"All the #2s", by Blinking Charlie

From the other side of the world Jarrett Walker shares his thoughts on his home region immobilized by snow. Briefly, Seattle is doomed by rare snowfall, high temperatures, lack of rail, and lots of people living and working on hills:

So I would suggest folks go easy on the Seattle Department of Transportation, which is responsible for snow clearing, salting, etc.  (Full disclosure: SDOT is a former client of mine, and I do have friends there, but I haven’t spoken with them since the storm.)  First of all, not even Minneapolis can deliver an incident-free evening rush hour when a winter storm hits at 4:00 PM, as it did in Seattle this year.  But more important, Seattle needs to relax into the futility of even attempting normal daily life in such a situation.

It’s the typical accessible, comprehensive Human Transit treatment. I don’t wholly buy into the “sit back and enjoy the snow” attitude of some commenters — some people really must be able to get around — but it’s true that there must be acceptance that the city will not work as if it were a clear day.

33 Replies to “Human Transit’s Snowstorm Review”

      1. Love that video!

        Especially the NABI/Ikarus articulated-dance!

        (Yes, Moscow and Snohomish County do operate the same model of bus!)

  1. A) Walker is in Sydney, Australia, a mere 7739 miles away:


    Other side of the Pacific, but hardly the “other side of the world”, unless Walker ever moves to a point due SSE of Madagascar.

    B) Even flat cities with incredible rail and bike infrastructure get hit with snow, just as Copenhagen was this week:


    the issue is that both cities, Seattle and Copenhagen, rarely get snow, so not only does the municipal government not budget for an unlikely occurrence, the local population does not understand that snow means they will be forced restrict activities and commerce by mother nature if they do not take the initiative on their own.

    You want a city that works in snow and cold? Montreal, Calgary, Edmonton, Minneapolis, Moscow, Oslo, Trondheim. Take your pick, but remember that all of them have rail transit and of course Moscow, Oslo and Montreal have made extensive investments in underground transportation and connection-arcades. Minneapolis, Calgary and Edmonton (and Spokane) have their Skybridge systems.

    1. The maximum possible distance is about 12,500 miles, so Australia is indeed on the other side.

      1. Before you gents come to blows, let me point out that spheres don’t really have sides. So “side of the planet” is a metaphor, and metaphors are never exact!

  2. Even with a tunnel, you have to be able to drive to the entrance and exit the tunnel. Given the way the highways were backed up, I wonder how many people would have been stuck inside.

    Minneapolis isn’t the only snowy city that doesn’t try for perfection. I’m from Montana, and I can tell you that you do not fight the weather, you adapt to it. Even Denver, where I lived for a time, is occasionally shut down by a major winter event. Denver International Airport, the nation’s 5th busiest, has ground to a halt in blizzards. This despite millions being spent on snow removal. The problem isn’t with SDOT, its with citizen expectations and a culture of entitlement.

    On a more personal note, I was able to get around fine during the storm, and I live on a hill. For local travel I put on some layers and remained on foot. I also had to get to Portland when the roads were at their worst early Tuesday morning. The #28 was on time running its snow route. LINK was unaffected between Westlake and King Street Station. Amtrak Cascades was unaffected and I arrived in Portland on schedule.

    Properly managed transit and a little bit of adaptation works wonders in a snow storm.

    1. I don’t know how much of it to blame on “entitlement” so much as the unreasonable expectations of transplants who have come here from regions that see much more regular snowfall and/or have many fewer topographical challenges.

      Though much of it was just my inner New Yorker kvetching, I think some of my complaints about the response are warranted. My chief issue was that nobody shoveled, and those who did shovel neglected to salt their paths. This meant that walking, the most important mode of transportation in a snowstorm, was virtually impossible.

      Throughout Tuesday, the sidewalk in front of my apartment building was covered in a sheet of ice because my property management company had not though of the prospect of refreezing. Within 30 seconds of walking out the front door, I saw someone take a pitch-perfect cartoon pratfall in front of my building’s steps.

