Wednesday, January 25, 2012

About plowing know-how

It's finally snowing here in Minneapolis -- awful sludgy stuff, on top of a layer of ice, but snow nonetheless. Of course,a few inches of snow and ice doesn't have the slightest impact on life here in the cities, but it's still a relief to be able to walk outside without seeing the grass. Januaries in Minnesota are supposed to be white, not green and grey.

That relief is, in turn, a somewhat odd sensation for a transplant like me. I remember just two years ago, when I first arrived in the Midwest, how strange it was when I realized that the snow that fell in December wouldn't melt until spring. Coming from North Carolina, where even the heaviest snows never last more than a week, it was initially difficult to wrap my head around the idea that snow was a permanent condition, not a special occurence. As most of my friends know, I refused to drive for the entire three months spanning from December to March, fully convinced that snow and driving were supposed to remain mutually exclusive.

That's all a very convoluted lead-in to this link. The Atlantic Cities collected information from various cities around the country about their snowplow fleets, and discovered little correlation between average annual snowfall and fleet size. The story concludes, reasonably enough, that snow contingency planning is more a product of cultural expectations than of need; in short, Minneapolitans have fewer snowplows per capita than New Yorkers because they're willing to tolerate snow on the ground for longer.

My personal experiences leave me no doubt the second half of their hypothesis is true. (Although, in my experience, many Minnesotans make the opposite error and overestimate their ability to function in extreme conditions. A blizzard here invariably leads to a lot of cars on the side of the highway and a lot of cars stuck in backroad snowdrifts.) But is Minneapolis's smaller snowplow fleet actually any less effective than New York's? Anecdotal evidence tells me no.

Minneapolis and St. Paul respond to snow with city-wide drill that's almost military in its coordination. A snow emergency is called. The plow fleets go out. Everybody knows where they're going to plow, and when they're going to plow, and on which side of the road they're going to plow. Parked cars are moved accordingly. Two days later, the roads are (more or less) clear. Living here, it's easy to forget that the plan the cities have mapped out is actually quite impressive, particularly because it requires cooperation from residents. New York, by comparison, may have three times as many plows per person, but their system for using those plows seems to be strictly amateur hour. I'ts impossible to imagine the New York's vicious kerfuffle over snowplowing repeating itself in the Twin Cities -- not because people wouldn't be upset if plowing was handled badly, but because it's inconceivable the metro governments would screw up that badly.

So while the Atlantic's article is interesting, I think it's far too quick to jump to a cultural explanation for the trend it's observed. Snowplows are like any other resource: how much you have of it is important, but how efficiently you use it is also important. And cities like Minneapolis, Buffalo, and Cleveland have plenty of practice putting their plows to the best possible use.

(h/t: Brad Plumer)

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