A Tale of Two Cities: Snow Removal in Saskatoon and Ottawa

Yesterday I made a quip on social media about how bad the snow removal is in Saskatoon (a fact that was made evident to me once again while back in town visiting family for the holidays these past few days). Like really bad. Like “driving on a skating rink would only be marginally worse” bad – particularly on residential roads. Growing up in Saskatoon I guess I was just used to it (as I suspect most people here are). I didn’t realize that pavement on a residential street not seeing the light of day from the time of the first snowfall until the spring thaw isn’t necessarily the natural order of things. But having since lived in and visited many other cities in northern climates I now know that it is not the way things have to be. That knowledge, that in fact this isn’t as good as it gets, now makes it all the more painful to see the state of snow removal in my home-town.

So instead of just randomly whining on Facebook and Twitter, I thought that since I am on vacation and have a little more time on my hands than usual, I might as well put all that public policy training to good use and do a little bit of research. At the very least my annual complaining will be more informed from here on in.

So I did. And what I found was fascinating. So fascinating, that I thought it was worth sharing here as no doubt this may be of interest to others.

An important caveat before I continue: I have approximately zero expertise when it comes to winter road maintenance and related issues. Everything that follows is based on some relatively quick research, and it is entirely possible that I am missing important facts, figures and context. If so, I would love to know where I am wrong so don’t feel shy to chime in via the comments section.

So what did I learn? Here are three things that jumped out at me after a bit of Googleing:

1) The City of Saskatoon had an $8.4 million “Snow and Ice Plan” for 2013, of which $1.88 million was earmarked for road sanding/salting.

2) Priority streets will be cleared within 72 hours of a snowstorm ending (Priority 1 streets, which are essentially Circle Drive, 8th, 22nd, 33rd, Idylwyld and Wanuskewin, are to be cleared within 12 hours). Non-priority streets (i.e. most residential streets in the city) will only be considered for plowing once they have more than 6 inches of packed snow, and at that are only budgeted for 2 cleanings per winter. Note: for those interested, description and map of the priority routes for snow removal is available here.

3) The city uses a 19:1 ratio of sand-to-salt in the mixture it uses on winter roads.

While that is all interesting, facts in a vacuum don’t mean much of anything. Maybe that represents world-class best practice in snow removal given Saskatoon’s per-capita number of roadways. Maybe it doesn’t. What we need is context. Thus short of doing extensive comparative research, it struck me that the path of least resistance here would be to compare those three factors to another city that I know well and which on a purely subjective basis I can say does an outstanding job of snow removal: Ottawa.

Now I will grant you that Ottawa isn’t a perfect comparison to Saskatoon, but it isn’t an awful one either. Obviously it is a significantly larger city (according to 2011 numbers from Wikipedia, 883,391 vs. 222,189) with a significantly larger number of roadways (5,400km of roadway vs. 1130km). What is interesting in eye-balling those numbers is that while Ottawa has a population about 4 times larger than Saskatoon, it has almost 4.8 times the number of roadways. Surprisingly to me, the potential argument that Ottawa snow removal is more efficient because of a more densely populated city is actually not true, and in fact per capita Ottawa has 0.006km of road per person to clear vs. 0.005km per person in Saskatoon.

In terms of weather conditions, they are both cold winter cities. Based on almost 30 years of Environment Canada data (1981-2010), Saskatoon is colder on average with winter month temperature lows running between 5 to 8 degrees lower on average than Ottawa. However, Ottawa has significantly more snowfall with 63.3 snow days and 233.5 cm of snow a year on average compared to 55.4 snow days and 91.3 cm of snow a year for Saskatoon. That is a surprisingly big difference and again nullifying one of the potential arguments as to why Ottawa snow removal might be better, namely that there is less snow to remove. In fact the opposite is true with there being approx 2.5 times more snow to remove in an average winter.

So how does Ottawa compare across the three factors I listed above for Saskatoon:

1) Budget: The City of Ottawa’s “Winter Operations Budget” is $59 million. That is approximately 7 times that of Saskatoon’s. Now while we would expect Ottawa to spend significantly more on snow removal than Saskatoon, 7 times strikes me as a bigger multiple than a straight scaling considering our baseline comparison data (4x as many people; 4.8x as many roadways).