      The city needs to do a better job of educating people on how to respond to a snowstorm. That message will help reduce expectations for mobility during and after the storm. At least employers around here seem willing to deal with people leaving early/telecommuting/not showing up due to what might be considered moderate weather elsewhere.

      1. I’m sorry, I know this is slightly off-topic, but why on earth would you ride Link from Westlake to ID station? the busses are free, and far far far more frequent.

      2. If you have a monthly pass, you’ll just take whatever comes first, and often (especially off-peak), that will be Link.

      3. Indeed Aleks, and on the particular day I was referring to, if Alex would remember, all buses were on snow routes and the 28 doesn’t go anywhere near ID. At 5:30 AM in the ice/snow the easiest and fastest way from Westlake to ID/King St Station was on LINK.

      4. Good call about the need to shovel. I shoveled my walk and my neighbor’s (she’s older–it seemed the polite thing to do) and then salted it, and it stayed clear from Tuesday morning on. The rest of my route to the bus stop was not shoveled and was a sheet of ice, which made it a scary walk. I’ll let it go with my neighbors who live on a side street where hardly anyone is walking around, but there were many downtown sidewalks that weren’t shoveled.

      5. If there’s a sheet of ice on the sidewalk, I don’t feel guilty taking a detour onto the parking strip or a bed of frozen flowers.

    2. “The problem isn’t with SDOT, its with citizen expectations and a culture of entitlement.”

      It’s not entitlement, it’s the Seattle Big Thinker syndrome. Everyone thinks they’re smarter than everyone else, and love to Monday Morning QB, (only with references to their trip to Nepal and the time they lived in western Europe).

      I work for the city (not SDOT) and I get tired of hearing it. If you’re so smart, why are you living in Seattle in the winter? ;-)

  3. Comparing last week to two years ago. (IMO)

    Number of buses abandoned–about the same.
    Number of buses abandoned that were articulated–the majority.
    Performance of light rail compared to 2 years ago–N/A.
    Performance of light rail this year–very good.
    Metro communications with drivers–slight improvement but needs a LOT more work.
    Metro communications with the public–much improved but still needs more work.
    Metro’s switch to snow routes early–excellent! Much improved.
    Seattle Mayor’s ridiculous comments on the quality of performance–Much improved.

    SDOT performance–some improvement. We did not see much more or better plowing and the de-icing/sanding solutions tried appeared to be only marginally effective. Pre-sanding and preventative de-icing solution did provide some short term benefits in those areas that were treated. The same hills that were closed 2 years ago were still impassible. Much more emphasis needs to be put on hills on major streets in Seattle. Freeway ramps were much better.

    Metro’s biggest failure remains the failure to remove the articulated buses from the streets at the first sign of a snowflake. They do not work in the snow and packed single buses are far more effective than abandoned articulated buses. If Metro gets this right they will go a long way to getting good performance under adverse conditions.

    1. There are two problems with pulling the articulated buses:
      1. The only buses equiped to use the tunnel are the DE60LF coaches. This isn’t just a matter of hush mode, but of having the proper radios for talking to Link control and having gear for interacting with the signaling system.
      2. More than half of Metro’s fleet is articulated buses. Pulling them from the road means drastic service cut backs. Much more than even snow routing.

      That said the older HF articulateds seemed to handle the snow a bit better than the hybrids. The Bredas were the worst though.

    2. Any data on how the double decker buses worked? Doesn’t Snohomish County have some of these?

      My route home is an articulated bus and at 4:30pm it was still fine. So the first flake to fall isn’t quite when the buses need to be pulled. But yes I’d rather wait until 11pm for a single bus that was running than get stuck somewhere in an articulated bus which then blocks every other transport except walking.

