When it comes to allocating resources to remove snow, cities can often only guess and hope for the best

Earlier this month, we posed a simple question to about two-dozen cities of varying sizes and climates: How many snowplows do you have? Pretty straight-forward question, we figured. We expected – naively, it now turns out – that cities would get back to us with a single number. Almost none of them did.

Spokane, Wash., responded that they have 33 plow trucks, 10 graders, five de-icers, 11 de-icer/plows and seven sander/plows. Minneapolis has 43 trucks with front and underbody plows and material spreaders, which are different from the 18 trucks they have with front plows only, their 12 front loaders with plows, and their nine motor graders (which is to say nothing of the 20 front loaders the city uses just for alleys).

Toronto sent us something resembling a spreadsheet. Fargo sent us a list. One city (we won’t name names) asked us a question: Were other cities counting the garbage trucks that they attach plows to? Because, you know, no one wants to look bad here. And then there’s Kansas City, which sent us a thoughtful caveat that we want to convey: You can’t think about snowplows without counting lane miles because the two go hand-in-hand (Kansas City, for the record, has 6,400 of them to clear).

This whole exercise may be the best testament to the fact that plowing snow is a fraught enterprise. In some cities, administrations can get evicted or re-elected on their snow-removal speed. In Chicago, residents are so sensitive to the urban conspiracy that some neighborhoods get more prompt plowing than others that the city unveiled a live tracking app this winter. Roughly 65,000 people viewed it in its first week online.

In attempting to corral all of this together, we wanted to capture the complex calculation cities have to make when they’re balancing weather reality against city size against budget and resident expectations. And so we've made a few subjective calls: The graphic below represents the equipment our sample cities have in their own arsenals to plow streets – whether those plows have an underbody or come temporarily attached to the front of a dump truck. Not included is the winter equipment – salt trucks, snow blowers – that doesn’t actually plow anything, or any privately owned plows on retainer. We also didn’t include specialized plows designed for surfaces other than roads (although we’re really impressed that Toronto has 322 of these just for sidewalks, and that Boulder has a pair for bike paths).

As a final note – we’re looking at you, Kansas City – we’ve been forced to substitute land area for lane miles, since comparable data could not be found for every city we queried (but if there are any academics drawing research inspiration from Atlantic Cities, someone should really create such a database!).


So, all that being said, how exactly does a city decide how many snow plows it needs?

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Here is the challenge: People in Nashville freak out when there are two inches of snow. People in Buffalo freak out when there are two feet. Washington, D.C. gets about 16 inches a year on average, but once every seven years or so, something really wild happens. Seattle averages only about 7 inches, but Spokane – at the same longitude but on the other side of the mountains – gets nearly 50.

Weather is unpredictable, and so is how people react to it. A public works official steps into this world and has to weigh the factors that are unknowable (freak storms) against the ones that are (city budgets) and then hope for the best.

“That’s exactly the dilemma that we have here in Seattle,” says Steve Pratt, who directs the Street Maintenance Division of the Seattle Department of Transportation.

In December of 2008, Seattle got dumped with more snow at one time than it usually collects in a year. A town of infamous rainfall, it was suddenly on the national news for its snow ineptitude. The local economy, and pretty much all of Seattle’s articulating buses, were paralyzed throughout the holidays as the city had minimal equipment and a firm policy against spreading salt. Eventually, the head of the DOT wound up resigning. Pratt refers to the memory as “the debacle of ‘08-’09.” Local media still hearken back to it every time a snowflake falls.

Now the city embraces salt (who’s it going to harm in all that surrounding salt water?), and it has invested in four 3,000-gallon trucks that can spread salt brine across the city’s hilly roads before storms even reach Seattle. The city is better prepared for another long-shot storm, but it’s not prepared like Chicago is. That just wouldn’t make sense.

Seattle has 30 plows. Total. And if all 30 of them ever have to go out at one time, they are just not going to make it to your house. The city won’t even try; it’s going to stick to the bus routes and park-and-ride outposts.

