Analysis

What it would cost Calgary to have the snow clearing that other cities enjoy

For a cool $55 million more, the city says it could clear all the sidewalks. And the snow on the streets? Well, that could be hauled away for another $15 million. Each and every time. But the estimates come with caveats.

Our city's biggest challenge is that there's usually not that much snow — until, suddenly, there's a bunch

At left, a woman walks along an icy trail in Calgary with a sidewalk likely somewhere beneath it. At right, windrows box in cars parked along a residential road. (Left: CBC, Right: Ward Sutherland/Twitter)


This story was originally published on Feb. 17.

As far as winter in Canada goes, Calgarians have it pretty good.

Yes, it's cold. Yes, it snows. And yes, it lasts for months. But, unlike most of the rest of country, we get occasional reprieves. Our chinooks.

But these blasts of warm air also bring headaches, both literal and figurative. There are the almighty migraines some people get and the freeze-melt-freeze cycles that turn sidewalks and roads into slippery nightmares.

Likely there has been some moment, either leaning on a shovel, or trying to get your car unstuck, when you have shaken a fist in the air and wondered why the city can't simply clear this all away.

Oh, it could. It happens in other cities. And we could do the same. But it would cost us.

Right now, our city's snow clearing budget is $38.1 million.

For a cool $55 million more, the city says it could clear all the sidewalks. And the snow on the streets? Well, that could be hauled away for another $15 million. Each and every time.

Can you say tax increase?

But a note of caution. Those figures are estimates that city officials have thrown out on social media recently. So we asked for more detail. And, it turns out, they come with some pretty serious caveats.

So let's plow our way through.

Sidewalks: $10K per kilometre

Let's start with sidewalks. All 5,658 kilometres of them.

These are public property, but the city requires owners of adjacent private property to keep them clear. However, many don't, can't or won't.

If you have a problem with a non-compliant neighbour, you can always complain and report them. The city will then tell the property owner to get the lead out, and they have 24 hours to comply. After that, the city will send a crew to do the work, and bill the landowner.

The city itself clears 249 kilometres of sidewalk, leaving the remaining 5,409 to the rest of us. That remainder could be handled for the $55 million we mentioned earlier. That number comes from a tweet in response to a citizen's call for improved service.

A tweet from Calgary's transportation department in response to a citizen asking the city to considering plowing public sidewalks instead of relying on property owners to shovel them. (Twitter/screenshot)

If you do the math, that works out to roughly $10,000 per kilometre. For that kind of coin, there's probably a lot of people thinking, "Hey, hand me a shovel."

And if that does seem high, it's because it is. Other cities spend far less.

Ottawa, for example, has a policy for city crews to clear most sidewalks within 16 hours of a snowfall, and those in the downtown core within six hours. For that, it spends about $4,300 per kilometre.

Toronto, meanwhile, clears most of its sidewalks every time it snows two centimetres or more — at a cost of $2,900 per kilometre.

Sean Somers, a spokesman with Calgary's transportation department, said the numbers in the tweet were only meant as a rough estimate. He said it was based on the current budget for clearing sidewalks, which rings in at $2.43 million for the 249 kilometres that the city is responsible for, or roughly $10,000 per kilometre.

But, he said, there would probably be some economies of scale if the city were to expand its service. In other words, the more you clear, the less it costs per kilometre.

So what would be the actual cost for full sidewalk service? Unclear. But that's something to consider for the time being.

Now how about the snow on the streets?

Windrow worries

Windrows. Those annoying ridges of hard-packed snow that plows leave behind, blocking in your driveway or stranding your car where you left it parked on the street.

In response to numerous requests to deal with windrows, Coun. Ward Sutherland said it would cost $15 million for a city-wide snow-removal effort.

A tweet from Coun. Ward Sutherland about the costs of snow removal. (Twitter/screenshot)

The city says this estimate was based on the actual costs when it took the unprecedented step of removing snow across Calgary in January 2014, after a massive storm stranded many residents in their homes.

And again, economies of scale come into play.

Somers said removing snow from a single street requires numerous vehicles — a plow, a snow thrower and then a "nearly endless supply of dump trucks" to catch the snow and haul it away.

The city has some of that equipment, but would either have to buy or rent a lot more in order to do a city-wide removal, hence the high cost.

Somers said some of the snow throwers the city does own are 30 to 35 years old, and still in service because they've seen such little action over that time.

So there's the deal. We could shell out the cash for a fleet of vehicles big enough to clear all the snow away, a fleet that would likely sit around far more than it's ever used.

All thanks to our weird weather.

Calgary's snow doesn't stick around

Our city is far from the snowiest in the country. It actually ranks sixth out the 10 largest urban centres, according to Environment Canada's historical norms.

