Neighbourhoods

The Shoveler's Dilemma

By Adrian Duyzer
Published February 08, 2011

I just finished hacking our vehicle out of the parking spot it was trapped in. It took me around half-an-hour of determined work to free it from the icy grip of the spot we'd left it in yesterday.

When we had the big snowfall a few days ago, our car was parked right across the street from our house (like most of the people on our street, we don't have a driveway). A day after the snow finished falling and the city got around to plowing our street, I took some time to clear the snow from around our car. I'm pretty sure I'm the only person on our block who actually bothered to do this.

As a result, the spot where I'd been parked, originally, is now the best parking spot on the street. It's clear of snow and more importantly, it's also clear of ice. Of course, we don't tend to get that parking spot any more. It's too desirable.

Meanwhile, the rest of the parking spots on the street consist of a crust of hard, chunky snow-ice, punctuated by slick, rock-hard icy tracks perfect for trapping tires. The sound of engines revving and tires spinning as people attempt to exit these parking spots is commonplace in our neighbourhood. It's too late to do anything about it, too, until the weather warms up again.

I'm not trying to position myself as some kind of saint for digging out my car. On the contrary, I really only had my own self-interest in mind: I needed to be on time the next day, to drop off my kid at childcare and get to work. I knew I wouldn't have time to waste digging out my car the next morning, so I got the digging over with the night before.

That said, had everyone on my street taken the time to dig out their cars, our street would be clear of snow and ice, there'd be more room to park, and we'd all have decent parking spots. I'm guessing, though, that when the time came to decide whether or not to shovel, my neighbours' thinking went something like this:

  1. It might be messy, but I can actually get my car out of the space it's in right now without shoveling.
  2. If I shovel out the space, some other jerk is just going to take my spot and I'll be left with a snow-filled spot tonight when I get back from work anyways.
  3. Screw it. I'm going to be late.

This reminds me of the Prisoners' Dilemma, the classic game theory scenario where two prisoners are faced with a difficult decision.

The prisoners are suspects in a crime and are being separately questioned about a crime. If both remain silent under questioning, they will serve time for only a minor charge. On the other hand, if they each defect to the prosecution and agree to testify against their co-prisoner, they will each get a five-year sentence. But if one of them defects, while the other remains silent, then the defector will get off scot-free while his partner faces harsh sentencing alone.

Each prisoner has to decide whether to remain silent, or to betray their co-prisoner.

According to the Wikipedia article I just linked to, "In the classic form of this game, cooperating [both remaining silent] is strictly dominated by defecting, so that the only possible equilibrium for the game is for all players to defect. No matter what the other player does, one player will always gain a greater payoff by playing defect. Since in any situation playing defect is more beneficial than cooperating, all rational players will play defect, all things being equal."

Sound familiar? Although all of my neighbours would benefit from behaving cooperatively and clearing the street of snow, because there's a chance each may spend the effort clearing snow only to be taken advantage of by non-snow-clearers, no one clears the snow.

Where the comparison between dilemmas breaks down, of course, is that in the Prisoner's Dilemma, the prisoners are in separate cells and cannot communicate. But I can talk to my neighbours, so perhaps I will - even if I just end up spinning my wheels.

Adrian Duyzer is an entrepreneur, business owner, and Associate Editor of Raise the Hammer. He lives in downtown Hamilton with his family. On Twitter: adriandz

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By hammy (anonymous) | Posted February 09, 2011 at 00:10:30

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Comment edited by hammy on 2011-02-09 00:11:09

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By z jones (registered) | Posted February 09, 2011 at 11:57:28 in reply to Comment 59425

Welcome to hammy's comment.....where the ugliness in his heart gets projected all around him......

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By moylek (registered) - website | Posted February 09, 2011 at 07:25:34

I feel your (metaphysical as well as physical) pain.

I have my own Shovellers' Dilemma - will my neighbour have my sidewalk cleared before I can get out and clear it myself? My walk and his, of course. And even if he is slow on the draw, I might lose the race to my father-in-law down the street, who is himself in anoher back-and-forth contest with his next-door neighbour.

It wasn't always like this. But after one person started routinely doing more than he had to, it became easier for other people - well, let me speak directly - for me to allow myself to do more than I had to, to offer help where help was not strictly due, to risk feeling a bit of a putz by shovelling, for example, the walk of the unoccupied house across the street, or by running the shovel along the sidewalk when I walk down to do my in-laws house, even though I don't like some of the people.

The Gordian Knot of the Shoveler's Dilemma can be undone - sometimes - by one person acting not out of self interest but for the commonweal. Out of neighbourliness. Out of, in the old fashioned sense, love. Not always, obviously ... if it always worked, there would be no Dilemma.

