Portland: Transit Heroism in an Epic Snowstorm

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Enough snow to almost paralyze Portland. Readers in Canada, Russia, and Scandinavia are invited to keep their comments to themselves. :-)

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Portland’s Gateway Transit Center at 8:30 AM on January 11, 2017. Everything working fine, considering. Rail moved at 4x the speed of an adjacent freeway studded with abandoned cars.

Portland woke up to about 9 inches (23 cm) of snow yesterday, with snow continuing to fall, and I had a chance to watch a bit of the transport situation.

Unfortunately, that morning I was booked to fly out to a client visit in Southern Oregon, so I had to do the ritual of going to the airport so that I would be there in the unlikely event our flight wasn’t canceled at the last minute. When I checked my options at 8 am, with snow still coming down hard, Lyft was nonexistent, Uber had a 20+ minute wait with 2.5x normal pricing, but a bus was coming soon.  I had a small adventure carrying a heavy suitcase through snowdrifts, but once on the bus everything was fine.  The driver even had to stop for a minute because he was running early.  Drop-down chains are great!

I connected to light rail, and because of snow operations I had to connect again within the light rail system, but it all worked fine.  Each station I visited had a friendly transit employee with a snow-shovel.  I got to the airport in about 1.2 times the usual travel time, faster than would have been possible by any other mode of transport.  By then, many freeways were partly blocked by abandoned cars, including some especially dimwitted truck drivers who thought they could get over our highest bridge without chains.

It was funny to hear some people grumbling, as though the snow were the transit agency’s fault or their staff weren’t obviously doing their best.  Remember, everyone who’s at work at 7 am in a snowstorm somehow got out of their houses at 4-5 AM.  Levels of heroism should not be underestimated.  Our agency, TriMet, did an amazing job. So, as you must do when you see staff working heroically, I sent a tweet:

Of course, it was not so easy for everyone.  The transit agency had pre-designed “snow routes” for buses that avoided most steep hills.  (If you live on a hill, this is a “feature” of your location choice!)  Trees were an issue; some trees bowing under the snow touched the catenary of the light rail and streetcar downtown, shutting them down for a while.  “Only so many arborists,” @pdxstreetcar tweeted sensibly.  (Another city might cut down trees that presented this risk, but you just don’t do that in Portland.)

So we got what you expect.  We had made some local value judgments (not cutting down trees) that reflected our values but caused some trouble yesterday.  Most people accepted that consequence of their values.  And the transit agency staff really were amazing. In situations like this, I make a point of thanking every transit or city employee that I meet.  On a snowy morning, a good greeting is: “Hey, I realize you got out here at 5 AM, and I really appreciate it.”  Adjust to taste, but don’t say nothing.  And as studies of gratitude have shown, this will actually help you feel better about your own inconveniences.

Finally, do not use the words “apocalypse” and “armaggedon.”  Your parents and grandparents got through snowstorms without needing those words, so they mark you as a hysterical kid.  Those words should be reserved for nuclear war, the Rapture, climate-induced civilizational collapse, and snow for those thin-skinned drama-queens in Seattle.

8 Responses to Portland: Transit Heroism in an Epic Snowstorm

  1. Jeff Wegerson January 12, 2017 at 3:16 pm #

    Yes it always impresses me the heroics that our transit raises to in a big snow here in Chicago. I like to say that transit has a lot of “foul weather friends”. People who turn up and appreciate transit when the weather is especially bad.

  2. Dawn Dinsdale-Hunt January 13, 2017 at 2:44 am #

    I used to live in northern Ontario (first snow in September, ice off the lakes in April/May) so I always feel superior to southerners who can’t/don’t/won’t adjust!

  3. Michael January 13, 2017 at 8:41 am #

    I’ve run transit operations in both North Carolina and New England. Even though we have more snow in New England, we are used to it and it’s part of the routine. Therefore, the folks who work in places where snow is rare make an even more impressive show when they step up to respond without all the same resources and experience northerners have. Rather than making cracks about them, I think they often deserve more credit. I appreciate the post, Jared. Enjoy the snow day!

  4. Fredrik January 13, 2017 at 11:29 pm #

    We Scandinaivians do not always handle the snow well either. When it comes early, before people have put on the winter tyres, the result is can be getting stuck for 8 hours in a road tunnel. It is hard to clear snow from road blocked by vehicles driven there by over-optimistic drivers. The last time, the rail worked reasonbaly well, but not good enough to run a “Everybody talks about the weather. Except us.” campaign.

  5. el_slapper January 16, 2017 at 10:24 am #

    @Michael. Last time it snowed in Algiers(happens every 10 years or less), the only weapon they had to fight the snow was…..hot water.

    Fortunately, the ground never went under 0°C, so it didn’t make blackice.

  6. Federico January 20, 2017 at 6:48 am #

    We don’t have snow over here (Tucumán, Argentina) but we have a lot of rain, so the problems you have uphill we have downhill here. Many of the main avenues and streets got blocked by amateur drivers fearing to cross 20cm of water and buses have to take detours sometimes surpassing 1km to continue their paths and obiously all the inconveniencies are the fault of transit enterprises according to the people (and media)

  7. Michael Miller January 20, 2017 at 10:39 pm #

    Having also lived through this crazy week in Portland winter, I very much appreciated your take on it and especially your observations about the efforts of transit staff. Also your “there really is a rational reason for it to be a bigger deal here” perspective.

    One minor factual quibble, though: you mention truck drivers trying to cross “our highest bridge” without chains, but the linked story is about the Marquam Bridge. As inspiring a bridge as it is /sarc/, it is certainly not Portland’s highest, by any measure. The decks of the St. John’s and the Fremont would actually straddle the Marquam, to say nothing of the former’s towers and latter’s arch. (I can’t find a clear reference to the Marquam’s overall height, just its river clearance (130 ft), plus approximate deck-to-deck height of 20-something feet, so I’m guessing a little where the numbers get close.)

    Even the Steel, when both decks are fully raised, might clear the Marquam below it (though it would probably be very tight). Its towers are significantly higher than the Marquam.

  8. Rider Adgency February 28, 2017 at 6:51 am #

    Winter could be tough, also on taxi drivers.. Imagine having to safely transport passangers during a storm, or really slippery roads.. Having a tablette on board can definitely help the passangers pass some time by browsing the internet on the tablet for example.

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