Notes on Progress: A winter's tale
Melting snow can make the season easier
In this issue, Manosij Majumdar writes about how a small town in Michigan made winter better. If you enjoy it, please share it on social media or by forwarding it to anyone you think might find it interesting
Holland, Michigan, is a small town outside Grand Rapids. It’s a short and scenic drive from Lake Michigan, along the shores of Lake Macatawa. It is very small, very pretty, and very unlikely to be on anyone’s list of the most innovative American cities. Which is a miss, because it should be.
Holland faces severe winters, not unlike many other cities in the United States and around the world. It snows almost 70 inches on average. However unlike most other cities, Holland has solved winter, at least in its downtown.
The solution, a ‘snowmelt’ system, is elegant in its simplicity: warm water (95 °F, 35 °C) is routed through a network of tubing under the streets and sidewalks of downtown Holland. It is enough to melt an inch of snow per hour at 20 °F (-6.7 °C) – the average winter daily low in Holland.
Holland circulates 4,700 gallons (18,000 liters) through this closed loop, heating 690,000 square feet of sidewalks and streets, with an additional 190,000 square feet of private systems tapping into the public one. It’s the largest public snowmelt system in North America.
Positive externalities abound. It avoids the use of road salt, which insidiously degrades cars, roads, bridges, clothes, and shoes, on its way to accumulating in our lakes, rivers, and soil. It avoids the noise and air pollution from snow plows and snowblowers. It quietly and efficiently keeps the streets dry and safe for pedestrians, cyclists, and motor vehicles all winter. Some of the benefits are subtle, such as reducing damage to sidewalks from frost heave, and letting residents run outdoors in the winter. For the mobility-impaired, this can mean the difference between accessibility and being housebound. A Canadian study in 2017 reported a 30% increase in fatal heart attacks the day after heavy snows. Snowmelt saves lives.
Estimating the costs of this system takes some sleuthing, and the tangle of dedicated and general funding complicates it. A newspaper article mentions $8 million was spent between 1998 and 2016, at which point the system was 168 mi (270 km) long. I estimate close to $20 million spent over the system’s lifetime, or $20–25 per square foot, for anyone seeking to benchmark their own.
Operating costs are likewise low. The energy source is waste heat from the local power plant, which lowers operating costs. Even without the waste heat, heating water is neither expensive nor challenging. (There was an industrial revolution based on it.)
The annual operating cost is in the order of 50 cents per square foot per year for the public system, with 26% funded by special assessment on the downtown businesses who benefit most. The dollar amount is close to $350,000, or about 0.13% of Holland’s $268 million consolidated budget. This compares well with the 0.18% of its budget Toronto set aside for snow removal in 2022, before accounting for any of its many positive externalities.
What’s more interesting is the story of its creation. The system was created in 1988, long after most of America’s great infrastructure was built, at the encouragement of the engineer and industrialist Edgar Prince. Prince had seen snowmelt systems in Europe during his travels (we don’t know exactly where), and wanted to create one in Holland to help downtown businesses compete with a new mall on nearby US 31.
Here’s where the pieces fell together perfectly: Prince offered to subsidize the first installation, and the municipal government actually took him up on it. Prince eventually contributed $250,000 of the first $1.1 million. By providing early capital, Prince derisked the project. He also had the benefit of excellent timing, in that Holland was already in the midst of rebuilding a large part of its downtown, so the snowmelt system could go in at the same time as other new subsurface infrastructure. Since Holland, other places in Michigan, such as Grand Rapids, have built snowmelt systems of their own, but Holland’s remains the largest and the oldest.
When interviewed about the system in 1998, Mayor Al McGeehan said, “It was a huge gamble to go ahead with it because there was no template. There were no previous numbers we could look at. It was unique, it was novel, and it was untested and untried.”
What was the last time you heard of a municipal government take a huge gamble on a unique and novel piece of infrastructure, that was untested and untried, with no template? These are not words we are used to hearing from municipal governments, and for useful technologies like snowmelt to come online and displace defaults that fail to deliver, we desperately need to.
There are a few morals of this winter’s tale.
One specific lesson is that winter could be radically better, and we should make it so. We have the technology. It is baffling that Syracuse, NY, the snowiest city in the United States, didn’t approve its very first and very limited sidewalk snow removal program until 2019. There is no reason to live like this.
A sufficiently self-respecting city could convert all streets and sidewalks to snowmelt. It would be a massive project, but so is a metro, and this would be a lot less expensive to start or suspend. Toronto and Montreal have built entire underground mixed-use districts that keep moving along through the worst of winter. This would be comparable in scale and impact. All of winter may not be possible to conquer all at once, but cities can—and should—start taking back space from winter, one square foot at a time.
Secondly, to get a cautious institution (like a municipal government) to innovate, derisk the innovation. The great venture capitalist Thomas Perkins had a similar approach to funding startups: “Identify the white-hot risks, then find the cheapest way of going after them.” Progress requires experimentation, which requires a tolerance for occasional failure, an outcome that municipal governments are incentivized to avoid at all costs. Work with that incentive in mind.
What Prince enabled here was a rare species of public-private partnership. Instead of the private partner operating the asset, private funds were used to get the public project over the first hurdle — the white-hot risk. We are not all billionaires, as Prince was, but advocates inside and outside governments can seek to put together one-time catalyst funding to get an idea over its activation barrier and prove it in action.
A final lesson is on the role of local philanthropy, which has traditionally focussed on standalone cultural amenities like libraries or art galleries. As seen with Prince in this case, creative philanthropy can have an outsized role in building hard infrastructure as well. At a time when cities are struggling to build even the basics, this can be an important part of the solution.