Seattle has a particular vulnerability to snow and ice that is unique in North America. The uniqueness is in the intersection of four factors:
- Rarity. Like its rainbelt colleagues, Portland and Vancouver, Seattle doesn’t get snow and ice often enough to justify a huge investment in infrastructure to deal with it. Obviously, cities with regular winter snow have the necessary equipment and staff, and also a public who are largely experienced with how winter weather affects transportation. So life goes on in those places. If you live on Ottawa or Minneapolis you may not be able to resist gloating over how Seattle collapses in weather that looks to you like a normal November day. Rarity also explains why Seattle absorbs these occasional unpredictable shutdowns without serious harm to the economy. On the bottom line, trying to function normally in snow just isn’t worth the investment.(Having been raised in the Northwest rainbelt, I have a similar reaction whenever I happen to be in Los Angeles for the first big power-washing rainstorm of autumn, when all the drains are clogged with fallen leaves. Again, it seems like nobody knows how to drive in partly flooded streets. You might as well close the schools, stay home, and focus on defending your basement.)
- Temperature. As in Portland and Vancouver, Seattle blizzard days are relatively warm as blizzards go. In particular, it’s common for the temperature to go above the freezing mark during the day but below it at night. This causes snow to melt and refreeze as ice, which is generally the greater hazard.
- Rail transit. Seattle doesn’t have much, but the one line it has did well. Seattle commentators are crowing about how well the Link light rail line fared in its first snowstorm. In Vancouver, the new Canada Line didn’t do so well; its bridge over the Fraser closed due to ice on the rails. In general, though, rail systems do well in snow and ice, even on high viaducts where they’re especially exposed to winter. As I’ve argued at length, many of rail’s advantages over buses are matters of cultural history rather than intrinisic features of the technologies. But rail does seem to have an advantage on this point, though I welcome input from snowbelt readers who have more experience with rail-bus comparisons in other cities.
- Topography+density. Portland and Vancouver share Seattle’s basic climate, but both are relatively flat if you think in population-adjusted terms. Portland has steep hills, but apart from the Marquam Hill medical center they are mostly low-density, affecting only a small share of the population. Vancouver has the scourge of major universities on remote promontories and hilltops, and the idea of a gondola to the hilltop fortress of Simon Fraser Univeristy may get a boost from the storm, but most of the city is on manageable grades.On the other hand, if you laid out a city with the specific goal of maximizing the amount of hill-climbing required for daily life, you couldn’t do much worse than Seattle. The city is full of steep hills with lots of important stuff up on top of them: dense housing and commercial uses, as well as all the major medical centers. (Seattle’s founders knew in their bones that the medical arts simply cannot be practiced at sea level.)
This feature of Seattle, of course, is part of what makes it one of the most spectacular cities on earth, at least when the sun comes out. In an article on cycling in Seattle, I suggested that the city needs to be understood as an archipelago: islands of pedestrian-friendly, bike-friendly, transit-friendly communities with big physical obstacles between them. The same goes for mobility options in snow. If you lived, say, in the flat part of Broadway in the center of Capitol Hill, you could probably slide around in your own neighborhood pretty safety, but to go anywhere else on the planet, you’d be looking at very steep 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. 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. Adam Parast argues, intriguingly that rare snow days may be an opportunity for Seattle to rehearse life in a more resource-constrained future. And as commenter Rob Fellows put it:
It seems that most people believe it’s the city’s responsibility to ensure that life goes on exactly as usual in a snow emergency. Metro has improved their snow response dramatically this year compared to two years ago, but is skewered in the press because an eighth of their fleet is sidelined and they don’t have real time arrival tools that work on snow routes.
What I take away from it all isn’t that it’s futile to get around in snow in Seattle; it’s that people here have no perspective! There are forces bigger than us on earth! There are more important things in life than our daily routine! For goodness sake, what a wonderful thing snow is – particularly because it makes us pause and take a moment to admire the wonder of nature at work.