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Tuesday
Jul272010

Thoughts on Sidewalk Snow Clearing

Okay, I admit that this is a strange time of year to be thinking about snow and snow-removal policy, but I have been part of an ongoing email exchange on the topic for about eight months and several people have asked me to make my thoughts more broadly available, so here they are, with the caveat that while I have removed names and consolidated comments from a long email exchange thread, I have not done much editing, so there will be some redundancy in this very wordy post. . .

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What should Newton's sidewalk snow removal policy be? I've put a lot of thought into this issue over the years and invite you to walk with me through the thought process that got me to where I am on the issue.

First, what are our public policy objectives? Mine are as follows: 1) Doing a fast and efficient job of clearing snow from all major sidewalk routes in the city; 2) Clearing sidewalks consistently so that cleared sidewalks are not interrupted by uncleared ones; 3) Getting sidewalks cleared for as low a cost to Newton residents and the greater society at as low a cost as possible; and 4) Avoiding negative secondary effects of our sidewalk snow-removal efforts.

In each of these four areas, the city government is in a far stronger position to achieve the stated objective that individual residents. This is not a moral question, but a practical one. In a civil society, we pool resources to do some things and we do other things individually. My feeling is that there are some things that we can do best for ourselves and other things that government is best at. In some cases, it is not clear whether a given objective is best achieved through collective or through individual action, but sidewalk snow-clearing is a pretty clear-cut example of something best done collectively. Let's look at each of the objectives I listed:

1) Speed and Efficiency— Even if Newton residents were all to comply with the ordinance, they would have 48 hours to clear their sidewalks after the end of a storm. The city could do it much faster. Also, there are many people who have snow-removal equipment which is not the most efficient for this use. But if only 30 showblowers are needed to handle city sidewalks, the most efficient sidewalk-clearing models can be used.

2) Consistency— If we rely on individual home owners to clear sidewalks, some will do it, while others will not. Even people who usually do it will sometimes forget to or be out of town or sick or not do it for other totally legitimate reasons and simply pay the fine. Others will always pay the fine, so as not to be bothered. We will end up with a patchy system in which most people end up walking in streets to avoid sections of sidewalk blocked by snow.

3) Cost-Effectiveness— The overall cost to Newton residents is roughly a dollar per household if we pool our resources*, but upwards of $50 per household if we do it individually. Or if people shovel there own snow, the cost is far more than $50 per household. Think about the hour or so (at least) that most Newton residents will take to shovel the snow. What is that hour worth to them? To society? I would argue that across Newton's population, the average cost of an hour of labor is far more than $50. In fact, the cost to society is far greater, since back injuries and heart attacks are common every winter among people shoveling snow after heavy storms. How much do those negative health effects cost all of us? It doesn't take an actuary to tell you that one serious injury that requires surgery and an extended hospital stay could cost more than $30 thousand, the estimated cost of clearing almost all public sidewalks (300 miles of them) in the city. Rather than a cost of $30 thousand per storm for the city to do the clearing, the cost for individuals to do the clearing would be upwards of $1.5 million per storm.

4) Other Consequences— The individual mandate model carries with it significant liability for the city and our residents. Liability for the city if someone is hurt shoveling their sidewalk and liability for our residents if someone slips on a sidewalk they cleared. From an environmental standpoint, the energy that goes into manufacturing a snow-blower is significant. Any policy that leads to hundreds of new snow-blowers to be purchased only to be used for a short stretch of sidewalk a few times a year is bad environmental policy. Also, internal combustion engines tend to create the most pollution during start-up and the first few minutes of operation while they are warming up. All these snow-blowers will have significant air pollution consequences, as opposed to having only thirty pieces of equipment operating for ten hours each. I have already alluded to the public heath consequences of encouraging shoveling. Let me add one observation: some people seem to be under the impression that there is some sort of moral superiority associated with snow shoveling, as thought doing so makes one a better person. I have never understood this sentiment. Shoveling heavy, wet New England snow is a dangerous activity. People do not consider bicycling without a helmet or skiing too fast to be a morally-superior alternative to protecting one's own health and safety, so why should snow-shoveling by people with weak hearts or aging backs be considered the right thing to do? When any one of us gets injured, we cost society at large with our health care costs and lost productivity. What's so noble about that?

Expecting people to use their personal snowblowers is not an ideal solution, since not everyone has one and even then most snowblowers are not the correct model to cut a 3-foot path. This is actually another reason why the combined approach is superior to having individuals with the wrong equipment do the job. My guess is that there are probably 30 landscapers or other people in the greater-Newton area who either currently own or would be willing to invest in the correct equipment in order to make $1,000 per storm. But, if not, the city could use DPW or Parks & Recreation employees for some of the 30 routes and hire additional plow contractors for streets, as needed.

In terms of the perception that many Newton residents are currently using snowblowers for their walks and driveways and could therefore also clear their sidewalk without much additional work, I can offer the anecdotal observation that many people have stairs on their walks which prevent snowblowers from being used to clear them. Many Newton residents hire contractors to plow out their driveways. Depending upon topography, it often just takes a few shovels of snow to clear a narrow path to one's door. In other words, the equipment appropriate for driveways and walkways is not in all cases the same as the best equipment for clearing snow from sidewalks.

