Snow. Some people love it (ME!). Some people hate it (everyone else!). However, we can all agree that it presents some interesting results from a planner or engineer’s perspective. Planners love to point out the “sneckdowns” that occur to show all the underutilized roadway space that exists. They have their merits because they do serve to calm traffic and shorten crossing distances… that is, if you are physically able to cross the street.
No matter where I have lived in this region or others, urban or suburban, when we have snow storms, pedestrians are often not as well considered or prioritized as other modes. Roads are plowed, cycletracks are plowed (well, plowed enough), but sidewalks are often left subject to property owners’ discretion and shoveling prowess. There are a few problems with this kind of policy:
- Sidewalks can often become hazardous when it ices over if not shoveled and treated properly. If a sidewalk is not continuously and consistently shoveled and treated, icy patches can send someone to the hospital. I was especially conscious of this because after a certain point in pregnancy, any fall means a trip to the Emergency Room to check on the baby. These patches are equally as problematic for seniors and those with disabilities.
- Crosswalks are often impassable. Plows often pile up snow at the intersections and in many cases, this means near crosswalks and curb ramps. The snow then refreezes into an ice mountain. Crossing becomes impossible unless you can scale a 3’ snow mountain. I don’t know about you, but I don’t typically pack my ice climbing equipment on my way to work. Best case scenario, you try to climb Snow Mountain and your foot falls through what is actually slush and you end up with squishy, wet shoes all day. People in wheelchairs have an even worse time in these situations because crossing is just not an option.
- Pedestrians often must walk in the street. Since streets and roadways are a priority for plows, pedestrians often must resort to walking in the street because it is the only reliable place to walk where the likelihood is lower that you’ll slip and have an injury. This becomes a huge hazard especially with dark winter clothing, earlier sunsets during winter, and malfunctioning street lighting or lighting on timers. I’ve seen multiple people utilizing right turn pockets on busy roads to get past the intersection and rejoin the sidewalk where the plows have not piled up snow. Even worse, people have died in these cases
- Pedestrian refuges become precarious because they are often left unplowed or overcome with snow. This results in longer crossing distances and increased time needed to cross.
This becomes a Vision Zero issue because people can be seriously injured or killed in these situations. While this kind of safety may not be a nation-wide concern, in the Northeast and regions with heavy snow storms during the winter, it is a largely overlooked issue. It is a relatively easy fix as well. Training plow drivers and independent contractors to plow snow away from pedestrian crossings rather than into them. Attaching fines to those that do not comply. Agencies can also deploy smaller plows, snow blowers, or other equipment as they do for cycletracks or protected bike lanes to clear crosswalk ramps and pedestrian refuges. Depending on policies, these are generally in the public right of way, and would fall under the purview of municipal agencies. If not, the property owner on the corner should be responsible for ensuring at least the curb ramps are clear.
Bottom line is, transportation conditions impact choices and many people still need to travel to their jobs during or after a storm. If people can’t walk to the metro or bus stop, they may choose to drive or rideshare. For those that can’t drive as an option they make unsafe choices to walk in the street. For a region that is focused on reducing congestion and increasing safety, this is a relatively small change that could make a big difference in getting back to normal after a storm by focusing on all modes as they reconnect the transportation network. As a region we can look to other cities or federal guidance that experience more intensive storms to learn from them. I even came up with the initiative name: Vision ZerSnow and that one you can have for free.
Christine E. Mayeur is an urban planner with a unique set of skills and interests. She has been called a “renaissance woman” by her coworkers and is interested in all things creative and challenging. Christine uses her history of working with communities through grassroots organizations along with her planning skills to help plan transportation systems that meet the needs of all users.