Many towns and cities in Canada (e.g., City of Toronto, City of Calgary, and the City of Saanich) have entered into a social contract with its residents. In exchange for residents shoveling the portion of sidewalks around their place of residence or business, the municipality will keep taxes and fees lower than they would be otherwise.

It is actually not a bad social contract. Most residences and businesses are adjacent to a very small stretch of sidewalk, perhaps 25 feet, so the marginal cost to the resident of the property to clear that portion of the walk is very low, residents can respond more quickly to clear this small portion than would occur if the municipality were to be responsible for clearing the walk, and the municipality frees up resources that would otherwise be dedicated to snow removal.

This system tends to work with the municipality passing a by-law stipulating the responsibilities of its residents regarding snow clearing and the costs associated with not complying so that everyone has full information. Unfortunately, compliance in such a system is an issue, because the municipality operates the system without dedicated resources for monitoring compliance. Instead, the system works by neighbours ratting out non-compliant neighbours.

As a result, the system is ripe for free riders. All residents get the benefit of lower taxes and fees whether or not they comply with the by-law. The probability of getting ratted out is low. After all, it is a pain to take your own time to report your neighbours, especially after shoveling your walk. In addition, those who use these sidewalks are subject to the cost of the resident not shoveling, having to slog through the snow which eventually becomes immensely icy as the snow gets packed. The more residents that do not shovel, the more the social contract unwinds leaving the municipality in a position of having to take back the task and increase taxes as a result.

Which brings me to Calgary. As I mention above, the City of Calgary has entered into such a social contract with its residents. And, as Albertans who are stereo-typically known as anti-government, anti-tax, pro-private sector kinda folk this seems like a reasonable contract. However, my experience so far is that compliance with the by-law is low.

I walk a lot, possibly a vestige of being a Victorian. I walk to and from public transit, I often run to and from work, and we walk regularly in the neighbourhood for errands and ‘fresh air’. My observation in my tony neighborhood of Capitol Hill along with surrounding areas is that compliance is about 50%. The worst offenders are those with residences on corner lots and houses that clearly appear to be rental houses.

There are several favourites along my commute. Like the house that has no observable address, and whose resident only shovels a narrow path from their front door to their car door that they park on the street. I am tempted to move my car into that spot when they go to work, but so far the car is always there. Then there is the house around the corner where the resident diligently fully clears the walk on their property, leaving the sidewalk untouched. A last gem is the dilapidated house on my walk to the train station where not only has the walk not been shoveled once this winter, but the hedge is so over grown onto the sidewalk that I scratched my eye walking by it in the dark. Of course I should warn the City, they are pretty slow at clearing the walks and paths that they are responsible for and, like many, I get irritated when a giant pile of snow is left at an intersection for pedestrians to climb over to cross the street.

I am so frustrated with this status quo that I sent this tweet out this morning:

See back in the summer there was a serious water shortage in many parts of BC due to an abnormally dry summer. Many municipalities put water restrictions in place, including a ban on lawn watering. Some residents chose to ignore this ban and kept their lawns plush and green, incurring the ire of most other residents. Upon that ire was launched #grasshole. Shaming those with green lawns on social media and vigilantly reporting offenders to the City. This was one response I received to that tweet:

And so begins #iceholes, a way to shame those with unshoveled walks into complying with the by-law. And a way to draw the City’s attention to an increasing problem. I also learned about the City’s 311 app that allows you to report offenders. I would have done that this morning except it was -18 and I was running. That last thing I wanted to do was (1) stop and (2) take my gloves off.

I encourage you to join my fight in your neighbourhood. If you want to keep taxes low, the exchange for that is, in fact, ensuring that we as residents provide the services in lieu. And since Albertans keep telling me how much more efficient the private sector is at delivering services (more on that another time), it is time for them to step up and show this by not being #iceholes.


8 thoughts on “#iceholes

  1. One thing to add: If you do report any of the above incidents The City will first provide the owner with a warning to clear the sidewalk within 7 days. If at the end of those 7 days the walk isn’t cleared, The City will send someone else to clean it and send the owner the bill.

    • Thanks Erin. 7 days seems like a overly large window. I also expect repeat offenders. That is, they clear it to respond to the notice, but they go back their usual behaviour.

  2. You are hilarious! Who knew there’d be a tax implication to shovelling your piece of sidewalk?! Great stuff, Lindsay. You make taxation policy approachable and almost fun. Here’s the snow we are dealing with in the California desert, remnants of the big El Niño storms that dumped lots of rain over the past three days, with snow at higher elevations.
    (Auntie) Vicki

    Sent from my iPad


  3. Finally, someone who actually talks about the costs of this tax-saving policy on pedestrians. I tried to engage my councillor on it this year, and even though he’s one of the more progressive, active-transit-minded councillors in Edmonton, he couldn’t get past the argument that it’s not an unreasonable expectation of residents to clear a bit of sidewalk. It seems that most people in these excessively car-dependent cities just can’t wrap their heads around the idea that an uncleared sidewalk is more than a cosmetic problem.

    The couple of blocks near my house are unusually good thanks to a neighbour who blades it with his quad, but I find the general non-compliance rate here is about 1 in 3. Worst offenders are homes under construction and corner lots. As an owner of a corner lot, I can fully understand why…the tax break I get is the same as my neighbours, but the cost of shoveling the public walk is 5x higher. The city also adds the insult of a “local improvement charge” where I have to pay a substantially larger share of the cost of rebuilding all the sidewalks in the neighbourhood because I have more sidewalk.

  4. So when Conservatives propose a barbaric cultural practices hotline it’s likened to Nazis, but when people rat out all their non-shovelling neighbours, including seniors, it’s progressive?

  5. This did get me thinking about how this seems reasonable but when Conservatives proposed a barbaric cultural practices tip line it was likened to Naziism.

  6. This did get me thinking about how this seems reasonable but when Conservatives proposed a barbaric cultural practices tip line it was likened to Naziism.

    • I won’t comment on the barbaric cultural practices tip line as it was not something I paid any attention to. However, tip lines are quite common in areas where others external to the government agency hold greater information about compliance with laws than they do. For example, tip lines are quite common in tax compliance.

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