Update: Not two minutes after this post went out, someone emailed this from Art Thiel, which makes the same points, plus additional ones.
Every time it snows in Seattle, you get quite a few people complaining about the response. This time even the LA Times chipped in their derision this time. Complaining itself isn’t a bad thing – we can always do better and improvement is by definition good – but the largest complaints are often about inability of the drivers (especially buses) to adequately cope with the situation. I’d like to quickly explain why our local governments might be doing the right thing, and why local drivers (especially bus operators) aren’t actually worse than those where ever the complainers think good drivers and good snow responses are.
Seattle is extremely hilly. I’m sure you’ve noticed this. Queen Anne would be practically the highest point in Illinois or Michigan (not really, but you get the point). Denver’s totally flat in the city proper. Driving in the snow or ice, whether you are operating a snowplow, a bus or a car, is much more difficult on hills than it is on flat ground. For obvious reasons, there are few large cities perched on steep hills in places where it snows often every winter. None of the traditionally “snowy” cities in America (or really anywhere that I can think of) are very hilly. In Seattle it snows just often enough that we can make do with the hills we’ve got, but the tall, steep hills become a real problem for motorized transport in ice and snow. Yes, I’m sure bus drivers in Minneapolis, Chicago and Denver can handle the snow, but could they handle the hills as well? I doubt it.
Snow is relatively infrequent in Seattle. I know it snows every year, or at least seems to. And big storms come every few years. But these events aren’t frequent enough to warrant investing the huge amounts of money that it would take to weather them (see what I did there?) successfully. Lots of places take this same strategy, for example, London does this (the money shot is that satellite near the bottom), so does Tokyo. This isn’t bad decision making by idiots or misanthropes; it’s balancing investment in high-impact, low-frequency events against the day-to-day. Maybe the climate’s changing and these events are becoming more frequent, but it’s not as if we have infinite resources.
So we trade some snow response for better service the rest of the year. This might be a good idea when you know you’re not going to do that well in the snow anyway, you might as well not overinvest in that eventuality. Which is why a lot of Seattle drivers do not put on chains, and why so little of Seattle is plowed by snow. Imagine the youtube video of the snowplow crashing down Queen Anne.
There are always things that we could do better. In the Seattle Metro Region’s case, I think a single place online to go to get information would be pretty nice. http://snow.washington.gov or something. Obviously, we can’t even accomplish a single web portal even for buses, so chances may be slim of that happening for transportation and services in general. Still, it might be a nice idea to publish the snow protocols that the cities, county, and transportation agencies use. Even if you know where the plows go, do you know their start conditions and the frequency? Where do you go to find information about waste removal? These answers could be very obvious to everyone if we tried.
Finally, clearer posting on snow policies on bus stops may be in order. I took the 71 to work on Monday and waited for 25 minutes before a kindly gentleman told me I had misread the map, and the bus would not come to the stop I was waiting at, where (obviously) I thought it would. I walked down to where the bus would come, and on my way explained what I had learned to the people at each stop. By the time we reach the first “real” snow stop, I had gathered a posse of nearly two dozen people. Everyone of those people was either 1) not sure snow rules were in effect or 2) not clear on how snow rules affected their bus route. This is simply an information problem, and shouldn’t be too difficult to solve. Especially compared to driving a city bus up an icy, steep hill.
I’ve read lots of good ideas in the comments. How do you think we should improve? What really is different about transit, driving, etc. in the snow in Minneapolis, Chicago and Denver?