Shoveling Snow and the Tragedy of the Commons

That’s a dramatic name for a rather prosaic entry. I’ll try to live up to it.

Long story short, in New York City people shovel their sidewalks when it snows and in Tbilisi they don’t.

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I have managed to attract a few detractors again of late. One seems to think that I grew up outside of New York City, but in point of fact I grew up inside New York City. I don’t know how things are in Jersey City or Mobile, Alabama, but inside New York City, this is how it be.

That was some “teenage” slang for my other detractor, who finds my frequent use of informal language objectionable. I’m certain that he will take offense to my contrasting of New York City with Tbilisi, as if simply by doing so I am imperialistically demanding that Georgians immediately take steps to Newyorkify Tbilisi.

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In any case, in New York City, every property owner is obliged to provide a path for the general public across the bit of sidewalk that stretches from his/her property to the street. Generally speaking, this is accomplished by some combination of shoveling, snowblowing, salting, and sanding – the widely-acclaimed “four s’s” of winter public egress management (I just made that up).

Whenever we had a blizzard – 1996 and 2006 in particular come to mind – the whole family would go out to shovel our sidewalk, and then we’d make the trek – on foot, through several feet of snow at times – to my stepmother’s mother’s house to help out over there. She had a corner house and we lived within walking distance, so shoveling there was a big project for us.

In 1996 we had to cross the railroad tracks that divide Middle Village and Glendale. At 14 I had just about reached my full height, but still, in places the snow was waist-deep. My parents argued for a while with Nana’s cranky old snowblower before resorting to various shovels: a spade that was heavy and small, and a wide plastic shovel that was cheap and that held so much snow that it was unmanageable when fully loaded. We shoveled for hours, intermittently having snowball fights and screwing around, and then we went in to warm up and dry off before wandering back home before dark.

In 2006, the blizzard hit while everyone else was at work, so I went solo. I argued for a while with Nana’s cranky old snowblower before resorting to various shovels. I got it done in about an hour and a half – with no little sisters around to throw snowballs at, I’m super efficient – and then plodded to the nearest train to try to go to work. That train never came and I got the day off.

In later months, part of my job at the theatre that I worked at was to shovel the path outside whenever we had snow. This was a hard and long and fun job. I’d shovel and salt and then it would snow some more and the process would repeat.

So the question you might ask is, why do we do this? It’s not out of philanthropy. I didn’t shovel paths across three different properties in 2006 because I wanted people to be able to walk.

No – in New York City, if you don’t shovel your property, the law will come for you. My father always said you’d get a ticket if you didn’t shovel out in front of your house. I don’t know how true that is, but everyone seemed to be out shoveling, right after a snowstorm, so they must have believed it too.

I do know that if you have a business, you are responsible for keeping the sidewalks in front of your property clean and litter free throughout the year, and maintaining a snow-free safe path in winter, and the Department of Sanitation issues heavy fines if you fail in these duties.

It’s actually one of the few community things that people still do in New York City – at least, in the heavily residential areas. Shoveling snow is one of the few times I’d see my neighbors. It was always kind of nice to see people out shoveling, everyone in the community pitching in.

And sure, we could have just paid a tax and let the government hire snowshovellers, but in a rare display of good sense our public officials apparently decided that that would be a horrifically inefficient way of coping with snowstorms, which are sporadic and hard to predict, and it would be much better to just let residents do it themselves.

As for people who can’t shovel for themselves? Well, some have kind-hearted step-grandsons like myself who will do it for them. For others, local kids go around with shovels, offering to shovel driveways and sidewalks for a nominal fee. It’s good for kids to develop a work ethic, as Newt Gingrich might argue. The system just sort of works.

And yeah, there are always a few people who don’t take care of their property. You can tell because pedestrians beat down a path, so these are the people with packed ice and sludge in front of their property instead of a proper walkway. Maybe you’ll find one of these every few blocks, and it’s annoying, but it’s a minor annoyance.

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In Tbilisi, every sidewalk is like that.

Every sidewalk is covered in slush from curb to building – that is to say, when there is a sidewalk at all. In most places the snow is packed down into ice, which is slippery and makes walking difficult. Georgians seem to be used to it, but it takes me at least twice as long to cover the same ground as it normally does. Little old bebias, and women in four-inch-heels, are leaving me in the dust.

No one shovels any paths. As a result, you have hazardous and difficult terrain throughout the city.

Now I don’t know if Tbilisi has any municipal rules dealing with snow. If I were to guess, I’d say that Tbilisi deals with snow the same way Tbilisi deals with stray dogs, burning plastic, cars parked on sidewalks, litter, and all of the other shit that happens in cities when they become a lawless free-for-all: by ignoring the problem.

