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:
A whole social media trend happened in#yvr shaming grassholes. What would be the #yyc equivalent for those not shoveling their walks?
— Lindsay Tedds (@LindsayTedds) January 8, 2016
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:
— Mark Przepiora (@MarkPrzepiora) January 8, 2016
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.