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Friday, January 14th, 2011

Replay: A Tale of Two Blizzards

[Since it's winter and snow clearance has been in the news lately, I thought it was a good time to rerun this piece looking at the different expectations people in different cities have for public services, and how regardless of where you fall on that, everybody's feeling the pain right now.]


Photo Credit: flickr/meryddidan

January 1979 saw one of the worst blizzards in city history hit Chicago, dumping 20 inches of snow, closing O’Hare airport for 46 hours, and paralyzing traffic in the city for days. Despite the record snowfall, the city’s ineffectual response was widely credited for the defeat of Mayor Michael Bilandic in his re-election bid, leading to Jane Bryne becoming the city’s first female mayor.

In January 1978, a similar blizzard had struck the city of Indianapolis, also burying the city in a record 20 inches of snow. Mayor Bill Hudnut stayed awake nearly two days straight, coordinating the response and frequently updating the city on the snow fighting efforts through numerous media appearances. Nevertheless, the airport closed and it was several days before even major streets were passable. But when it was all over, Hudnut emerged a folk hero and went on to become arguably the most popular mayor in city history, serving four terms before voluntarily stepping aside.

While major snow is much less frequent in Indianapolis than Chicago, and Hudnut’s response certainly bettered Bilandic’s, these twin blizzards illustrate a powerful difference in citizen expectations between these two cities, reflecting two of the broad approaches to urban service provision in America today.

People in Chicago expect and demand high quality public services. Chicago is the “City that Works”, and woe be to the mayor when it doesn’t. That’s why every mayor since Bilandic has treated snow clearance like a military operation, deploying a division of armored snow trucks to assault the elements at the merest hint of a flake, often leaving more salt than snow in their wake. If Chicagoans pay relatively higher taxes than the rest of the country, at least its citizens know that they are getting something for their money, whether it be snow clearance, garbage collection, street lighting, landscaped boulevards, or bike lanes.

In Indianapolis, by contrast, public services are not the main concern. People gripe if snow is not cleared, but are not outraged. No Indianapolis mayor ever lost his job for failing to deliver good services. Rather, taxes have always been the primary issue. Nothing illustrates this better than the most recent mayoral election. Buoyed by an emerging demographic super-majority, a large campaign war chest, and the support of almost every establishment figure of both parties, Mayor Bart Peterson confidently raised city income taxes by 0.65 percentage points shortly on the heels of a major property tax jump. In the fall, however, he lost his re-election bid to political neophyte Greg Ballard, who ran on a taxpayers first platform. Ballard won without significant backing from his own Republican party, supported only by a collection of grass roots activists, bloggers, and his own relentless door-knocking campaign.

The divergent citizen and policy preferences of both cities continue to the present, amply illustrated by this very winter. Mayor Daley, facing a recession-induced budget gap, decided to save money by ordering that residential streets not be cleared by workers clocking overtime. Citizen unhappiness over the state of the streets during December snows led even the widely popular Daley to backtrack on this experiment, reverting to the traditional all out assault for the balance of winter.

In Indianapolis, after 12.5 inches blanketed the city this January, crews took several days to clear its snow routes and, as per its standard operating procedure, did not plow residential streets at all. The local media carried tales of people’s laments, but ultimately the city government knows that the response to the snow will be forgotten soon after it melts. Higher tax bills, by contrast, are long remembered. In an inverse situation to Chicago, people in Indianapolis sleep at night knowing that, if services haven’t been all that great, they at least have more money in their pockets.

While both cities have long seemed happy pursuing their respective courses, storm clouds are gathering over both strategic models of operation.

Backing down from a high service stance in government is almost impossible. Government spending only ever seems to go one way. Faced with that logic, and the clear expectations of its citizens, Chicago in effect decided to double down. With the much celebrated resurgence of urbanism, Chicago put its chips on a soaring Loop economy driven by an emerging status as one of the top global cities, a real estate boom, and a series of tax and fee increases. It embarked on a civic transformation epitomized by community showplaces like Millennium Park, miles of top quality streetscape improvements, a new terminal at Midway Airport and the start of a multi-billion dollar O’Hare modernization, one of the nation’s best bicycling infrastructures, and perhaps most ambitiously, a bid for the 2016 Olympic Games.

