Snow calms traffic

January 17th, 2010
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Well, Calgary’s snow removal plan kicked in late last week – as mild Chinook wind blew in to melt the messy blanket snarling local traffic. Thanks to one talk-radio wag for summing up the situation so succinctly.

For readers outside the “Heart of the New West”, let’s just say that the city’s efforts to keep up with precipitation of the solid variety has been less than stellar. Adding insult to injury is that what Calgary lacks in ploughs on pavement, it makes up for in city spokesmen explaining the city’s snow removal policy. The aforementioned radio station itself spends a lot of time shilling for the city, with news reports talking about the city crews “doing their best” and having been “at it since last night”, etc.

I wrote last year about complaining to an alderman regarding the poor roads and having one of his staff send me a link to the city’s snow policy. Well, a snow removal policy is about as useful as the old Soviet constitution (that we were told was the world’s most democratic back-in-the-day) if it’s not actually implemented. In fact, Calgary’s situation is worse, given that the city insisted it doesn’t have a “bare pavement” policy. In practice, what this means is Calgary has an ice-lipped rut policy for most roads, supplemented by an incipient glacier policy for residential streets.

Unlike many other cities, Calgary does not plough residential streets. My in-laws for instance, who live in a high-tax northwest neighbourhood, have not had a city plough near their cul-de-sac in the almost 40 years they’ve lived there. Fortunately, in most years, Superintendent Chinook kicks in now and then to reduce the ice thickness on side streets and make them almost passable.

The situation became unbearable for me after my 19 months in Ottawa, where they actually REMOVE snow from ALL the streets AND SIDEWALKS and cart it off somewhere. When I wrote about this earlier, an alert reader pointed to the higher taxes paid in Ottawa and elsewhere. This is a common excuse used by the city of Calgary, so let’s look at that. Here’s a table of budget vs. snowfall for several Canadian cities (and Chicago as a comparison) that should shed some light on the matter.

**********Budget    Snow Budget   Ave. Annual Snowfall   Metro Area

Calgary     $2.5B      $24M                135 cm                     5100Sq. Km

Ottawa      $2.2B      $62M                221 cm                     5300Sq. Km

Montreal   $3.9B      $128M             214 cm                      4300Sq. Km

Winnipeg  $0.5B      $27M               114 cm                       5300Sq. Km

Chicago     $5.2B      $17M                97 cm                      28,000Sq. Km

This data can be analyzed in different ways. In terms of data quality, area is the most to deal with. The numbers are from Wikipedia (a bane to some readers). Calgary city officials and apologists of course commonly fall back on the sprawling size of the city to explain their difficulties with snow. Without actually measuring the length of roads in each, it’s worth noting that Calgary’s area is on the order of the other Canadian cities. As it is, Ottawa spends 65% more per centimetre of fallen snow than Calgary. Montrealers (surprise!) look like they’re getting ripped off, paying twice as much as Ottawa for less snow. Winnipeg looks like a poor sister, with a tiny city budget, but spending more than Calgary on less snow (no Chinooks).

Perhaps more important is that snow removal is a tiny fraction of the total budget of each city – 1% in Calgary, about 3% in Ottawa. It is symptomatic of the, let’s say “challenged” nature of city budgeting, that Calgary couldn’t simply double the snow removal dollars and eliminate a lot of the idiotic things the city does. Those who’ve followed the city’s Byzantine budget process will not bet on any such changes, as it seems pathologically unable to prioritize programs or cut anything.

The other side of the ledger is the cost to the public, to motorists, of bad road conditions. One recent snow storm caused an estimated 200+ accidents which, if the average cost per accident were a few thousand dollars, would amount to hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars damage. This would be a big negative, unless the city is actually engaged in the vicarious subsidy of towing companies and body shops by way of people’s pocketbooks.

One more thing. One of the city of Calgary’s quixotic obsessions over the last few years is “traffic calming”. This involves spending millions of dollars to obstruct or narrow roads with concrete barriers, lay out gargantuan speed bumps, etc., all with the aim of slowing traffic and discouraging people from going anywhere. Oops, sorry, of course we know it’s really all done for safety.

Interestingly, the city’s unwillingness to clear snow actually achieves the same “calming” effect as all that concrete – grinding traffic to a standstill. There’s the added bonus that unlike the unwanted barrier construction, snow if free! Rather than throwing bad money after good on more concrete barriers perhaps, in the few months where it doesn’t snow here, they could merely spread artificial snow on the roads. It’s likely cheaper than laying out hand-crafted speed bumps and, as we’ve seen, bolsters the auto repair industry. Despite raising blood pressure, snow calms traffic.

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By John Weissenberger