Monday 15 August 2011

Snow pro tips for Kiwis

A few things everybody from my part of the world knows, but you Kiwis may not:
  • The slush on your driveway and sidewalk will freeze tonight into a slippery mess that will not melt until mid-day if you did not shovel it.
  • If you postpone shoveling until the snow stops, that just makes the job harder later.
  • Fresh snow falling on hard-frozen slushy muck makes things even worse.
  • Cat litter and a shovel in the back of the car can be really helpful. Similarly, cat litter under tyres on an icy driveway also helps. A bucket of beach sand is just as good.
  • If you're in a rear wheel drive, adding throttle on loss of traction rarely helps. And spinning your tyres is far worse than rocking back and forth.
One thing that I didn't see today that I ought to have: rosy-faced kids coming to the door offering to shovel the sidewalk and driveway for $20. I'd have paid it.

Despite 27.5% youth unemployment AND the schools closed for snow, no kids came round looking to work. And so I had to do it myself.

 I'll hazard a guess that this was due to lack of anticipated demand. If most Kiwis reckon that snow's not worth worrying about because it'll just melt, kids might well expect no demand, and so Say's Law holds: lack of demand means no supply is brought forth. When the 3-year old and I took a walk around the block, I counted no more than 4 driveways that had been shoveled; only two had also bothered to shovel the sidewalk.

I'll put that difference partially to differences in liability law. In Pittsburgh, for example, if you don't clear the sidewalk in reasonable time, you're liable for injuries incurred by pedestrians. Things vary across states, and even county to county. I wonder if anybody's done anything interesting playing around with differences in sidewalk liability regimes. Maybe you could use it as an instrument for entrepreneurship: kids in high liability regimes may expect to have clients and so will find returns to early entrepreneurship, setting them on the path to future greatness. But only in places where snow is infrequent enough that homeowners don't just contract with Mr. Plow.

Once Ira is 8 years old, if we're still here and if there's snow again, I'll send him out to test whether the problem is on the supply or the demand side....


  1. How many places do what Ottawa does and have government-provided sidewalk shovelling? Would this similarly discourage entrepreneurship?

  2. Take 'em to school Prof! Our DS is nearly 5 and I expect he'll be out shoveling to earn his dougnut and hot chocolate money in the next few winters. Here in Buffalo my husband takes pride in getting down to bare pavement between each squall.

  3. "If you're in a rear wheel drive, adding throttle on loss of traction rarely helps."

    I suppose that depends on what you want to accomplish. If you're trying to maintain a neutral car balance -- same slip angle at the rear tires as at the fronts -- you're absolutely correct. If you want to take advantage of the excuse to kick the tail out and "accidentally" hoon around a bit, well, oversteer is fun (and remarkably predictable if you've been there before; c.f. rally drivers).

    But please do it on proper snow tires, or at least all-seasons with plenty of tread depth.

    Related: If your FWD vehicle is stuck in the snow, putting sandbags in the trunk or cat litter under the rear tires isn't going to help.

  4. I would expect that any city with city-provided snow clearing would have had folks contracting with guys with big equipment in the counterfactual, not with kids. Effect would only hold in cities where snow isn't common. You're right though, Frances. I was grasping at straws for what one might do with such a variable.

    @Kisha: Buffalo gets lots of snow. Are drive clearing services expensive or unreliable?

    @Blunt Do I really jeering to point out that grit only helps under drive tyres? OK maybe. Yes, of course I practiced controlled skids on empty snow-packed roads too...

  5. I think you're right about the lack of demand; because snowfall is such an abnormal weather event in Christchurch, people treat it as a novelty. Besides normal winter weather will resume in a few days and the snow will simply melt - at least I'm hoping so....

  6. @Eric: Given that about half the drivers I knew in Edmonton couldn't figure out which wheels were the driven ones, or explain why those needed the extra grip if they guessed right, I'm reluctant to assume that any demographic -- well, except maybe Finns -- doesn't need to be reminded.

    (I love how snowfall turns an empty parking lot into an impromptu skid-pad.)

  7. @Eric I'd suggest that demand for snow shoveling services is low because people—having not read your blog posts—don't know the consequences of their inaction. You should continue your snow-information crusade so there is a strong demand by the time Ira is ready to sell his services.

  8. My suburban friends and family often use services but here in the city not everyone even has a driveway and if the do they are very tight for big equipment. Although I have seen the occasional outfitted jeep wranger doing the job. But almost everyone seems to think that services are overpriced and unreliable. We tent to get a few huge lake effect storms in the fall while the lake is open, and then it slows down. So when everyone needs 4feet dug out in 4hours a veritable army of youngsters works better than a huge crew that can't get to you until the major roads are clear (2 days later).

  9. @Kisha: That's awesome. Keeps the kids busy earning and out of your hair; keeps the sidewalks shoveled.