Seattle + Snow = Futility

Dear Seattle readers, if you still haven’t figured out that you need to stay home, watch this.  Its a slice of life on John Street, Capitol Hill, Seattle, yesterday evening.


The transit angle on the story appears at 2:43.  Good thing nobody used the bike rack.

Stay home!

27 Responses to Seattle + Snow = Futility

  1. Sherwin Lee November 23, 2010 at 9:58 pm #

    One notable thing to take away from this is that the transit service that was the least disrupted was Central Link light rail.

  2. David in Ottawa November 23, 2010 at 10:18 pm #

    Funny, most of these guys made the mistake of braking hard and locking up their wheels. Once the wheels are locked, you cease to have control. It appears at first glance that it’s slippery out there, but the pedestrians all seemed to manage despite being on a slope, so really it was poor driving that was at fault (and probably unsuitable tires making a contribution).
    It’s notable that the red car (4:34) and the fire engine never locked up and never lost control.
    Forcing your car into a low gear when descending is also advisable – that’s easier with a standard but still possible with most automatics, but if you need traction on the level or going uphill you’re better off with a higher gear (likely second or third).

  3. Rob Fellows November 23, 2010 at 10:53 pm #

    It’s interesting to read the comments in all of the local blogs on this subject. 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.
    Adam Parast in the Seattle Transit Blog wrote a nice piece on this. Snow days bring people to the streets and let children play with adults; people stop to say hi and to help one another. It reminds you what communities can be like. His article is at

  4. Beige November 24, 2010 at 5:31 am #

    Well, I assume there is a good layer of ice there, it doesn’t look like there is very much snow on the video. Ice is hard to drive on!

  5. Alex B. November 24, 2010 at 6:11 am #

    Reminds me of this video from Portland:
    And yes, ice is hard to drive on – but David in Ottawa is right on. If you know how to handle it, you can do a much better job. Never lock up the wheels. You need to know the terrain and conserve your momentum accordingly – or avoid building up so much momentum that you can’t stop.
    Gunning the engine and spinning your wheels is almost never going to be the answer.
    And a good set of snow tires never hurts.
    Finally, discretion is the better part of valor – know where you’re going and the kind of route it is.

  6. Tom West November 24, 2010 at 6:20 am #

    If you are on icey roads, it’s best to stay in a high a gear as possible. Unfortunately, autmoatcis don’t let you do that.
    Also, if you start skidding, let off the brakes for a moment. If the back end of your car starts going left, stear left.

  7. Rob Fellows November 24, 2010 at 7:40 am #

    Unfortunately, in traffic your performance is always determined by the least capable drivers in the traffic stream and your safety is determine by your ability to stay out of their way – not just your ability to drive well.
    One of the problems here is Seattle is just that half the population has never had any practice spinning out in parking lots and learning to fishtail gracefully. And our transportation agencies haven’t the practice dealing with snow to the point where it’s routine. (In fact, it’s not as routine here as it used to be). In New England, where I grew up, there was also a whole cottage industry of teenagers with access to pickups and plows who would arrange with suburbanites to plow their driveways – there’s nothing like that here in Seattle.

  8. Generalist November 24, 2010 at 8:00 am #

    It is all a matter of what you are used to. I’m also in Washington state, but on the east side where getting four inches of snow at a time is considered to be normal. We were impacted by the same storm, but not as badly because people are used to dealing with it. (It does take a few days for some people to relearn snow driving.)
    Transit wasn’t impacted that much, other than some routes being delayed for fifteen to sixty minutes.
    Our joke on the east side is that one inch of snow constitutes a ‘shut down the region’ emergency for Seattle, while it is trivial in Spokane. Based on the video, it has an element of truth to it.

  9. Zoltán November 24, 2010 at 8:07 am #

    A good argument for banging agency heads together and making sure all roads that transit uses get salted?

  10. David in Ottawa November 24, 2010 at 8:33 am #

    @ Beige | 11/25/2010 at 00:31
    I don’t see any evidence of ice. The pedestrians are doing fine, and on a slope at that. They’re not walking in the way pedestrians would walk on ice. So unless the sidewalks were salted but not the streets (which seems highly unlikely), what you’re seeing on the street is the effect of what is likely very fine snow on a reasonably smooth surface (asphalt) combined with drivers who don’t know what they’re doing driving vehicles without snow tires.