  4. Chief obstacle to transit in a Seattle snowstorm: all the stopped and crashed private cars. Period. A chained-up forty-foot bus, diesel or trolley, can handle the average plowed and sanded, or salted, arterial. Given a cleared lane forbidden to anything else.

    The way we handled Tunnel service once or twice twenty years ago was to push trolleybuses, standard and “artic”, to the staging areas, and run the Tunnel with them. Staging areas at both ends were used as transfer stations for standard diesel buses.

    Something to think about: If WSDOT can’t handle the I-5 Express Lanes in a blizzard, maybe they should give them to transit to clear and control- with the help of the National Guard if nobody else has “budget.”

    Tunnel coaches should be able to handle a two-way de facto busway between the Downtown Tunnel and the U-District and Northgate, with supervisors with hand-signals “single-tracking” the ramps.

    If we could get anything like a reserved busway system anywhere, a lot of people really might be able to “sit back and enjoy” winter- aboard a moving bus. A week ago Monday, hundreds of ATU members and their passengers deserved something like that.

    Mark Dublin

  5. My main problem was just having no idea when the bus was coming. I live along the 71, which only comes every half hour, so I couldn’t just go out there and stand and wait, I could be waiting for 29 minutes. Is there some kind of schedule for snow routes that they at least try to adhere to that is published somewhere?

    1. Alex,

      You are asking for the impossible. A “snow route schedule” couldn’t possibly exist, as snow in this area by its nature creates unpredictable delays. The “snow route schedule” is essentially the same as the regular schedule. Drivers attempt to adhere to regularly scheduled time points as much as possible. However, as coaches become disabled, drivers can’t get into work, roads experience unexpected blockages etc – depending on your stop, that bus may NEVER come.

      Until buses fly, or people in this area want to invest in the infrastructure it would take to make these rare weather occurrences have less impact, this will not change.

    2. I don’t need a “snow” schedule, what I want is the near real time position of my bus. A GPS relayed coordinate and a website that can handle the crush of traffic would do. That way I can decide whether the bus is “moving”, “has any chance of beating walking”, “is comming” etc.

      Who cares when the bus is supposed to be at the stop. What we need to know is “Will it make it at all?”

      1. So “all” you want is GPS pinpointing of where your bus is, plus the software to track it?

        All it takes is money. Problem solved.

      2. Nah, the problem is already solved. You just have to be patient. Metro spent money to install GPS on board all buses within 18 months from now as part of the OBS/CCS project.

        As for software, ever heard of OneBusAway? It’s totally free and open-source.

  6. Just a minor quibble…but, I wouldn’t classify snow in Seattle as a “rare” event. I would definitely agree that it’s not the normal winter weather pattern, but using the term “rare” sort of gives an excuse for people not to be prepared. Using the climate data (30 year mean) for Sea-Tac Airport, the average annual snowfall is around 11 inches…

    Snow is rare in places like Austin, TX or Savannah, GA, but in Seattle it’s probably going to happen every year, especially outside of the downtown core.

    1. Yeah, but here’s the problem about Seattle and snow. In the last twenty or so years years it has snowed everywhere from nothing to over 20 inches. The snow is completely unpredictable from year to year. It is a “rare” event the snow actually shuts down the city, but at least Metro prepared for the worst, and declared Snow Routes as a preemptive measure, but it even then you can’t expect much when the roads are jammed by everyone trying to get home at the same time in their cars going about 20 because of stalled cars and the inexperience most people have here with the snow.

  7. Let me be the local curmudgeon for a minute–I was born and raised here.

    When I was growing up, a snow event meant that everything in the city shut down. The schools shut down. The businesses shut down. If someone who worked for the grocery store lived within walking distance of the grocery store, then it opened, otherwise, the grocery store shut down. The city had about 5 snow plows, and maybe they could get I-5 clear in time for everything to melt. So, we would all just hole up in our house until the snow melted enough to be safe to drive on it. If we did venture out beyond walking distance, we put chains on our car and we stuck to flat routes, which meant we didn’t go far. This is why the locals around here stock up on canned goods and toilet paper when there’s even a hint of snow in the forecast: because we never knew if we’d be able to get to the grocery store. And you know what? It all worked out just fine. Kids and their parents got to stay home and go sledding and make a snow man, and the few people whose jobs were essential (i.e., doctors) could use transit because it wasn’t packed with the rest of us.

