Transportation Lessons from Snow

Listen to the snow, all ye planners!!  I don’t usually geek out professionally on this site, but this is a fantastic teaching opportunity that should not be wasted.  All the snow that has fallen has given planners and transportation folks a keen look into how people really travel by observing the tracks laid by vehicle tires, bikes and shoes.  And snow isn’t the only element that causes drivers to slow down – natural traffic calming elements have surfaced.  We can use photos of the snow to demonstrate to non-planners what truly is going on out there.  And my apologies – I only took these photos this morning, four days after the last snowfall, but hopefully they will get the points across.

 

Observations:

 

“Dead space” exists at an intersection – The snow clearers (DDOT snow clearing trucks and household shovelers) only clear what is necessary to move effectively, giving us an opportunity to “reshape” the roads.  Therefore, the trucks usually clear one or two lanes, and typically follow a straight path leaving the “dead space” at the corners.  Traffic calming elements such as bulb-outs are effectively the same thing and generally more pleasant than wasted asphalt.

 

Snowplows carved out only the important paths for cars.

Snowplows carved out only the important paths for cars.

Tighter turning radii really does slow traffic down.  Tightening the turning radii on curbs forces cars to slow down to navigate the turn.  This can typically be achieved with bulbouts or better engineering.  Regardless, it’s been great to watch people slow down to take curves.

Snow-made bulb-outs

Snow-made bulb-outs

Narrower lane widths slow traffic, too.  The highway isn’t necessarily moving slower because of snow (unless you are riding with a scaredy cat snow driver like me) – the snow plow can only reach so wide, maybe 10 feet max.  Highway lanes are around 12 feet wide.  The lane is cleared enough for your car to go through, not for you to reach maximum speeds.  With as much snowfall as we’ve received, it may be better to stick to inside lanes on the beltway so the snow barrier doesn’t slow you down.

Narrow lane widths make cars drive slower.

Narrow lane widths make cars drive slower.

Fewer cars on the road compensate for slower speeds.  Our offices were open on Monday and most people had no trouble getting in once they got to a main road.  Lesson here is that fewer cars on the road – even by just a little percentage – makes a huge difference.  I’m talking to you, Federal employees with free parking.

Cars in a holding cell.

Cars in a holding cell next door.

Speed humps need to be seen to be effective.  Our neighborhood street has speed humps in a few places.  Before the asphalt surfaced from under the snow, people were unaware of the speed hump.  It was fun to watch cars hit it pretty quickly in the snow.

Snow acts as a natural barrier for pedestrians.  Streetscape designers talk a lot about barriers between the street and sidewalks.  This is usually accomplished by parallel or angled parking, but plowed snow works just as effectively.  There is a sense of protection that is not only comforting, but beautiful.

Snowmounds provide "protection" from the cars.

Snowmounds provide "protection" from the cars.

Natural pedestrian paths emerge.  While snow barriers are nice, they aren’t so great when crossing the street.  While you expect them at corners, other pathways start to emerge.  As planners we should pay attention to this.  A great example that we use for college campuses is do not put doors and grand entrances at midblock if you do not want folks jaywalking.  The bottom photo is a great example.

Ped holes across L and Connecticut Ave.

Ped holes across L and Connecticut Ave.

Doors influence ped paths more than we think.

Doors influence ped paths more than we think.

Pedestrian bottle necks emerge.  During my morning commute, I pass the Farragut North metro stop on the RedLine –the busiest line in the city getting off at one of the busiest commuter stops in the city.  All those people usually take up large sidewalk widths to cross (just like you see in generic NYC street photos).  However, when the snowplow cuts pedestrians off from crossing the street, and only one narrow path has emerged, there are pedestrian bottle necks.  Nothing too major as everyone has been able to make it across with a little patience, but this just goes to show that even on foot snow can slow you down.  And the reason for wider sidewalks near metro stations.

Lining up to cross the street

Lining up to cross the street

The Metro is not invincible.  On Saturday, Sunday and for a bit on Monday morning Metro closed its above ground stations because the snow was just too deep.  Metrobus shut down completely for a bit, then gradually started reactivating routes over a few days.  The city suddenly became much smaller for folks depending on WMATA (Metro) and other area public transit agencies.  This was a great reminder how much this city really depends on WMATA and the folks who operate it and how much transportation really is a network of modes.

Cars, metro, cabs, buses are all part of a network.

Cars, metro, cabs, buses are all part of a network.

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  1. #1 by jules on December 24, 2009 - 11:19 am

    Your ideas are intriguing and I would like to subscribe to your newsletter.

  2. #2 by Dani Wray on December 24, 2009 - 12:05 pm

    You are a planner-poet, Megan. This is a wonderful study of organic movement and creation of pathways. I find that working with nature rather than against works out more often than not. These examples are intriguing and your analysis poetic. Have a great holiday!

  3. #3 by Paul on January 12, 2010 - 5:45 pm

    DC does a shitty job of street plowing (due to lack of practice & funds, presumably) but your points are well-taken!

    • #4 by Megan on January 12, 2010 - 6:01 pm

      DC was pretty good at clearing the snow, considering how much they had to clear. Then again, I did not drive in it, so who am I to say? The Federal government probably could have gone to work on Monday after the Saturday storm, but VA was still pretty slippery. I guess DC got lucky that the storm was on a Saturday. Let it be known our offices were open and everyone made it in – thanks to public transportation and committed drivers.

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