Massive storms across the east coast last year crippled many cities for days and drained the coffers of municipal governments who were unprepared for the snow drifts that piled up as wave after wave of relentless snowstorms pounded the area.
The economic impact of these storms can be huge. And the cost to cities in dealing with massive amounts of snow is also large – the City of Boston spent a record amount on snow shovelling last year, $35 million. Local governments around Buffalo burned through their entire winter snow removal budget in one week. Despite warnings of another snowy winter on the way thanks to El Niño, some cities are already planning on cutting back their snow plowing budgets.
Snow removal is a perennial quality-of-life issue for local officials that goes back as long as we’ve had big cities. Today, Thumbtack is here to help when the snow falls. We wanted to know more about when people use our marketplace of service professionals to request snow plowing services. So we fired up the ol’ data machine and dug in.
Who Needs a Snow Plow?
Thumbtack receives a number of requests from commercial establishments and local governments trying to keep their driveway, parking lot, or sidewalks clear, but the overwhelming majority of request for snow plowing services come from residential consumers:
Of those residential consumers, far and away the most popularly requested item for help is long, concrete driveways:
Most people seem to prepare well for winter storms, as it’s more common for snow plowing services to be requested in advance of when they’re needed, especially for businesses:
However, there are still plenty of procrastinators who only request snow removal services once snow is piled up outside their door. We know this because we see big spikes in snow plowing requests following high levels of snowfall. The animation below shows requests by area from the fall of 2013 to today. Notice the huge spikes during three epic snowstorms last winter – one in Minneapolis, one in Washington, D.C., and several over a very short period of time in Boston.
Who Needs Help the Most?
Finally, we wanted to know if there were differences in when certain areas would request help on Thumbtack with snow shovelling to try and see which counties were more resilient when the snow came.
To do these we took historical snowfall data from NOAA at the county level. We recorded every day there was snowfall in that county and compared it to the number of requests Thumbtack received on that day for snow removal services. For counties where there is more than one NOAA recording station we took the station that reported the highest level of snowfall in that county on that day. Note that one weakness of this data is that we don’t have total visibility into the snow removal market in each of these areas – we only know when requests are being placed on Thumbtack. People who are responding to solicitations at their front door or calling people in the Yellow pages obviously aren’t included in our database, though we do make an effort to adjust for our market penetration.
The table below shows the results of a bivariate regression that compares snowfall totals by county by day with requests on Thumbtack on that day, controlling for the population size of the county. This tells us which counties are most resilient when it comes to dealing with snowfall – counties (labelled by their county seat) at the top of the chart were significantly more likely to call for help when the flakes started falling, and counties at the bottom of the chart had to see a lot more snowfall before they placed a request for snow removal services.
Residents of Monroe County, New York (which contains Rochester) and Hampden County, Massachusetts (which contains Springfield) were some of the least resilient in the nation: on average they called for help when there is less than an inch of snow on the ground. On the other side of the spectrum were residents of Cook County, Illinois (which contains Chicago) and Erie County, New York (which contains Buffalo), who were much heartier: they needed to see 8.8 inches and 9.7 inches of snow before they would place a request for snow removal on Thumbtack.
Rochester is consistently one of the hottest markets for snow removal services on Thumbtack – there was a huge difference in the number of snow removal requests per inch of snow between it and nearby Buffalo, despite similar climates and snowfall totals.
We were curious if government policy explained some of the difference in people’s propensity to call for snow removal help in these two cities. After all residents of Monroe County hate seeing snow on the ground so much that they passed a special tax to help pay for snow removal this season. While the city of Rochester budgeted $7.5 million this year for snow removal, or $35 per person, Buffalo budgeted a very similar $8.8 million for snow removal and street cleaning, or $34 per person. Some of Buffalo’s budget was dedicated towards street cleaning as well, which means that Buffalo is spending even less on snow removal per person than Rochester, and residents are still less likely to request private snow removal on Thumbtack than Rochester.
Here’s that same data, but on the daily level and presented as a scatterplot (each dot represents one county-day observation). Fairfax County, Virginia is included as they had had someone of the strongest propensities to request snow removal services in the nation. This chart clearly shows what an outlier Erie County, home of Buffalo, is, and shows how different their snow removal request patterns are from Monroe County, home of Rochester:
Many cities have ordinances that require snow to be removed from sideways and public paths within a certain period of time after a storm – several of the counties on this graph book a large number of requests for immediate snowplowing on days when no snow falls. Presumably these requests are coming the day after a large snowfall, and an interesting extension of this analysis would be to look at requests that come on the days following snow storms.
Where to Plow
What does all this mean? Snowplowing is a tough business to prepare for – snow removal specialists aren’t in business year round, and we see a lot of people with seasonal businesses like landscaping turn into snow plowers when the winter comes. But there is a huge variation by market – in some markets there have historically been significantly more requests on Thumbtack per inch of snow than other markets.
Photo credit: The Simpsons
Gardeners-turned-snowplowers in Rochester are going to have a lot easier time picking up business than snowplowers in Chicago, however, so before you go and buy your “Mr. Plow” jacket, take the demand for snow plow services in your area into account.
Top photo: Mike Groll / The Associated Press via National Post