Clearing snow from one of Chicago’s enduring design features: the alleys

Crews around here are still working on clearing snow. Even this morning, several days after the major snowfall, some roads have impassable lanes. But Chicago faces an additional challenge: clearing snow from the alleys of residential neighborhoods:

But snowplows won’t be moving down alleys, arteries that are no less important to city dwellers. Streets and Sanitation Commissioner Thomas Byrne says plows might do more harm than good, pushing snow up against garage doors. Garbage trucks, however, will try force their way down alleys to make tracks for cars, he said…

Indeed, while alleys are the last to see city snowplows, they’re first in the hearts of many Chicagoans.

If the Champs-Elysees epitomizes Paris and Unter den Linden boulevard is symbolic of Berlin, the alleys that bisect Chicago’s blocks are emblematic of Chicago, no less than touristy Michigan Avenue…

Other cities, like New York, lack alleys, which means trash has to be put out on streets for pickup. Chicago’s alleys are lined with garbage cans, yet also are the ultimate urban playground.

Years ago, alley games contributed to local patois. “No dibs on broken windows!” was the starting signal for softball games, an announcement that only the batter would be responsible for smashing a ball through a window. The alley version of hide-and-seek was kick-the-can, accompanied by the cry “Olly olly oxen free!”

Alleys were also traditional avenues of neighborhood commerce. Today’s alley vendors, primarily scavengers, prowl the backyard byways by truck. Their predecessors drove wagons pulled by horses.

In the midst of a story about plowing, the reader receives a short education on the importance of alleys for Chicago culture. It would also be interesting to hear about alleys as a planning feature: does it enhance or detract from life on the streets? Does it allow for greater traffic flows on roads when garages and garbage cans are pushed behind buildings? How often do alleys become more of problems than assets (like in situations like this)?

This reminds me of the prominence of alleys in the designs of New Urbanists. Their neighborhoods often place garages in the backyards of homes and buildings so that cars are not such a prominent feature in front of structures. This is intended to enhance life on front porches and front sidewalks as homes can then be closer to the public areas. But this article from Chicago suggests that the alleys can also become important areas for social interaction, interaction that is not taking place on the front stoop or in more visible, public areas. If the goal of New Urbanist design is to enhance community life and interaction, does it matter if this takes place in front or behind a home?

Thoughts on plowing intersections, runs on bread, having places to turn around on major roads (like LSD), and more

Now that the Groundhog Day Blizzard of 2011 has stopped (though arctic wind chills are next), I have a few thoughts about the storm:

1. I drove home yesterday at about 4:45 PM. The roads weren’t too bad and the traffic was light – I assume this meant many people went home earlier. But there a problem in this sort of weather and any snow that always pops up: intersections that are difficult to move through. The roads can be quite passable but then everything bottles up at slushy intersections where people can’t start quickly and have great difficulty in turning. Someone needs to figure out a way to solve this problem. Would it be better to close an intersection for a minute or two so plows could do diagonal runs through the intersection square to clear snow? Are there people concerned about the science of plowing?

2. Why there was a run on bread in times like this is an interesting question to ponder. There are a lot of food one could buy before a storm hits that would be better in bread in that it would last longer and be more fulfilling. When did runs on bread begin and why do people still do this?

3. One of the stories in Chicago was the people who got stuck on in northbound traffic on Lake Shore Drive for hours. Why doesn’t every main road, particularly highways, have a certain number of points where people could turn around if a situation like this (or even a major crash in regular conditions) occurs? Lake Shore Drive has a number of exits in this area but those were blocked with crashes as well. Concrete barriers are helpful in separating traffic but this is an issue that someone should solve.

4. The warnings the police and state officials were giving overnight and this morning were intriguing that they must have to give these warnings because there are people who go out driving in such conditions when they don’t have to. This morning, one official suggested that if people wanted to go out, they needed to consider whether they were willing to risk their lives. This seems like common sense – but perhaps it is not.

5. When I woke up at 7:30 AM, the street in our residential subdivision wasn’t bad – perhaps 5-6 inches of snow. By 12:30 PM, a plow had done several runs on the street and it was clear. I was tempted to go drive and see what everything looks like but see point #4 above.

6. The blizzard is over – the total snowfall was the third biggest storm in Chicago history. Now it is time for the bitter cold. In the grand scheme of things, is the extreme cold more dangerous to more people than the blizzard conditions and the snow?