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.