“The snow and ice response plan is built around getting people to use public transportation,” Pratt says. “Given our geography here, we would have to have 100 trucks [to cover the whole city], and at $150,000 to $200,000 a truck, that would be a foolish waste of money because they would sit most of the time. And they would sit for five years because it doesn’t snow that often. So we go with what we have.”

This is no doubt an unpopular thing to say in the middle of a major storm. But Seattle happens to have its budget discussions during the more level-headed summer. One of the realities of municipal snow removal is that what residents want during a freak event (a plow for every person!) is not what they’d be willing to pay for – or should pay for – when everything thaws.

In Chicago, the distance between the crazy years and the normal ones is more manageable. There, it’s just best to assume snow, and to plan for it all the time. The city has 278 snowplows, plus 26 smaller ones, and 200 garbage trucks it can outfit with plows without disrupting trash pickup. In a given year, the city’s Department of Streets and Sanitation has a $20 million budget for all of this. That is not, to clarify, for the whole department. That’s the snow budget.

“It’s salt, it’s buying trucks, that’s fuel, that’s paying laborers, paying truck drivers,” says Thomas Byrne, the Streets and Sanitation commissioner.

Watch those line items add up, and snow-plowing officials in Chicago – and a host of other cities this winter, for that matter – have been celebrating tens of thousands of dollars in savings as the rest of us cringe over climate change.

•       •       •       •       •

The cliché about the District of Columbia is that it's a city of transplants, which, if we accept that as true, means it’s also a city of people with wildly different expectations about snow.

“We’ve got a lot of people here that are from Buffalo, Boston, Chicago, who are accustomed to driving in snow, and so 3 inches is just sort of a laughable thought,” says William O. Howland, Jr., director of the District’s Department of Public Works. “But we’re really a southern city, and so for most of the people here, 3 inches is not something they’re accustomed to. It’s sort of a balancing act.”

Three inches, in fact, will shut down the school system. And so imagine what happened two winters ago when the city got a once-in-a-century storm. In the winter of '09-'10, Washington was hit with an 18-inch storm December, and then a total of 42 inches in the month of February alone. That much snow doesn’t require plows. It requires construction equipment to literally dig people out. The city got so much snow that February that once it was shoved off the streets, officials had to find somewhere to truck it all (note: every once in a while it is a helpful thing to have an old, unused football stadium sitting around).

In the face of an event like this, D.C. doesn’t actually have any full-time snowplows. It has 120 6-wheel dump trucks that can be outfitted with heavy plows, and another hundred Ford F-550 trucks for local roads that convert into light plows. The rest of the year, these trucks haul debris, or clean up tree limbs after a hurricane (because Washington is about as likely to get one of those is it is to be pummeled by a Chicago-style blizzard). In a real bind, the city has a private company on retainer to clear the highways through town, and additional equipment on rental. This is essentially the insurance policy for a city where it doesn’t make sense to purchase real snowplows.

Computer software has also allowed the city to optimize its route-planning during a storm: the big trucks have 90 individual routes and the smaller ones 80 of them. And the city recently upgraded to a vehicle-tracking technology that can locate trucks even when they’re not running. Like Chicago, this live data is available to city residents, although Howland isn’t sure that the government gets much mileage from the digital display of force.

Quite frankly, I will tell you most people really don’t care what you’re doing in the rest of the city,” he says. “They just want to look out the window, and if they can see that their street is taken care of, that’s all that matters.”

You just hope that person looking out the window isn’t a U.S. senator. Howland chuckles at the thought but insists that the real troublemakers in town are all the transplants, not the politicians. In some ways, snow removal is really about information and perceptions, and those perceptions vary depending on where you live (or where you came from) and the culture there. How else can we explain the fact that New Yorkers require 7.37 snow plows per square mile – a number the city reaches by arming 1,800 refuse collection trucks – while the good people of snowed-in Buffalo make do with so much less?

“I think the expectations are different in every city. What Buffalo can get away with is different than what we would do, or what Seattle or Jackson, Miss., would do,” Howland says. And this reminds him of an amusing piece of trivia. “I heard Jackson has five snowplows!”

Of course, then we had to ask. It turns out they have none.

Image credits: Reuters/Mike Cassese (top); Ron Hilton / (middle); Reuters/Hyungwon Kang (bottom)

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