So fight the good fight, Adrian. You will not win every battle, but you might just in the end win the war. And even if you don't, it will be a noble defeat and you can go down smugly knowing that you're better than everyone else :)

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By Brandon (registered) | Posted February 09, 2011 at 08:18:42

Well said. I shoveled my walk plus my two neighbours' walks and was pleasantly surprised to discover after a particularly heavy snowfall that one of them has a snow blower! I did a couple of light ones and got rewarded by not having to do a big one. :)

Even if they didn't return the favour, it's good karma...

That being said, sidewalks are easy, parking spots require a more significant time investment, particularly when plows become involved...

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By jason (registered) | Posted February 09, 2011 at 09:19:32

my neighbour is a champ when it comes to this. He uses his snowblower to blow away the snowbanks and then puts out pylons to 'guard' his spot during the day.
It's always a funny scene when he gets home to see that someone else has moved the pylons and taken this Taj Mahal of a spot.

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By Mark-Alan Whittle (anonymous) | Posted February 09, 2011 at 09:24:05

If you don't have a driveway are you not entitled to the single parking place in front of your house? Some neighbours I know have no parking signs in front of their homes, but they have a parking parmit to park there.

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By lawrence (registered) - website | Posted February 09, 2011 at 13:31:00 in reply to Comment 59431

I did get a friendly note put on my vehicle once during the James St N Art Crawl. On one of the side streets in that area, there is a 'by permit only' sign in front of one of the houses. I did not notice it (not sure how I missed it), but someone put a note on my windsheild stating that it was a 'permit' spot only. He/she could have been very rude about it, but it was a pleasant little 'hey, this is my spot' kind of thing.

Not only is our street a mess with very few having cleared a street parking spot, but there is a half-built vacant house that of course wasn't shovelled, and a corner lot business who seems to have forgotten there are two sides to their property. They also forgot to buy some salt. There is a walker-dependent woman on my street and this sort of thing leads to seniors being shut in much of the winter. My 95 year old grandfather talks about these same issues. What peeves me is that big businesses that are very laxed in his Stoney Creek neighborhod, are creating uneccesary discomforts for these people because my grandfather for one, enjoys going out for walks to do his shopping.

How to you police it, when there are so many property owners/businesses who simply cannot be bothered. Some of these un-cleared houses may be occupied by the elderly, but I know all of us on our street go out of our way to ensure their sidewalks and walkway's are cleared. These people pop out of their houses and are so apprecaitive. I don't want to lose them as neighbors, and I am sure they are holding off as long as they can, before they move out of the homes they have lived in longer than I have been alive.

These people are our best neighbors, and deserve to enjoy the freedoms of home ownership for as long as they can. What is one more sidewalk or one more lawn in the summertime?

Great topic, Adrian.

Comment edited by lawrence on 2011-02-09 13:34:34

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By Mr. Meister (anonymous) | Posted February 09, 2011 at 16:54:05 in reply to Comment 59455

In westdale unshoveled sidewalks are quite common. The lazy students just refuse to shovel. All anyone can do is call the city and bylaw will send them a notice. If that does not bring about the desired result the city will clear the snow and lay a bylaw charge and add the cost of clearing the snow to the tax bill.

I know of a couple of organizations around to help seniors and handicapped people; one is snow angels and the other is neighbours, there might even be more.

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By Pxtl (registered) - website | Posted February 09, 2011 at 20:55:22 in reply to Comment 59464

Isn't it the owner's responsibility to shovel, not the students'? I'm pretty sure all property maintenance is supposed to be on the slumlords. Lord knows they can't be bothered to mow in the summer.

Either way, the one thing that consistently gets my rage face going is pushing a stroller on these streets and seeing perfectly shoveled driveways and perfectly cleared cars next to unshoveled sidewalks. I have a stroller with big air-filled bike-tires on it, but it still sucks to slog through an unshoveled walk.

And the same folks honk at me if I walk on the road.

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By moylek (registered) - website | Posted February 09, 2011 at 21:26:47 in reply to Comment 59467

Pxtl writes

Isn't it the owner's responsibility to shovel, not the students'? I'm pretty sure all property maintenance is supposed to be on the slumlords.

Either and both, actually. I can't quote chapter and verse, but I've discussed the issue with by-law staff before: if the landlord has not got the job done, then the tenants are responsible.

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By Mr. Meister (anonymous) | Posted February 09, 2011 at 21:24:51 in reply to Comment 59467

Could well be the owners responsibility. However I would find it difficult to ignore the snow and ice if I liver there. What would you do? Take the half hour and clean up where you live or pass it off to the slumlord and live in the mess?

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By Tybalt (registered) | Posted February 14, 2011 at 00:58:38 in reply to Comment 59468

Chances are you wouldn't; I live in Ainslie Wood where there are even more students than Westdale, and the VAST majority of them don't shovel.

Our immediate neighbours aren't too bad, especially since I let them use my snow shovels (most landlords around here don't provide them; drives me batty). They often help me clear our shared drive. I often take care of their sidewalk for them. This has always been the case; only once in the 7 years I lived here did I have a group of students who simply wouldn't shovel.