2) Response Time: The difference here is striking. While in Saskatoon priority roads are to be cleared by the end of 72 hours (Priority 1 roads within 12 hours), in Ottawa all roads, including residential, are to be cleared within 10 hours! Moreover, while in Saskatoon residential roads won’t even be considered for cleaning until there is 6 inches (15cm) of packed snow (and at that only budget for twice a year), in Ottawa residential roads are cleared every time there is more than 7cm of accumulation. I can tell you that from personal experience, city crews in Ottawa hit these targets regularly and that equipment is out on the major roads almost as soon as the first snowflakes hit the ground.

3) Salt: Why do I care about salt? Because I see evidence of how well it works every (winter) day in Ottawa. While it is awful for what it does to shoes and pants (though I am sure a boon to the drycleaning industry in Ottawa!) my completely subjective observation is that it makes a huge difference in dealing with ice on roads and sidewalks. So what do the numbers say? While Saskatoon uses a 19:1 ratio of sand-to-salt, Ottawa uses a 50:50 mix. Why the big difference in salt usage? I’ve heard it said that salt doesn’t work when it gets too cold. While that may be true (I really have no idea), Saskatoon isn’t THAT much colder than Ottawa that it would strike me that it would preclude its use.

There are clearly a whole host of issues that I haven’t given any consideration to which could account for at least some of the differences between these two cities, such as how those dollars are actually being spent (Are they more efficient in one city vs. another in terms of dollars per snowflake removed? Is there a difference between using in-house equipment vs. contractors? etc.). I don’t know what exactly is being included in the snow removal budgets for the two cities and it is entirely possible that I am not exactly comparing apples to apples with those budget numbers. There may also be some sort of economies of scale issue going on with snow removal where the first KM of snow removal is a lot more expensive than the last KM of snow removal, thus bigger cities have a natural cost advantage built in. The salt issue itself raises a number of potential environmental, regulatory, and cost questions which may account for some of the difference in practice between the two cities.

One final fascinating figure to consider: both the City of Saskatoon and the City of Ottawa spend approximately the same percentage of their annual budget on snow removal: 2.2% vs. 2.3%. Why they get such dramatically different results is an interesting public policy question and one that I hope others who are better positioned than I will look into further.

7 thoughts on “A Tale of Two Cities: Snow Removal in Saskatoon and Ottawa

  1. Ryan this is an amazing blog. I just read it to your dad while we’re traveling and he found it very interesting. His final observation is “Ottawa streets are clean; Saskatoon streets are not.” What I don’t get is the budget for 2 times a year. How do they decide “Today is the day?” That rationale in Canada, of all places, is totally illogical.

  2. Very interesting. The part that blows my mind is twice a year. I’ve already had my (residential) street cleared many times this winter.

    I quickly looked up some #s for Gatineau for comparison:

    1 – Population 265k, 2842 km of roads – so a little higher pop, but much larger road network.

    2 – Start clearing at 5 cm, residential streets at 7.5 cm

    3 – Supposed to be done in 16 hrs (including residential) for < 25 cm, otherwise 24 hrs. In my experience, my street is usually done the next day, so presumably within 24 at least. And it definitely gets done for every major snowfall. Whenever I shovel, I expect the plow to come along a few hours later and block me in again.

    4 – Couldn't find budget or salt ratio with 10 seconds, so gave up!

    Q: Does everyone in Saskatoon have pickups or something? Maybe your vehicles are just better adapted to having 15 cm of snow underfoot!

    • Thanks Surdas – that is super interesting re: Gatineau!

      Definitely a lot more pickup trucks and big vehicles here, but it is still an urban centre and a pretty wide mix of vehicles. People definitely “get used to it”, but doesn’t mean that there aren’t better options out there!