This model is increasingly showing signs of strain, however. Many taxes and fees, including the nation’s highest sales tax at 10.25%, appear to be close to maxed out. The real estate crunch hit hard at Chicago’s transfer tax revenue, another key source of city funds. This, in combination with a weak economy, has hammered the city’s budget, leaving Daley with tough, often unpopular choices to make. The CTA recently raised fares. City parking meter rates will be quadrupling under a privatization plan recently signed, hopefully plugging operating budget holes – something Daley had previously resisted. As with New York City, Chicago may be faced with the cold reality of both service cuts and tax increases.

More importantly, as with the dot-com bubble before it, there are real questions as to whether the financial and real estate driven economy that fueled Chicago’s boom will come back in full force any time soon. In the meantime, the economy and cost of living in the city are squeezing the middle class harder by the day, and despite perhaps America’s biggest condo boom, the city’s population is slowly shrinking. All this leaves Mayor Daley, although still very popular, with perhaps the toughest leadership challenge of his tenure.

Meanwhile Indianapolis faces problems of its own. It too has budget challenges, just as years of deferred investment are finally catching up with the city. Indianapolis has a $900 million unfunded backlog of curb and sidewalk repairs alone. It is the 13th largest municipality in America, but has the 99th largest transit system. And, more troubling, the city now finds itself outflanked by its own suburbs.

At one time Indianapolis could comfortably decide to purchase bronze-level services while other cities paid more for gold. But now its own suburbs are offering silver, and at a lower price point in taxes than the city is selling bronze. Many of its suburbs today not only have better schools and safer streets than the central city, they feature fully professional fire departments, large park acreage, lavishly landscaped parkways exceeding city standards, and even better snow removal. In the recent storm, upscale north suburban Carmel finished plowing its cul-de-sacs before Indianapolis finished its main arteries. When people can pay less and get more just by moving to the collar counties, that’s what they do. Tens of thousands of people have left the merged central city-county in recent years. Only a large influx of the foreign born has kept Indianapolis from losing population.

The current economy is exposing the long term structural weaknesses of both civic strategies. Chicago and Indianapolis show that both higher service and lower service models face big challenges and that neither approach represents a safe harbor in the current economic storm.

This article originally appeared in New Geography on February 14, 2009.

17 Comments
Topics: Public Policy, Urban Culture
Cities: Chicago, Indianapolis

17 Responses to “Replay: A Tale of Two Blizzards”

  1. The problem nowadays with snow clearance is that if you live on a residential side-street in a non-wealthy part of town (like most of the South or West sides), you won’t get plowed till day 3 post-snow … which, for small falls, means it’s already melted off or been sufficiently slushed by passing cars that they never do bother.

    Meanwhile, the main arterials are getting plowed, re-plowed, salted, and re-salted, even when it’s ridiculous overkill … but no trucks are tasked to the safety of the side-streets where most of the population lives.

    And if you live in Wrigleyville or up along the northern Red Line, you never once know there’s a problem, because YOU get plowed right away, and kept in good salt all winter.

  2. Matt says:

    I did find it amusing reading an article about Atlana’s woes during their recent storm, which mentioned the city has a fleet of 10 plows. Seriously, why even bother to pretend you have a snow response.

  3. Brett Hoover says:

    Where I live in Indianapolis, we have had about 25 to 30 inches of snow this winter and I have yet to see a plow or any application of salt. Our streets were an icy mess for most of December and they have returned to an icy mess now. You literally take your life in your hands to walk your dog. Twice I have had cars sliding out of control toward me and I have slipped and fallen on at least two occasions. I have never seen a city so embarrassingly negligent in any way. And a recent television report said that the city has already blown through 50 percent of its budget on snow removal. I have yet to understand the priorities of this city. The city council gives taxpayer dollars to the lowly Indiana Pacers and shuts down the library at the same meeting. They risk citizens’ lives by not addressing snow removal and they seem to think of public transit as a foreign concept. This city needs to refuel its leadership with people who have a desire to have a first-class city and an ability to make it happen.

  4. wkg in bham says:

    Re the photo at the beginning of the (If I remember correctly): After a snow in Chicago one of the property owners in area had shoveled out a parking spot. The junk in the street is their “claim” on the spot.

  5. Yup, the shot definitely demonstrates the time honored tradition of ‘dibs’ in progress…

  6. TBIndpls says:

    Aaron – You are significantly exaggerating the amount of snow in Indy in January. There has been no where near 21.5 inches. We’ve never had more than 4 inches on the ground at one time. I’ve never had any problem getting down my street and into downtown. Maybe I’m typical of the type of Indy person theat you described — not caring about the snow clearing in the city — but that’s because I have not had any problem.