I mean, Georgians have other shit to worry about, right? I have a friend stationed in Kakheti who now has no running water because all of his host family’s pipes are completely frozen. Surely that ought to take preference over making walking easier for stuck-up Vakelebi.

On the other hand, given the high levels of unemployment in Georgia, there can be no shortage of able-bodied individuals who would love to shovel snow to make a few laris or to help out their aunts-uncles-cousins. So why not just make a rule saying that property owners have to make sure their property has a path through the snow?

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Well, this gets into a much deeper difference between America and Georgia. Georgia just has fewer laws and fewer lawsuits. If you slip and fall on the sidewalk and break a bone or something, you can’t sue the city for allowing ice to remain on the road – in America, you absolutely could. Georgians are less litigious, and there are also fewer rules governing behavior.

Walking around Tbilisi, even when it hasn’t been snowing, demonstrates this. There are holes everywhere. There are ledges without guard rails. There are open stairs that someone could easily fall into. The kind of stuff that you would just never see in New York.

So I’m essentially living in a much more Libertarian society than I was in America. And if I’m being honest, I mostly prefer it this way. I actually feel substantially more free in Tbilisi than I did in New York. I mean, even though I will probably never own property that lacks, or has an unsafe, guardrail, just knowing that other people do makes me feel more alive.

There are a few manifestations of this that do directly impact me. Public drinking is one of them. If I want to gather a few friends, grab some beers, and go sit in Freedom Square or one of Tbilisi’s various other lovely parks and squares, I can just do that. I know it’s a small thing, but all of the small things add up, and for a New Yorker, the sense of freedom is palpable.

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One of the problems that is often discussed in areas like the theory of government is a problem called the “Tragedy of the Commons.” This “tragedy” arises when a group of people share a common property, and they let it go to shit because no one takes responsibility for taking care of it. In theory, one of the reasons why government arises is that people need to delegate responsibility for taking care of common properties. (Originally this term was used to explain overfeeding on shared grasslands, but it can be expanded to cover all sorts of interesting phenomena).

So one of the downsides of having more freedom is that overall, if people are free to disrespect a common area, they will. If there is no rule saying that people must shovel their sidewalks, then generally they won’t shovel their sidewalks. If there is no rule saying that you can’t park on a sidewalk, then generally people will park on the sidewalks and make it so that pedestrians have to walk in the streets.

And so it happens in Georgia – Georgia, whose beautiful landscape is all too often marred by the ubiquitous plastic shopping bags that dot the hillsides like a fungal infection, whose streets and sidewalks are a constant nightmare for pedestrians, whose air and waters are polluted, whose dogs roam free and attack at random, whose restaurants leave all their patrons smelling like an ash tray for days…

(Which is not to say that Georgians have no rules at all. There are no seats reserved for the elderly or disabled in Georgian buses, and yet on every Georgian bus, unwritten social rules guarantee that the all of the elderly, disabled, and pregnant (and even in some cases mothers with children) passengers on the bus get seats while the young and healthy stand. Georgians are very personally respectful in a number of different sorts of social contexts.)

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Ideologically, there are two ways to deal with the Tragedy of the Commons – either abolish common property altogether (i.e. privatize all land, streets, etc. – a radical and untried solution that seems to have some obvious flaws that would need to be worked out) or establish a government to govern the common property. The government makes rules, the rules are backed by fines and enforced by law enforcement officials who ultimately have the authority to take away peoples’ freedom entirely – for instance, by jailing them – if they do not comply with the rules.

Or, if neither of those seem palatable to you, you could just not deal with the Tragedy of the Commons. You could just get used to living with the smells of burning plastic and dogshit and buy yourself a nice pair of cleats to navigate the city streets throughout February. You could buy yourself a car – the upside is that you’d never have to worry about parking, as long as there are sidewalks where you’re going!

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One final side-note. I noticed that all of Tbilisi’s… well, I’ll call them “flagship streets” – places where extensive renovation and modernization and Europization have gone on – have physical barriers placed strategically along the edge of the sidewalks to physically prevent cars from parking on them. I literally tripped over one of these on Aghmeshenebeli last year on my way to work. I bet it never even occurred to the people at City Hall that they could just outlaw cars on sidewalks and that other cities in the world don’t have to resort to physically walling off a separate pedestrian area just to keep cars on the road.

But it is interesting how Georgia is moving, in its own (very unique) way, towards a more Western way of doing things.

