Tragedy of the (Boston) Commons

This winter, the city of Boston has gotten a LOT of snow [1] [2] [3]. It’s gotten to the point where it’s hard to watch the local news without seeing another story of a roof collapsing or worse, a meteorologist reporting of more to come. However, the people of Boston have remained strong, and plowed, dug, back-hoed, and removed snow from every major street and sidewalk. Well, almost every sidewalk.

Snow is not new to Boston. There are well-defined laws and ordinances based on the cities snow-filled history. One such law is the Boston Code of Ordinances, 16-12.16. The law states that property owners are required to:

Remove snow, slush, and ice from sidewalks and curb ramps abutting your property within 3 hours of snowfall ending (or 3 hours from sunrise if snow falls overnight) as required by law. Violators will be fined [up to $100 per day for Residential properties, and $200 per day for Commercial ones].

The goal of this law is to ensure that sidewalks are kept free of potentially hazardous snow, slush, or ice for everyone walking past the property. It does this by incentivizing property owners (who likely benefit the most anyways) to clean sidewalks within a timely manner (three hours) and apply sand/salt to keep them from icing over.

The result is, as I mentioned earlier, that nearly every sidewalk has been cleared of snow. However, quite close to my apartment is a small public playground. It occupies the space that four or five brownstones would otherwise take up, and is directly on my route from the nearest T stop back to my place. But allow me to digress for a moment…

The Tragedy of the Commons is an economic fable dating back to 1833, by William Forsyer Lloyd. It tells a cautionary tale about a community of herders who all have their cows graze on a piece of public property (Lloyd uses the term “common parcel of land”). The inevitable and foreseeable result is that eventually the field is depleted of all grass, and now none of the herders can bring their cattle to graze.

The lesson is for individuals to be mindful of community resources by either limiting their usage or paying into collective maintenance. The first solution we see in government (i.e. community) imposed regulations and limits on things like CO2 emissions. The second solution is why some communities impose fees on residents that go to a collective (typically a Home Owners Association). This collective is then responsible for maintaining communal resources.

Which brings us back to the public park. In theory, the City of Boston “owns” the property that the park is on. However, they’ve recently had their hands full with other efforts, having already spent more than double their initial $18 million snow-removal budget[4]. So now, there is nobody left to clear the sidewalk.

This is known in economic and political theory as a collective action problem, or, in this particular case, what I would call a collective inaction problem. No doubt, I and many of my neighbors would benefit from having that sidewalk cleared. Yet none of us want to bear the burden of clearing the entire thing by ourselves. So we must either trudge along through what is now a foot of snow and slush, or go the long way around the block.

The economics of the situation aren’t likely to change any time soon. All I can hope for now is that the weather improves or[5] someone finally shovels and salts that patch of sidewalk. Until then, I’ll be enjoying a solid return on investment for my snow boots.


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Mathew is an Economics major from Brown University with a penchant for puns and analogies (as if you couldn't tell by reading this blog). He lives in Boston with his wife, Kate, and two dogs, Teddy and Luna.

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