    I’m not sure when Seattle residents decided that this system of taking a break for a couple of days isn’t acceptable–my guess is, it happened sometime around the Dot Com boom when the folks moving here were from the east coast, where people expect to have their roads cleared. But it is a pipe dream to think that Queen Anne Avenue is going to be anything but an ice rink in a snow storm. If you live next to a similar hill, just don’t drive on it. If you’ll need to get out of your neighborhood because you work at a hospital, or you didn’t get enough canned goods and toilet paper before the storm hit, park your car at the bottom of the hill before the snow starts falling. Or better still, walk down to the base of the hill and catch a bus.

    Personally, I think the money we spend on snow removal would be better spent on infant formula for that family living in their car this Christmas. Because, I have plenty of toilet paper and canned goods at my house.

    That said, as I said above, I do think people should shovel their walks. No reason why that doctor should fall and break his tailbone on the way to the bus stop, and the kids need a safe way to walk over to the street with the big hill so they can go sledding. Besides, shoveling your walk is the Seattle Nice thing to do.

    1. I’ve been here over 30 years, so not a “native” and when I moved here from snow country where the thought of snow caused the county to dump tons of salt on everything, and cars lasted maybe 6 years if you didn’t mind driving something where you could look through the floor and see the road conditions. I thought and still think that the “civilized” thing to do with a short span snow storm is to sit it out. Take the day off, go sledding etc.

      Over the last 3 decades I can still count on one hand the number of times that the city shut down for more than 2 days. For pete’s sake, a weekend is two days. And if you actually make the effort to go to the office, is any body working? No! They are all talking about the snow and the effort to get there, and leaving early. And no lunch places are open etc. It’s totally a waste.

      Then there was the time I ran the car into the curb and did a thousand dollars of damage driving to work in the snow. At no time have I done a days worth of work and earned that kind of money. Dock my pay a days worth, I’ll still be ahead.

      And yes, I have extra food in the house, ’cause I hate shopping every day.

      1. Exactly! The only time I’ve been in a car and believed that my death was imminent was when I was a pre-teen and my father decided it was a good idea to drive up the ice-covered hill on NE 75th between 25th & 30th (you know, the hill with Eckstein Middle School at the top of it) and our Ford Escort began sliding backwards down the hill. Mercifully, we slid into the curb instead of the entire way down the hill. I don’t know what damage it did to the car, but at that moment, I really wished we’d just stayed home with our toilet paper and canned goods.

        I too can think of about 3 storms where waiting it out lasted more than a couple of days. And usually in those long ones, the folks at the grocery store manage to make it to work by about day 3 or so, at which point you can buy more toilet paper and canned goods if you somehow managed not to buy enough of them before the storm hit (often stores would sell out of toilet paper and canned goods by the time the storm was imminent, kind of like how Florida’s Home Depots sell out of plywood when there’s a hurricane a’comin’).

        Now if only we could all convince our employers to just shut down for the day when a bad storm comes in. Mine didn’t, so I took annual leave, because that’s the sensible thing to do in a Seattle snowstorm. No guarantee that my employer has enough toilet paper and canned goods on hand if I got stuck there.

  8. After reading the post about the automatic chains used by the buses in Whatcom County, I saw those chain gizmo’s hanging under the Bellevue School buses! I always wondered what those chains hanging under there were for, and now I know.

    Anyway they looked like they were only on the inner drive wheels in the back. So better than nothing but not quite the full chain up.

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