Let me be clear: I believe that it is the city's responsibility to clear city sidewalks, but even if I did not feel this way, I would still want the city to do it, since the city government is in the strongest position to get the job done efficiently and effectively. Just as we do not ask residents to clear snow from the streets in front of their homes, it makes no sense to rely on residents to clear snow from the sidewalks in front of their homes.

I'm interested in getting results. Let's agree on what we want done and find the most efficient way to do it. Let's not get hung up on moral arguments about who should do what in a perfect world.

Ken


*Why do I say $1 per household per storm if we pool our resources?

Here is a very rough analysis:

There are about 300 miles of street in Newton. Let's say for the sake of argument that we identified 300 miles of sidewalk in need of plowing. That assumes that on average one side of every street will need to be plowed. Some arterial routes will be plowed on both sides, while dead-end streets and streets without sidewalks won't have plowed sidewalks on either side but most will be plowed on one side or the other.

Then let's say we divide this 300 miles of sidewalk into thirty 10-mile segments. From what I understand, a typical riding snow-blower can clear a 3' wide path at about a mile and hour. In other words, it would take approximately 300 person-hours of labor to clear 300 miles of street. The more people (and pieces of equipment) the fewer hours it would take. It could be done by a combination of city employees and private contractors, in the same manner as our streets. One scenario involves using "citizen contractors" who are pre-designated with a route and are paid a flat amount to clear that route each storm.

For example, say we offer $1,000 to clear each 10-mile segment each storm. The rules are that one must clear the sidewalk within 24 hours and must be appropriately licensed and insured and use one's own equipment. That way it would cost the city $30,000 to clear the snow from all 300 miles after every storm. Then let's assume that we have ten storms in a year (a pretty high number -- I can only recall three or four so far this winter). That way the city would pay a total of $300,000 to clear the snow from sidewalks for the entire winter. These numbers are only rough estimates, but if we had to pay more per storm and there were fewer storms the numbers would be comparable.

Compare that $300 thousand or so to the millions of dollars we spend clearing streets. There are about 30,000 households in the city. That's a cost of $10 per household for clear sidewalks through ten storms or $1 per storm. Now think about what it would cost to hire someone to clear your sidewalk each time it snows. What would that cost $50 per storm? More? What about the cost in terms of your time if you do it yourself? And the risk of back injury? What could be a better use of property taxes than making sure our sidewalks are safe and accessible for everyone?

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Reader Comments (4)

Ken -

Thank you for this thoughtful analysis. A question, though:

If the cost is truly only $1 per household per storm, do you think that this could be bootstrapped by private citizens rather than the city? Let's say the hypothetical Newtonville Sidewalk Association convinced everyone in the neighborhood to participate and chip in $1 per storm -- could such an Association then arrange for all of us to get our sidewalks cleared? (To be practical, let's assume they only get a 50% response rate but that people are willing to pay $2 and underwrite their neighbors because it's still a great deal.)

If you're right and this would really work, I think a civic-minded neighborhood (of which we happily have no shortage in Newton) could organize this as a pilot program to demonstrate its usefulness and effectiveness to the whole city.

07.28.2010 | Unregistered CommenterAndrew Greene

Andrew,

Thanks for your very innovate and creative suggestion. In theory, yes, your idea would work, but there are two obstacles: First, you would need so identify a sufficient length of sidewalk so be cleared (say 10 miles) on which every homeowner agreed to the $1 charge per storm to achieve the required economy of scale. Second, you would have to have a way to collect these funds. The city has the great advantage of already having a mechanism by which such an amount could be (and is) being collected. The cost of collecting a dollar is probably more than a dollar. That's one of the reasons for getting together as a community (city) and pooling resources (through taxes) to take care of things like this.

As I see it, the only two ways this could work on a neighborhood-by-neighborhood basis would be if those neighborhoods were collecting sufficient funds from residents for other purposes, such that this amount could be added to everyone's "dues" without additional collection effort or costs and if by majority vote of the neighborhood association everyone could be forced to participate (no opting out). My guess is that there are not any neighborhoods in which this would be feasible.

Of course, we could take this same "neighborhood association" approach to clearing snow from streets. One of the main reasons we have a government is to take care of things like this. My feeling is that it is just as important to have safe and clear sidewalks as it is to have safe and clear streets and the city government should do both.

07.28.2010 | Unregistered CommenterKen Parker

Ken,

Thanks for your interesting approach to this problem. I like the idea of a city paying to clear the city sidewalks. However, I just don't see this happening. I do agree we can save funding for sidewalks by decreasing waste by city plows for streets and using this to clear sidewalks. But I am somewhat perplexed by the cost of $1.oo per household.

The estimate bandying around is $1.8M. The proposal you suggested would focus on clearing one side of the street. The issues we have is that people need to get to supermarkets, stores, laundry, and home on the other side of the street as well. There are bus stops on both sides of the street. So this would then put the problem into a mode of only partially resolved. If a wheelchair user is trying to wheel down the street, and only some of the streets are cleared, then he or she has to travel in the street.

Is there a proposal for getting all of the public sidewalks cleared by the city? There are also some people who simply use a hand shovel and do not hire, and do not use a snow blower. Sometimes this is the most efficient way to get it done, I have found. But this may not be right for everyone.

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