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16 Responses to Shoveling Snow and the Tragedy of the Commons

  1. pasumonok says:

    the law of commons was impressed even more upon us, when we lived in a collectivistic society, where nothing belonged to anyone (o.k., the theory was that everything belongs to everyone but we all know that is bullshit). my parents have mentioned how people used to abuse public property, because it belonged to…public, hence, government. some also felt satisfaction and accomplishment if they “cheated the system”: for example, people who worked in the industry that manufactured forks, stole one fork at a time, until they had more forks in their house, than they would ever need.
    my grandfather knew a person, who held a high position in the railway system. he actually took home an escalator(!), you know, ones that are installed in the metroes, just because he had a chance to steal it! he installed it instead of the staircase in his house!
    i hear u! i’ve seen snow being salted, but it is not enough. imagine getting to work everyday, when u have to climb over ice, sleet, trash and construction. it takes me 40 minutes 2 buy lunch!

  2. Mzuri says:

    In Missouri, many (most, I think) people *don’t* shovel their walks because they believe they are legally liable if someone walks on their cleaned-off pavement and falls … because they didn’t clean it off *sufficiently.* Missourians tend to hold the belief that if one doesn’t clean off the walk at all, then it is understood to be “walker beware,” therefore, if you slip, it’s your own damn fault.

    I find this to be insanity, but there you are.

    In re: Georgia, I was wondering just today, as I negotiated an icy yard in Rustavi, about clearing things off. In theory, this should be relatively simple. But the pavement surfaces are so irregular, I think it’d be difficult to use a shovel. Salt (or fertilizer or cat litter, if there were such here) is an expense that perhaps many Georgians can’t afford.

    • Glyphwright says:

      “Salt (or fertilizer or cat litter, if there were such here)” – there is.

    • panoptical says:

      I feel like a lot of stuff works as ice melt, and even failing that there’s still your basic sand, which is kind of all over the place and provides at least enough extra traction that you can walk on top of ice if you’re careful.

      As for the irregular surfaces, point taken, but that’s just an argument for having decently paved sidewalks, not for ignoring them entirely. Walking on irregular surfaces that you can’t see cause they’re covered in snow is like eight million times more dangerous than normal walking – it’s a sprained ankle or worse waiting to happen.

  3. Gollum says:

    “If you slip and fall on the sidewalk and break a bone or something, you can’t sue the city for allowing ice to remain on the road – in America, you absolutely could.”

    I’ve never heard of anyone doing this. Hate to say it, but it almost sounds like it’d be a frivolous lawsuit.

    • panoptical says:

      I ended up breaking down and looking up the relevant info – NYC specifically holds property owners liable for injuries caused by failure to maintain sidewalks (including removing snow and preventing ice accumulation) – and specifically allows the city to be sued if the injury occurs on city property (like in a park or at a bus stop). A little googling shows numerous examples of successful premises liability lawsuits against cities and property owners. This one is the most hilariously tragic – http://www2.wkrg.com/news/2007/dec/25/man_wins_6_million_bird_poop_lawsuit-ar-2141959/

  4. dohldrums says:

    Although I agree with you in general (I have often wondered why the government would rather spend money to build barriers that prevent drivers from parking on sidewalks than make money from these drivers by writing them tickets), I think there is a more prosaic explanation for the sorry state of Rustaveli, which is that Tbilisi doesn’t normally get cold enough for snow to last more than a day. Compare the average temperature during January to what we’ve experienced during the past week: http://weatherspark.com/#!dashboard;a=Georgia/Tbilisi;t=368529;mspp=4207761;m=40.975,44.072,42.460,45.494

    In a city where the daytime high is nearly always above freezing, there is no need for shovels and buckets of salt because snow will melt without any assistance. I’m sure that if Atlanta got five days of snow and below-freezing high temperatures, their sidewalks would suck too.

    The legal regime undoubtedly plays some role, but I suspect things (perhaps including the legal regime itself) would be different if Tbilisi were as cold as New York City.

    • Glyphwright says:

      Things would be different if the prevailing attitude in Georgia wasn’t along the lines of putting as little effort into any constructive activity as humanly possible. Why bother making sure the public areas are cleared of all the snow before it melts, mixes with dirt, and freezes over to form a disgusting slippery uneven crust? Let’s just wait for it to evaporate on its own, how long can that possibly take. It’s not like ice-covered roads cause people to fall down and injure themselves, right?

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  6. pasumonok says:

    i just remembered–in denver, people shoveled small path from their mailboxes to the door and that’s it. i took a bus 2 college and i had 2 buy a whole snow gear, boots, becoz i would fall deep into the snow. no one shoveled sidewalks.

    • panoptical says:

      Yeah, liability laws vary from state to state, and each city/town is allowed to deal with their state’s liability laws differently… makes for an interesting patchwork, but hey, that’s federalism.

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