  11. Carter R November 24, 2010 at 9:13 am #

    Those are my old digs (and bus) from last year! That’s truly scary. The worst I had to suffer through was the perpetual fall drizzle.

  12. Kathy November 24, 2010 at 9:43 am #

    Its true Spokane is more used to snow conditions but in Seattle’s defense, Spokane is much flatter and Seattle is full of extremely steep hills plus they have about 10 times the traffic volume. People in Spokane probably put on snow tires every fall (just as we do here in Montana where I now live-and we all have plug ins sticking out the front of our hoods because we know sub zero is a given too) because they know what is coming, but in Seattle I don’t think many people put on snow tires because snow is not a given every winter.

  13. 23skidoo November 24, 2010 at 10:54 am #

    Spokane has very steep hills too, for example Ray St. South of I-90 you climb up out of the valley.

  14. Allie November 24, 2010 at 11:01 am #

    @ David in Ottawa – that’s my neighborhood and trust me – the street was totally ice. The city-wide issue this time around was snow all morning (2.5 inches Monday – a lot for us!) that was treated with salt, brine and sand – keeping roads wet but clear. Unfortunately the melt diluted the brine to the point that when the temp dropped and the winds kicked up in the afternoon, the water, slush, and compacted snow on the roads froze solid. And it has stayed below freezing ever since (though some direct sun helped break up some of it a bit yesterday)And of course the plows and sanders are still out there working on the arterials.
    In any case – the Counterbalance (aka – that hill) was a sheet of ice – as it almost always becomes when we get more than a dusting of snow.
    And yet – EVERY time there are multiple morons who think “I’m different! I can get up that hill!”
    It’s tradition in Queen Anne to watch cars and trucks slide down and smash into the poles and the other cars who tried the same thing. And then different morons try sledding down the hill and dodging those wrecked cars. It’s nail-biting, terror-filled fun!

  15. Cascadian November 24, 2010 at 11:03 am #

    David in Ottawa, it’s definitely ice with some snow on the surface. I was in Seattle on Monday when this was going on and the roads were wet and bare at 3pm. By 4pm or so, everything looked like this. The temperature dropped sharply and wet pavement turned to black ice (and the earlier slushy snow became additional chunky ice). New snow dusted the surface but there wasn’t enough of it to create an easily drivable surface. Driving on snow isn’t much of a problem even for many Seattleites. Driving on ice is hard for anyone.
    They supposedly salted the arterials but the steep drop in temperature or perhaps insufficient salt reduced the effectiveness. E. John St. (in the video) was supposed to have a single lane cleared according to the city’s snow map, so the conditions probably just overwhelmed the city’s response.
    My commute took 5 hours when it normally takes an hour or so. The city’s reversible express lanes that normally head north in the evening commute were kept heading south because of icy ramps. So every bus going north on I-5 got stuck in a bottleneck. The Alaskan Way Viaduct was also closed, contributing to the volume on I-5. My bus took two hours to go from downtown to almost onto I-5 (about 3/4 of a mile), which was a parking lot with spun out cars and buses. I got out and walked three miles to the University District and had to take two more buses to get home. My second bus was stuck another 30 minutes or so at the south end of University Way. Once we got past a single icy stretch at the bottom of that hill, it was easy but slow going for the remaining 11 miles of my commute, though it did take a transfer and 15 minutes at an inadequate shelter in conditions reminiscent of winter Toronto if not Antarctica. The streets from that point onward were more snow than ice and so much more passable.
    In six years, University Link will provide light rail that would have cut three hours from my commute in these conditions (the two hours on the first bus and the one hour walking to the U District). An eventual light rail spur (not yet planned but it’s on my wish list) along Lake City Way would cut the whole trip to maybe 40 minutes. But until then we are forced to rely upon buses that will never do well in these conditions. Not even the best-rated BRT with full separation on a dedicated busway can reliably deal with an icy roadway. Keeping rails clear for trains is much easier.

  16. Cascadian November 24, 2010 at 11:27 am #

    Allie, that’s East John, not the Counterbalance. See the bus number? In any case, it could be either Queen Anne or Capitol Hill, or any other hill in central Seattle.

