How a significant snowfall transforms a suburban neighborhood

Snowfalls of 6+ inches do not occur that often in the suburbs of Chicago. After this most recent one, I thought about how it alters a suburban neighborhood:

  1. The first thing I notice when going outside is the quietness as the snow is falling. Yesterday, when I went outside at 6:20 AM, it was dead silent. As the snow continues to fall and with a significant snow cover on the ground, the suburban neighborhood simply becomes quieter: less traffic noise, less likelihood of train (just a few weeks before with no snow on the ground, I’m pretty sure I heard a train horn from 3+ miles away) and airplane noise.
  2. Particularly in the mornings as people try to get to work, the snow can bring people outside. It still may not lead to much social interaction – though one of my neighbors did come by with a snowblower earlier in the week to uncover our sidewalk – but at least you see some people alive in the winter.
  3. With a significant amount of snow, it is a little harder to see the differences in landscaping, architectural features, and even size of different dwellings. Enough snow helps everything kind of blur together. All those things that homeowners do to set themselves apart – from yard statues to flowerbeds to shrubs to flags – are obscured.
  4. A big snowfall can bring kids back outside again – something that can be pretty rare even when the weather is good. Having no school for the day also helps. About a half mile from our house is a sizable retention pond where where lots of kids gather to sled despite the numerous signs saying no activity should take place there. (I have done some searching: this may be the biggest hill in a 1.5 miles radius of our home.)

When all this snow melts, we will be back to the blotchy green/brown lawns and empty and foreboding trees that characterize a typical suburban scene in winter.

Snowproofing the morning commute

Hearing the morning travel times near Chicago this morning, I wondered what it would take to reduce the abnormally high drive times due to the lake effect snow. The short answer is easy: get more people to take mass transit. But, this may not be doable. Here’s why:

  1. Not desirable. Even with the troubles presented by daily commuting via car (high costs, getting stuck in traffic, road maintenance), this is what Americans choose to do, even when they have other options. It is simply too attractive to be able to go and leave when you want and to not have to be close to other people while doing so.
  2. Not practical. Much of the American lifestyle, even in a city like Chicago, is built around the car. We have our own private homes with yards and garages (even in many of Chicago’s neighborhoods), we don’t put much emphasis on promoting street life, and our activities (work, school, recreation) tend to be all spread out. If you wanted to get rid of your car, you would need to live in denser areas – which do exist – but this would be a significant change for many.

Another way to put it is that days like today might be terrible for commuting but they are likely not enough to cause significant lifestyle changes. Americans have a high tolerance for putting up with commutes and having to use mass transit 300+ days a year isn’t worth it to many.

An additional option would be to delay commutes on days like these. Can’t more businesses and institutions provide more leeway to commuters? This might free up some road space if more people could delay their start or work from home.

Local governments staring at higher salt prices ahead of winter

The supply of salt is tight, leading to higher prices for local governments:

Replenishing stockpiles is proving challenging, especially for some Midwestern states, after salt supplies were depleted to tame icy roads last winter. And price increases of at least 20 percent have been common in places including Boston and Raleigh, North Carolina…

Some local governments are avoiding the problem thanks to multi-year contracts or secured bids. Chicago, for example, used roughly three times more salt last winter — 436,000 tons — than it did in 2012-2013, but the city has locked-in rates based on a contract negotiated a few years ago.

Other states aren’t so lucky.

In Ohio, where more than 1 million tons of salt was used on state roads last year — a nearly 60 percent increase over the average — last year’s average price was $35 per ton. This year, 15 counties received bids of more than $100 per ton, and 10 counties received no bids from suppliers…

For road officials, that translates into having to conserve and be creative. In many places, brine is added to salt to boost its effectiveness. Officials also are buying trucks that can, among other things, spread salt in the morning and clean streets later in the day.

I’m sure a lot of these governments are hoping for less-than-normal snowfalls. At the same time, it is also a good time for creative solutions to getting snow and ice off roads. I hope the long-term answer isn’t what we often saw in northern Indiana: just don’t completely clear the roads at all during the winter. This may have been due to the higher amounts of snowfall due to lake effect snow on the east side of Lake Michigan and it wasn’t terrible because of a lack of hill. Still, such a general strategy would slow down a lot of road travel.

I haven’t seen this suggested anywhere but is anyone thinking of some sort of special and/or temporary tax to cover road salt? These are public roads and the funds have to come from somewhere. Such ploys wouldn’t be popular with motorists but it could be more desirable than taking your life into your hands anytime driving during the winter.

Suburbanites mad at neighbors who don’t shovel their sidewalks

Readers of the Daily Herald are upset about their suburban neighbors who didn’t both to shovel the sidewalks in front of their houses:

Nothing like hitting a nerve. Last week’s column about pedestrians in peril on unshoveled sidewalks provoked an avalanche of articulate emails. Let’s start with Nancy Johnson who writes, “I live in Elgin where shoveling sidewalks is not required and I struggle to trudge through the snow every winter to walk my three dogs.

“Two winters ago, I fell on an icy sidewalk that resulted from the homeowner never shoveling, and did serious damage to my back. I have tried putting friendly notes in neighbor’s doors reminding them to be good citizens and shovel, but to no avail,” Johnson said…

JR Beck joins three Hanover Park neighbors to clear sidewalk snow near a school and church.

“We all have snowblowers so the work is not as taxing as it once was a few years ago,” he said. “We have managed to keep the walkways clear for the blocks on which we all live.

“But no thanks to the snowplow jockeys who: plow in all the corners where the kids have to cross the streets; and drive so fast that the plows throw snow over the medians and onto the cleared walkways…

“When I replied that I was only talking about commercial properties — dead silence. I have seen people walking in the streets on extremely busy Golf Road and Algonquin Road during rush hour because sidewalks in front of these main commercial strips are impassible.”

