Did a lack of regionalism lead to the traffic nightmare in Atlanta after 2″ of snow?

What caused the terrible gridlock in metropolitan Atlanta after two inches of snow (which quickly turned to ice)? Here is one argument for a lack of regionalism:

Which leads into the blame game. Republicans want to blame government (a Democrat thing) or Atlanta (definitely a Democrat thing). Democrats want to blame the region’s dependence on cars (a Republican thing), the state government (Republicans), and many of the transplants from more liberal, urban places feel the same way you might about white, rural, southern drivers. All of this is true to some extent but none of it is helpful.

How much money do you set aside for snowstorms when they’re as infrequent as they are? Who will run the show—the city, the county, or the state? How will preparedness work? You could train everyone today, and then if the next storm hits in 2020, everyone you’ve trained might have moved on to different jobs, with Atlanta having a new mayor and Georgia having a new governor.

Regionalism here is hard. The population of this state has doubled in the past 40-45 years, and many of the older voters who control it still think of it as the way it was when they were growing up. The urban core of Atlanta is a minority participant in a state government controlled by rural and northern Atlanta exurban interests. The state government gives MARTA (Atlanta’s heavy rail transportation system) no money. There’s tough regional and racial history here which is both shameful and a part of the inheritance we all have by being a part of this region. Demographics are evolving quickly, but government moves more slowly. The city in which I live, Brookhaven, was incorporated in 2012. This is its first-ever snowstorm (again, 2 inches). It’s a fairly affluent, mostly white, urban small city. We were unprepared too.

The issue is that you have three layers of government—city, county, state—and none of them really trust the other. And why should they? Cobb County just “stole the Braves” from the city of Atlanta. Why would Atlanta cede transportation authority to a regional body when its history in dealing with the region/state has been to carve up Atlanta with highways and never embrace its transit system? Why would the region/state want to give more authority to Atlanta when many of the people in the region want nothing to do with the city of Atlanta unless it involves getting to work or a Braves game?

The region tried, in a very tough economy and political year (2012), to pass a comprehensive transportation bill, a T-SPLOST, funded by a sales tax. It wasn’t perfect, but it was an attempt to do something. The Sierra Club opposed it because it didn’t feature enough transit. The NAACP opposed it because it didn’t have enough contracts for minority businesses. The tea party opposed it because it was a tax. That’s politics in the 2010’s. You may snicker, but how good a job has any major city done with big transportation projects over the past 30 years?

The argument here is that no one smaller group of government was prepared to deal with the roads and the problem was compounded because there was no structure to coordinate and organize activity when something like this happened. Additionally, regionalism could promote more mass transit to serve the entire region and reduce dependence on cars.

It would then be helpful to look to other major metropolitan regions to see how they tackle responses to natural disasters. Does regionalism lead to a better outcome for the region in such situations? For example, regions like Minneapolis or Indianapolis are held up as examples of regionalism – do they respond better in major snowfalls because of this? Without regionalism, is there a way to coordinate across levels of government in emergency situations that doesn’t require a full-level of regional cooperation on everything else?

Living in an era before snow plows

I have wondered this before: how did people clear roads and streets without modern snowplows? Of course, we can reconsider this every so often when an eastern or southern state encounters snow and doesn’t have the equipment to deal with it all but I’m talking about the days before snow plows even existed. Here is some insight:

That changed in the 1840s, when the first snow plow patent was issued. According to a wonderfully comprehensive history by the  National Snow and Ice Data Center, the first snow plow was deployed in Milwaukee in 1862. They write that the plow “was attached to a cart pulled by a team of horses through the snow-clogged streets.”Over the next several years, other cities adopted the horse-drawn plow, along with a sense that snow removal was a city’s problem. As the Data Center notes “the invention of the snow plow initiated widespread snow removal efforts in cities and also created a basis for municipal responsibility in snow removal.”

Of course, with great plowing comes great responsibility. Cities were able to clear main streets, but side streets and sidewalks often ended up blocked off by huge mounds of snow. Again, according to the National Snow and Ice Data Center, businessmen and townsfolk “complained and even brought lawsuits against the plowing companies … [claiming] their storefronts were completely blocked with mounds of plowed snow, making them inaccessible to their customers.”…

In the early 20th century, the automobile entered the picture, creating new problems and new possibilities for snow plowing. In 1913, New York unveiled the first motorized dump truck (complete with tractor tires), abandoning the traditional horse-drawn cart. In the 1920s, Chicago unveiled the snowloader, an “ingenious contraption” that “was equipped with a giant scoop and a conveyor belt. As the snow was plowed, it was forced up the scoop, caught by the conveyor belt which carried it up and away from the street into a chute at the top where it was dropped into a dump truck parked underneath.”

Industrialization and technological change brought with it new forms of snow plowing plus expectations that cities would clear the streets. It would probably be fascinating to hear more about these expectations; did they arise because streets are city property? Did cities balk at having to devote resources to clearing snow as opposed to pursuing other goals? What were the outcomes of these lawsuits between business owners and municipalities? It sounds like the expectations about snow removal arrived at roughly the same time (late 1800s) that cities started providing other services to everyone including sewers, water, and police and fire coverage. There could be an interesting story here.

If many communities are facing budget shortfalls, is there any community willing to consider privatizing snow removal? In many places, it isn’t exactly a full-time task.

Another thought: how much more difficult does suburbia make snow plowing and removal? With the variety of streets that subdivisions add to the mix including cul-de-sacs and arterial roads, can snow plows be more efficient in cities?