  17. Julia Ringma November 24, 2010 at 12:10 pm #

    I grew up on the Nancy Drew books written in the 1930s (they were my mother’s). Nancy always stopped to put chains on the tires of her roadster if she had traction issues. You can still buy chains today ( but I suppose if you have the foresight, knowledge and understanding to have chains and use them, you wouldn’t be one of those amusing folks in the video. As a pedestrian, I use YakTrax ( for walking on ice and they make me feel as nimble as a mountain goat.
    In the great Toronto snow storm of 1999, when they had to call in the military to help, pizza delivery people were still making their rounds. It’s all in the attitude. 🙂

  18. Edward Re November 24, 2010 at 12:17 pm #

    Does anyone go out to warn people to slow down? Or do you just grab a camera, sit back and enjoy the carnage? Then cut the highlights, and add a wickedly sweet soundtrack? The camera person should be put in stocks, and have dirty snow thrown at them.

  19. John November 24, 2010 at 1:37 pm #

    Edward Re – I question the wisdom of going outside when there are cars slipping and sliding around. Besides, how are you supposed to tell them to slow down? Stand in front of the oncoming car and pray they stop? Besides, these people generally aren’t the brightest – I doubt they’d take your warnings too seriously.
    I’d definitely sit back and watch the carnage. It may not be noble, but it is entertaining.

  20. John November 24, 2010 at 1:51 pm #

    Let me just add to the above that I can get behind going out and helping people after they’ve crashed their car. That I’d be willing to do. But beforehand not so much – there’s some practical difficulties about warning people who are in what is essentially a large, sealed, moving box.

  21. Sean November 24, 2010 at 2:41 pm #

    What amazes me most is that they’d actually try to keep buses running on Capitol Hill under those conditions.
    It’s Capitol Hill, folks. CAPITOL HILL. What were they thinking?

  22. Paul C, Vancouver November 24, 2010 at 4:27 pm #

    @David in Ottawa
    “Funny, most of these guys made the mistake of braking hard and locking up their wheels. Once the wheels are locked, you cease to have control. It appears at first glance that it’s slippery out there, but the pedestrians all seemed to manage despite being on a slope, so really it was poor driving that was at fault (and probably unsuitable tires making a contribution).
    It’s notable that the red car (4:34) and the fire engine never locked up and never lost control.
    Forcing your car into a low gear when descending is also advisable – that’s easier with a standard but still possible with most automatics, but if you need traction on the level or going uphill you’re better off with a higher gear (likely second or third).”
    Very good points. I’d say the biggest factor is people were coming down the hill way to fast.
    As for shifting into a lower gear that is good. The only thing I would say is don’t do it when your moving. The sudden decrease in wheel speed can cause you wheels to lock up.
    What a lot of people don’t realize is when you have lost traction and are in a slide or skid. The first thing that they should do is actually let go of the brake. It goes against the natural reaction. But really a locked up wheel is useless you want that wheel to turn a turning wheel has some amount of traction which is better than no traction at all. This is the basic principle in how the ABS and traction control systems on every vehicle out there work. I feel a lot of people when it is snowing should find a nice open area to try it out and discover exactly how letting go of the brake can actually help to stop quicker.
    I did find driving a standard to be far easier. For the simple fact that I could disengage the clutch and thus remove any torque transfer to the wheels.
    The other rule I keep is when going up a hill I try to never stop. I’ve gone through the odd red light or up the wrong side of a road just to keep my momentum going. I’m not saying that one should speed through a red light. But very late at night if I’m approaching one slowly in the snow. I’ll look to see if it is clear and make a decision on whether I should stop or not.

  23. Joseph November 24, 2010 at 6:14 pm #

    A normal winter’s day in Montreal.

  24. In Brisbane November 25, 2010 at 3:12 am #

    The LRT seemed to handle it fine:

  25. jon November 25, 2010 at 9:41 pm #

    if the DMV stopped giving drivers licenses out like halloween candy, maybe they’d start testing drivers in slightly more challenging things like knowledge of operating a vehicle in icy and snowy conditions. then again certain special interests make lots of money having incompetent drivers on the road hence the low standards in the US to be able to drive.

  26. Nicholas Barnard November 25, 2010 at 10:05 pm #

    @jon Having a driver’s license is almost considered a right in the United States. Many parts of the country its nearly impossible to go anywhere on your own without one.
    There is a pretty strong rationale for reciprocity between states in issuing a license based upon a holder having license from another state.

  27. Jase November 25, 2010 at 10:42 pm #

    Sports Futility Vehciles.