This past week, I experienced an old friend: SNOW. It has been over 10 years since I have had to deal with this stuff. In this case, the 40 inches of white stuff, more then made up for this long absence from winter.
The weather is one of the many excuses used to support the suburban experiment. We need large malls, because the winters are too cold for people to shop outside. We need wide roads to make it easier to push snow. We need to eliminate on-street parking because they make plowing difficult. Well, I want to share with you my observations.
For my friends in the snow belt or upper Minnesota, 40 inches may seem like a dusting, but for our town this type of snowfall is historic. Our equipment worked well for the first 12 and even 24 inches, but once the snow began to pile along the roads, our plows could just not throw it any further. Once we started get 2-3 inched of snow an hour, it just was not safe for for our equipment to be on the streets until the snow slowed.
I work for a small town where everyone pitches in. I decided to give public works a hand in their efforts to keep the city streets over. This task moved from observation, to hand shovel, and ultimately to plow operator. I cannot deny that it was a lot of fun to plow, for the first day. By day three, I have to admit, I lost interest in even playing with Eddie’s toy trucks.
I do encourage that planners ride with the folks that clear our streets. You really need to see this first hand. Here are a couple of snow storm observations.
- The wide streets are the worst streets. Our town has a couple 3 and 5 lane streets. During and after the storm, you find you only need 2 lanes. It takes a lot resources to plow a Stroad when those resources could be better used somewhere else.
- Grids are Great. With the amount of snow we had, we needed a place to put it. In old town Ranson, we have a historic street grid that allowed us to move snow to the four corners of an intersection. This allowed the streets to remain open with the basic equipment we had. The intersections also allowed for the plow to dump what is was pushing into the cross streets, which would get moved as we turned the block. In the long, winding streets of the suburbs, we had to bring in special equipment and haul away the snow. These are also the streets where we received the most complaints about driveways being “plowed in.”
- Civic Spaces are important. There are actually three important observations here. First, after the storm, people wanted to get out and kids wanted to play in the snow. Civic spaces and parks provided the opportunity for this to occur, while letting crews clear the streets. Secondly, these civic spaces provided central locations to stage equipment and to haul snow to. Finally, once we clear the parking lots at the Civic buildings, on-street parking residents could move their cars off-street while crews clear the streets.
- Mixed-Use. During a snow storm, nothing is drivable, bikeable, or walkable. As soon as the storm lets up, walking becomes the only option. The two or three convenience stores in town stayed open through the storm. This is were many people got their first hot meals and replenished their supplies after the snow. The locally owned restaurants were next to open. Most of these places did not have clear parking lots, so walking was the only option.
- When its snowing, temperature is not a factor. I do not want to confuse this observation with scientific meteorology. The fact is, no matter the temperature, people climb out of their warm houses to play in the snow.
- Snow plows can do better planning then any engineering street manual. The plow truck will only clear the path that is needed, and has a wide turing radius. The plow truck will start with one lane of road, and after traffic increases, the plow will come through and plow the second lane. As these trucks get to intersections, they are turning at the radius of the plow and truck. There is no calculation as to the radius, other then what the steering wheel allows. In some cases, the plows straighten out streets the were artificially curved.
- Deliveries and big trucks make do. Shortly after the storm, supplies and heavy equipment started to arrive back in town. These drivers followed the main streets that were plowed. They did not try to do a u-turn, or expect every road to be at their disposal. they took their time, and behaved like urban guests in the city.
- The lead walks were the first areas to be shoveled at people’s homes. Urban or Suburban, the first thing to be shoveled at homes was the path from the front door to the street. I saw many cases were residents just made these paths across their lawn.
- Planning and Leadership is Critical. Cities need to be prepared for these events. Emergency Management Plans work. One of the most amazing stories of coordination during the storm in our community occurred at Day 6. Our local senior center feeds many home bound seniors. These seniors had been stocked with 6 days worth of food, so on day six, panic began to set in. The Senior Center had volunteers walk in to prepare meals, the School Board donated food from their cafeterias for the meals, and the National Guard transported the food to the senior center, and then onto residents in the community.
- Inform the public. This storm, the City focused on communicating on their Facebook page. Residents want to know what is going on, and need to be informed. Many residents chose not to go out sightseeing after the storm, because the City communicated the severity of the storm and shared pictures.
- Roundabouts work. The roundabouts in town worked great. They could easily be plowed, because the plow is in constant forward motion. The center island is also a great place to push and pile snow.
A lot can be learned when mother nature has her way. As urbanists, we can learn a lot, when we are forced back to the most primal levels of urbanization.
I do want to thank all of the crews I followed around during this storm. I saw countless acts of charity. These crews went above and beyond to dig our out town.