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By highwater (registered) | Posted February 09, 2011 at 11:25:59 in reply to Comment 59431

A permit only entitles you to park in a given area. The section of street in front of your house is public property and you are no more entitled to it than anyone else in your neighbourhood with an on street permit, although I believe there are exceptions if you are handicapped.

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By Brandon (registered) | Posted February 09, 2011 at 11:21:53 in reply to Comment 59431

You can apply to the city for it but you have to pay for the privilege.

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By Pxtl (registered) - website | Posted February 09, 2011 at 09:25:12

Lots of towns in Pennsylvania have (illegal) conventions involving claiming a spot with a chair or a traffic cone because of this problem. You shovel it out, it's yours.

Now I'm fantasizing about a way to subscribe to some sort of GPS + phone system to call you when the plough was going to come in a minute or two, and another call when it had gone by. Then you get to your car, drive to Timmy's, and come back to a properly ploughed street.

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By JasonAAllen (registered) - website | Posted February 09, 2011 at 09:38:07 in reply to Comment 59432

Now THAT would be an Open Data app I would pay money for!

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By seancb (registered) - website | Posted February 09, 2011 at 09:54:12

I always laugh at the signs "no parking second tuesday april to november"

But wouldn't november to april be a better time to have a monthly morning of no cars so that the plough can come by?

Comment edited by seancb on 2011-02-09 09:54:28

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By hammy (anonymous) | Posted February 09, 2011 at 12:40:59

Na, just plow them in. That always gets their attention..

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By say what (anonymous) | Posted February 09, 2011 at 13:29:04

I shovel my walkway, both my neighbours and one sown the street who's elderly. I also shovel out at least 3 spots in front of my house and neighbours. Its catching on and at least 3 more spots were shoveled and the guys across the road cleared the boulevard turnarounds. Pay it forward is a reality

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By Andrea (registered) | Posted February 09, 2011 at 13:38:28 in reply to Comment 59454

I 100% agree. When it snows, if I am already the first one out and bundled up I automatically shovel my house and at least the two house on each side of me. Lucky for me I have parking behind my house, and one of the neighbours plows out our alley way.

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By EXBX (anonymous) | Posted February 09, 2011 at 13:44:10

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By just me (anonymous) | Posted February 09, 2011 at 14:54:35

re un-named troll-brain way above (we dare not mention who for fear of encouraging her/him): RTH will soon require a minor pass level on an intelligence test administered by the blab dopes on CHML's 'call-ins'. That should be a threshold low enough to allow many to post to RTH but high enough to reduce painful junk messages.

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By J'M (anonymous) | Posted February 09, 2011 at 15:36:16 in reply to Comment 59459

Hell yeah tell him, stoopid mouthbreathers who don't agree with us

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By MattM (registered) | Posted February 09, 2011 at 16:05:21

The trolls have resorted to trolling a submission about shovelling your parking space.

trollers gonna troll.

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By say what (anonymous) | Posted February 09, 2011 at 16:30:30 in reply to Comment 59461

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By nobrainer (registered) | Posted February 14, 2011 at 07:13:41 in reply to Comment 59463

Who exactly is the troll is ALWAYS clear, Allan.

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By Tybalt (registered) | Posted February 14, 2011 at 01:01:24 in reply to Comment 59463

To this dedicated reader, it is never unclear. The trolls are obvious - they do not contribute insights, and they substitute abuse for discussion.

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By bob lee (anonymous) | Posted February 09, 2011 at 16:15:24

this reminds me a bit of the tragedy of the commons. Every person acting out of self-interest, rather than depleting a common resource, fail to put the energy they otherwise would due to the presence of their neighbours. It's the opposite of paying it forward - rather than doing good because others have done good to you in the past, you neglect your duty out of fear your good works will go unrecognized.

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted February 12, 2011 at 11:53:57 in reply to Comment 59462

It's interesting, I feel, how differently this "tragedy of the commons" plays out between sidewalks and parking spaces.

Sidewalks provide a network of easily traversed, relatively safe routes. All, or most must be shovelled or that whole part of the network is useless. If everyone plays their part, everyone wins.

Parking spaces are needed in a very different way. And while one person may shovel one spot for their one car, the second they leave, it becomes available to others, and there may be none other nearby. It creates a sort of individualistic enforced competition which really doesn't help community spirit. Every time it snows, my neighbours start shouting.

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By BobInnes (registered) - website | Posted February 25, 2011 at 13:16:29

Adrian, i was interested to learn where you put the snow. I've seen streets where folks make nice parking spaces by creating huge piles where the next guy wants to park, easily reducing parking space by 50% or more. Especially in the north end, where may folks seem to also think that the spot next to their house belongs to them. My guess is that it prolly has something to do with lead pipes.

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