technologies and advances, what struck me the most is the attitude of the people towards the service they receive from their winter maintenance operations. As I mentioned earlier, the people have a higher level of acceptance towards a lower level of service (by our standards). Instead they are in favour of other factors such as budget savings, shorter delivery time, and increased environmental friendliness. As well, the willingness of citizens to participate in programs such as placing snow in gutters helps their municipal and road authorities maintain the city. When it comes to winter maintenance, I believe that we have to work on education and training in the same way we approach technology. Enhanced education programs should include not only managers, staff, and operators, but the public as well. Elected officials and the media are also good groups to target for the improvement of winter maintenance.

To reach Mohamed M. Alkoka, P.Eng., call (613) 580-2424 ext. 21177 or send e-mail to