Calgary can expect about 128.8 centimetres of snow a year, which is slightly more than Edmonton (123.5 centimetres), and Winnipeg (113.7 centimetres) but a lot less than Ottawa (175.4 centimetres.)

The big difference comes in how much snow sticks around.

Calgary typically sees 85.6 days per year with at least one centimetre of snow on the ground — roughly half what is normal in other winter cities.

And when it comes to large amounts of accumulation, Calgary is on a totally different level.

We can expect just 2.6 days per year with a snow depth of 20 centimetres or more. Edmonton, by contrast, sees 36 days with that much snow, while Ottawa can expect 51.8.

Coun. Jyoti Gondek, who grew up in Manitoba, said Calgary's winters are different from what people experience in other places. The season will be relatively mild for years and then suddenly, one winter, we'll get hit with the type of storm like we witnessed in early February.

"I think we're just not used to it," she said. "That doesn't mean people shouldn't be upset about not being able to get out of their streets and their driveways. But I think we're playing catch-up with issues that other winter cities have faced on a different level."

In that, Gondek thinks Calgary can improve how it allocates its snow-clearing funds, and make the system more efficient. She also thinks better city planning can make new communities easier to plow in the future. Sprawl doesn't help. Just more streets that need plowing.

But she doesn't believe it's time to do something drastic like double the city's snow-clearing budget.

"We can't do that because, clearly, people don't want to pay more in taxes," Gondek said. "Everybody hates that argument. But it's a fact."

Coun. Gian-Carlo Carra, however, isn't so sure.

Snow debate 'turning a corner?'

Carra's office has been receiving its fair share of complaints over snow-clearing this winter — something the veteran Ward 9 councillor has seen pretty much every time there's a big storm.

But this time, he's detected something new in the things people are telling him. Something that goes beyond immediate frustrations and gets at larger, systemic issues.

"This isn't just about more snow," Carra said. "I think we're turning a corner in terms of the public debate."

He's well aware of Calgarians' baseline aversion to tax increases but, nevertheless, he's inviting opinions on boosting Calgary's $38.1-million snow-clearing budget by another $50 to $60 million. That would bring Calgary more in line with what other cities spend relative to their total roadway.

To put our city's 16,700 lane-kilometres of total road in perspective, Carra has a favourite analogy. Placed end to end, that's nearly enough to take you all the way to Halifax and back — twice.

"We've got a monstrous amount of space that needs clearing, and we have amongst the lowest snow-clearing budgets of any big Canadian city," Carra said.

"If citizens are demanding it, we might have to spend more money."

Your perspective on that may depend on where you've lived.

The great tax debate

Calgarians are pretty used to shovelling their own sidewalks and navigating rutted residential roads. But would most of us want to pay for better service?

How about those of us who've seen other places?

Kristen Moulton still remembers moving from Calgary to Ottawa and being stunned, at first, at the level of service there.

"I was amazed that so much went into clearing the snow and really impressed with how well it was cleared," she said via direct message on Twitter. "Then it sort of morphed into 'of course this is how it should be!'"

Moulton now lives in Sherbrooke, Que., where the city also takes care of clearing sidewalks and removing built-up snowbanks from in front of her house.

"Even as someone who was born and raised in Alberta, I am happy to pay the taxes and get snow clearing," she said.

"I know the Alberta way seems to be to be 'allergic' to taxes. But gosh … they aren't all bad."

But Kimberly Feher sees it differently.

She moved from Winnipeg to Calgary in 2011. And she still remembers her first encounter with "deep ruts that lasted for days" along her daily commute on Barlow Trail.

"It was rock hard and your car bounced all around like a dune buggy," she said.

Feher also wants to see better snow removal. But she'd rather see the city re-allocate its existing revenue to boost its snow budget.

Satisfied, but not fully

In the latest citizen satisfaction survey, 75 per cent of respondents said they were satisfied with the city's snow service. That's down four points from the year before, though.

At the same time, 52 per cent of respondents said they'd like to see the city invest more in snow removal. That's up three points.

So, should we invest more?

We'd probably need to see harder numbers around efficiencies of scale. And then there's the question of where money would come from for the hefty up-front investment.

There's no single solution, no right answer at the moment.

So, in the meantime, grab your shovel, and check your snow tires.


Calgary: The Road Ahead is CBC Calgary's special focus on our city as we build the city we want — the city we need. It's the place for possibilities. A marketplace of ideas. So. Have an idea? Email us at: calgarytheroadahead@cbc.ca


About the Author

Robson Fletcher

Reporter / Editor

Robson Fletcher joined the CBC Calgary digital team in 2015 after spending the previous decade working as a reporter and editor at newspapers in Alberta, British Columbia and Manitoba.

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