    Indy does have increasingly nice suburbs (is that any different than any other major city?). We need to keep investing in the Central city. There have been some good things happening lately. You might want to check into the $500 million savings the city has created with changes in its combined sewer overflow project. That is a humongous thing to have happen. It will help pay for some other infrastructure needs. Are you familiar with Re-Build Indy? That might be something else to write about — a significant increase in re-building roads, sidewalks and other infrastructure. The city definitely needed it – because the infrastructure was definitely crumbling. The change has been very noticeable however lately, and it will be continuing for a while.

  7. @TBIndpls, I believe I said 12.5, not 21.5, and if you look at the bottom, you’ll see that this was originally published two years ago in January 2009.

  8. TBIndpls says:

    Maybe I’m getting dyslexic. I could have swore the number you had listed was 21.5 inches of snow in January in Indy — but in re-reading the post – I see that it is 12.5. That sounds about right. I still stick with my statement above however – that I don’t think the snow has caused much trouble and the plows have done a decent job.

  9. TBIndpls says:

    Oh — January of 2009. Well — that’s a little different. I don’t remember what I thought about the snow two years ago. Anyway —- as Emily Litella would say … “Never Mind”.

  10. These repeat posts will get you every time :)

  11. Tom Sisson says:

    I recall the snow in Indianapolis last year and our early start to this winter season. When they come around to plow side streets, any remaining snow has turned to ice. Private contractors collect wasted tax dollars as the sound of a plow scraping along the icy ruts echoes annoyingly.

    The city ordinance requiring the removal of snow from a sidewalk on your property is not enforced. The city does not clear snow from city properties unless used by the government. Check the sidewalks on many of the public bridges. Plows throw snow onto the sidewalks of main thoroughfares and secondary roads, making them impassable for pedestrians. Of course downtown is always clear, especially around the taxpayer supported sports stadiums.

  12. Ed Sanderson says:

    Two points to remember when considering the great Chicago blizzard of 1979. First, the 20+ inches of snow came on top of more than a foot already on the ground from the week before which the city had not been able to deal with effectively. Second, what actually made the whole thing worse was the arctic conditions after each storm. After the second storm the temperatures seldom rose above zero for nearly a week — on yesterday’s (January 14) weather report, record low set in 1979, minus 17. It took weeks to fully recover from the combination of the snow and the cold.

    Been there, hope never to be there again…

  13. Matthew Hall says:

    Cincinnati’s budget battles have revolved around just this issue. Cincinnati’s public services are surprisingly good for an older post-industrial city. Police, fire, parks, libraries and some public schools are amongst the best in the region. At the same time, some suburban and exurban districts around Cincy are cutting more and more from schools and other services. Cincinnati can’t sustain everything in the tough times ahead but I think that as the tables turn and some suburban areas fail to be able to even maintain the limited services they have, the city of Cincinnati will look more and more appealing, assuming the regional economy does alright. I think some of the intense, almost tribal, hostility to Cincinnati from its suburbs is motivated by a fear that the city may actually become more successful and place suburbanites at a relative disadvantage in property values, local tax income and the inevitable effects on schools, police, fire, etc. If ever a US metro needed more regional cooperation, Cincinnati is it.

  14. the urban politician says:

    I am astounded at just how uninteresting all of the responses have been to what really was a thought-provoking post. I was hoping for a real discussion here.

    People seem to be focused more on how many inches of snow fell, and how it affected them personally.

    Anyhow, interesting post Aaron.

  15. I’m not sure the salient point is a distinction between two public service models–first class and coach.

    I think the more important issue is that legacy cities have lots of legacy costs, and new cities built on the fringe without these obligations can frequently outperform the legacy towns.

  16. Ed Sanderson says:

    Inches of snow and temperatures do matter. How does any municipality, regardless of how well-run or well-financed, deal with 32 of snow in sub-zero temperatures? Here is a link to two pictures (with anotatins) I took during Chicago’s trial by ice and snow in 1979.

    http://picasaweb.google.com/il60642/ChicagoSnowJanuary1979#

    The city learned how to deal with a similar situation without resorting to redundant snow plows and crews — get them out early and continuous, regardless of overtime costs, on major bus routes and keep elevated trains running continuously and lastly, ban parking on bus routes when winter storms produce more than 2 inches of snow. Ignore the last and you get towed and your car ends up in the municipal pound. Hey, it pays for all that overtime.

    N.B. Hot-shoe rails covered with snow and ice short out rapid transit electric engines.

  17. TUP – thanks. You’re right. This wasn’t intended as a treatise on snow response.

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