April Fool’s prank in Evanston about snow removal sticker

Municipal employees and officials are somewhat beholden to residents and their tax dollars. Therefore, it would be interesting to know the reaction of public officials to an April Fool’s prank regarding snow removal published yesterday in a community newspaper in Evanston, Illinois:

As WBBM Newsradio 780?s Mike Krauser reports, Evanston is dealing with a budget crisis, and a huge bill for the blizzard back on Feb. 2 and 3, which dumped 21.2 inches of snow on the Chicago area.

So, the Roundable reports, their solution is to charge for snow removal.

The Roundtable reports under the new plan developed by the city’s Snow Czar, Pearl Le Blanc, anyone who wants snow removed in front of their homes will be required to buy a “snow removal sticker.”

The plan was approved at a heated City Council meeting on April 1, the Roundtable said.

Residents who participate will rent orange traffic cones from the City of Evanston, and will affix daily snow removal stickers to the cones. The stickers will cost $2.25 per day, the Roundtable reported.

I would imagine that officials at City Hall might not have been too pleased at receiving phone calls from angry residents.

Is it too outlandish in these days of budget shortfalls to suggest that a community could increase revenue by requiring such a sticker?

Meteorologists debate whether recent Chicago snowstorm was 3rd or 4th largest on record

Headlines after the recent Chicago blizzard suggested that the storm had the third largest amount of snow in Chicago history. But when this was later changed to the 4th largest storm, an argument erupted among meteorologists about what exactly counted as part of this particular storm:

After a brief drop to No. 4, the Blizzard of 2011 has now been put back in its rightful spot as the No. 3 worst blizzard in Chicago history.

Earlier in the day, the National Weather Service downgraded the Ground Hog Day Blizzard to 20 inches, taking away .2 inches of snow they say fell hours before the actual blizzard hit. At the same time, they decided that the 1979 storm lasted three days, not the two generally cited. That upped the storm’s total to 20.3 from the 18.8 inches generally credited to the storm…

But during a teleconference with meteorologists from Chicago area media outlets, there was such outcry over the weather service’s decision to lower the total snowfall from this year’s blizzard that the decision was reversed.

“You really are getting into hazardous territory,” WGN meteorologist Tom Skilling warned National Weather Service officials during the teleconference. “To downgrade this storm in any way shape or form is highly subjective. You guys are the arbiters of this, but I don’t agree with it.”…

Allsopp emphasized that these storm totals are more for the public’s benefit than for the record books. The official snow records are listed by calendar days.

Even the weather, data we might consider “hard data,” is open to different interpretations. It is interesting that the final decision went the way of the local forecasters. While Skilling is right to suggest that the decision to downgrade the storm was subjective, wasn’t ranking the storm 3rd also subjective?

Perhaps the key is the final statement in the article: this is for the public, not the record books. In the long run, does it make Chicago area residents feel better or more proud to know that the recent storm was the 3rd largest? If we went by the official snowfall by calendar day, this website suggests the record was 18.6 inches on January 2, 1999.

Blizzards do not lead to baby booms in 9 months

There is a story out there that suggests when a blizzard comes along, like the one that hit Chicago this past week, one can expect a rise in births in nine months. Experts say this story has little foundation in fact:

The commonly held assumption dates at least to the widespread blackout of 1965 that doused New York City in darkness. About nine months after residents spent hours together with the lights off, The New York Times reported an uptick in births. A sociologist quoted at the time offered this euphemistic explanation:

“The lights went out and people were left to interact with each other,” he said.

Over the years, blackouts, snowstorms, and even full moons have all been deemed natural aphrodisiacs. But for nearly as long, experts have sought to debunk the relationship between catastrophe and copulation, dubbing it mere myth.

“It is evidently pleasing to many people to fantasy that when people are trapped by some immobilizing event which deprives them of their usual activities, most will turn to copulation,” demographer J. Richard Udry wrote in a 1970 paper that showed there was no statistically significant increase in births that could be attributed to the 1965 blackout.

Tom Smith, director of the Center for the Study of Politics at the University of Chicago, agreed that most baby boom speculation following various disruptions has not proved true.

“First, these events are as likely to separate partners as they are to isolate them together with ‘nothing better to do.’ Second, most people are using contraceptives,” Smith said. “(And) third, these are hardly the type of events that make couples say, ‘Let’s start a family.'”

So why exactly does this myth still make the rounds? This one is fairly easy to disprove: just look at the records for birth nine months after any event.

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?

Politicians and their responses to snow (and other events)

Is it any surprise that Mayor Daley of Chicago has been absent from the response to snowstorm of recent days? What exactly could he gain at this point in his career?

We know from recent history that politicians have plenty to lose in such circumstances. Look at Mayor Bloomberg in New York a month or so ago – if he can’t even get the snow plows working, how could he achieve higher office? Past Chicago mayors, such as Michael Bilandic, have been burned by snow.

My guess is that this is one of those situations where people in charge get little credit if all goes smoothly but proportionately more blame if things go poorly. People expect that services like snow plowing or garbage pick-up are just going to happen and tend to only notice this when that service is interrupted. Right now in Chicago there seems to be game of political hot-potato over the number of people trapped overnight on Tuesday on Lake Shore Drive. Who exactly is responsible – should Mayor Daley have to answer for this? Shouldn’t someone have had some plan in place? More broadly, do most cities sit and think about worst-case scenarios so that they have at least thought about some of these issues?

This may not be a fair process on the part of the public: the leader can’t control everything. But when something goes wrong, the public also expects that the leader is ultimately responsible and is responsive to the needs of the citizenry. If not, if those basic services don’t come through, the blame often goes right to the top.