  3. Hi, nice article. I live in Saskatoon and drive an 05 Malibu. Used to have a 91 integra with next to nothing for grip on the tires. I don’t really find the streets that bad. I haven’t had much experience living in deep residential areas but if ever driving there(cuz that’s where roads tend to be bad) I find that if there is a huge fresh dump of snow you just drive so you don’t get stuck. If you’re going to park at someone’s house don’t just plow into a big pile of snow. Drive carefully in and back up and go forward so you have something to work with when you have to leave. We don’t generally ever get THAT much snow here. I tend to think and, from experience, find that alot of people are not very good at driving.

  4. After living in both Ottawa and Saskatoon, and also growing up in small communities west of Ottawa I would have to agree that snow removal in Saskatoon is just basically non-existent. You would never find roads down south the way they are here. Before moving here I had a lot of people tell me the winters are so bad here in Saskatoon, truth is the winters here are not as bad down south as they are here, they just don’t plow the roads. Saskatchewan has a significantly higher fatality rate compared to Ontario when it comes to road collisions. In Saskatchewan 16.0/100,000 people were killed, vs Ontario 4.3/100,000 people were killed. Whether or not this is due to poor plowing of the road in winter or not, in my opinion it is due to bad roads in general. From what I have noticed is stop signs are scarce here in Saskatoon, roads are poorly maintained and pot holes are filled up with dirt dumped into them(short term fix) compared to Ontario where stop signs are at every crossing, and pot holes are filled in with asphalt. I do believe that people of Saskatoon/Saskatchewan have just got use to the road conditions, and these road conditions are un-acceptable in my opinion. You could live in any city in Ontario where the population is 100 (and they don’t own snow plows) or a city with the population of 1,000,000(owing tons of snow plows) and you would never ever find a road in the condition you find the majority of roads here.

  5. Interesting article. I’ve lived in Ottawa my whole life basically now, and I have never seen it worse here for snow maintenance. I’ve come across one plow on the queensway the entire winter so far. That may be our budget on paper, and that may be the policy for response time, however 10 hours is not even close to reality. My road has gone 3 days without a proper plowing at times. Main arteries sometimes do not even get them for an entire day. It seems the ploying companies are paying too much attention to forecasts that end up being wrong (ie they call for 2 cm, and it actually snows 10) than what is actually happening, or they are banking on it melting, which hasn’t been happening here as temperatures have been averaging around the -20 area at night for some time. As far as budget goes, I don’t know the complete ins and outs of it, but I am pretty sure if they are in the hole from previous year, they will cheap out on snow removal service if they can to balance the budget again. Again, just from my own observation, Ottawa roads are the worst I’ve seen in years. And our snowfall accumulation this year hasn’t been that bad. I often wonder what it would be like if accumulation was much higher. If you think about it from the municipality perspective, while they do have some liability for keeping its residents safe, it knows the majority of the fender benders that happen due to slick and un-plowed roads (and yes very bad drivers), comes out of the pocket of the individually insured driver. Plowing less and waiting for it to melt has much bigger payoffs for a city that is having to fork out hundreds of millions for a light rail system that will take us to the point we should have been in this city over a decade ago.

  6. Found this blog. Loved it. I spent my first 25 years in Ontario, have lived now in Calgary for 22. There are no comparisons for snow removal between the two. Ontario operates like ‘we don’t have time to f#%k around here’. Calgary operates like ‘a Chinook will bail us out…in maybe 2days or 2 weeks’. The orchestrated efficiency of Ontario crews are amazing. And the hours in which they operate the majority of their removal just common sense based. Both streets and sidewalks. Calgary operates like club footed baboons. They rush and push snow around. And considering how big the city is now (1.25 million-ish) and how few tools they have, it’s no wonder. The people operating the vehicles have a ‘measure once – cut twice – still too short’ mentality when operating them while the selfish or whiney citizens are no better with their ‘the machines are too loud at night’ or ‘I don’t want to move my car so you can plow properly’. The ‘pickle’ mixture now, an inexcusable useless gesture. Might be fine for more humid temps but here, nope. And then the City’s nightly new’s spiels…like a broken record. Excuses and excuses. 

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