A big problem in a really wintry season like the Chicago area just experienced. There are two possible routes of interpretation for this that come to mind:

1. This is another indicator of a lack of suburban community. People can’t be bothered to take care of parts of their property that others use. They put their own self-interest ahead of that of others. Kids may have special status and this makes sense since the suburban life is traditionally about raising children: the argument about kids getting to school or buses seems to be the most effective in motivating people to clear sidewalks.

2. This highlights the importance of roads and driving in suburban communities over the concerns of pedestrians. The suburban life is built around driving from place to place so this gets priority for snow removal. The average suburbanite or business owner may not think there are many pedestrians out there on the sidewalks so they don’t bother to clear them.

Neither reason is particularly positive but this is an ongoing issue in many places. In our residential neighborhood, in which I walk often and also walk out of (to get to the library, several stores, bank), I would estimate only 10-20% of sidewalks were clear, pushing walkers into the street. Even if I cleared my entire sidewalk (which I did throughout the winter), it doesn’t necessarily connect to anyone else who cleared their sidewalks.

Financially troubled Chicago has to pay out more to reimburse drivers for pothole damage

Chicago doesn’t have much money these days but it will have even less after reimbursing drivers for potholes:

Mayor Rahm Emanuel has ordered the Chicago Department of Transportation to assign all 30 of its pothole crews to main streets on Mondays and Fridays to address scores of potholes in blitzkrieg fashion using a grid system.

The Chicago Sun-Times reported last month that the cash-strapped city has been hit with a blizzard of damage to vehicle claims thanks to a relentless barrage of snow, cold and wild temperature swings that has turned city streets into the surface of the moon.

Since the New Year’s Eve storm that buried Chicago in 23 inches of snow before a record-setting cold snap, CDOT crews have filled roughly 240,000 potholes…

At last week’s City Council meeting alone, there were 543 pothole claims introduced, nearly double the 280 claims introduced last month. During the March City Council meeting last year, there were just 61 pothole claims introduced.

Between paying more to patch potholes plus pay out claims, the cold and snowing weather is costing Chicago more money. It’s too bad this story doesn’t have any monetary figures about the pothole claims. Plus, how much is budgeted each year to pay out these claims and what happens if there is an outlier year (like this year)? Mayor Emanuel is quoted in this story saying this is why the city is trying to pave more streets during warmer months – indeed, constructing streets in certain ways in the first place and maintaining them adequately will cut down on pothole problems down the road. In this case, paying more upfront for the infrastructure of good roads in Chicago could save the city money later.

File Chicago pothole claims here.

Looking at where snow is and isn’t plowed on Philly streets reveals where public spaces could be created

One astute observer looks at snow plow patterns on Philadelphia streets and shows how spaces where snow is not plowed could become more public space:

If you haven’t heard of a “sneckdown” yet, it’s a clever combination of “snow” and “neckdown”—another name for a curb expansion—that uses snow formations on the street to reveal the space cars don’t use. Advocates can then use these sneckdown photos to make the case to local transportation officials that traffic-calming interventions like curb bump-outs and traffic islands can be installed without any loss to car drivers.

One of the areas of Philadelphia with the best opportunities for pedestrian plazas is East Passyunk Avenue, which crosses the street grid at a diagonal, creating lots of triangular intersections. I thought the snow would provide some good examples to help you visualize what I’m talking about, so I headed over there to take some sneckdown photos. And to my delight, the snow revealed some awesome traffic calming ideas I hadn’t considered.

At the intersection of 6th and Passyunk and Christian, near the excellent Shot Tower Coffee, there is a triangular plot of land that I always thought would make a great public plaza, but there’s a “for sale” sign there now, indicating it will probably become housing.

The city’s choice to allocate the public right of way around this triangle to curb parking for cars means the parcel is smaller than it could be, but even so, the snow formation shows it could be larger even without taking away parking. Try to imagine how much more sidewalk there could be if not for the curb parking around the island though:

Very thorough. This is a clever use of observational data: snow plowing makes the point that not all space on streets and roads is regularly used by cars. How might this space be used differently if it is not required as part of the road?

I wonder how much of this has to do with standards for road construction, whether in the past or today. For example, in Suburban Nation several New Urbanists argue that most road standards today are way too wide which then encourages faster driving and limits sidewalks and public space. They also suggest that we make choices as a society about how we want roads to function: are they there to maximize vehicle efficiency and speed or are they streetscapes that can help cultivate social and civic life (which usually means toning down the emphasis on vehicles)?

Snow reveals why we clearly need parking stripes

I pulled into the parking lot this morning at my normal time and I saw a common winter situation: packed down snow (we got 5 or so inches overnight) covering the parking stripes meant drivers were at all sorts of angles and depths. It is a bit of a different lot – angled parking, sloped – but this is common across parking lots, including big box lots with straight parking, when snow obscures the pavement.

The biggest issue? Spacing goes out the window. Without lines to guide them, parkers are either too close or too far. Looking at the same lot later in the morning, it ended up where people are much too close together. In other lots I’ve seen this winter, people are further apart than necessary, pushing new parkers further out than necessary.

What might be solutions?

1. Some kind of glowing parking lines. This would have to be a strong glow to make it through snow. How about bioluminescent paint?

2. Heated parking lines. The cost might be prohibitive but it works for heated floors.

3. Pop-up parking lines. I’m not sure exactly how this would work with snow on top of them but perhaps they would be activated before the snow falls.

4. Parking lines that are more like rumble strips so people know when they are going over them. Again, having snow on top poses a problem.

There has to be someone working on this, right?