Seattle: Notes on the “Snowpocalypse”

Seattleskyline1croppedAs Seattle moves into the recriminations phase on last week’s snowstorm, locally known as the “snowpocalypse,” let’s put some things in perspective:

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. 

23 Responses to Seattle: Notes on the “Snowpocalypse”

  1. MB November 29, 2010 at 3:59 pm #

    Two years ago we in Vancouver got slammed by several snow storms in a three-week period, as did Seattle. That one was for the record books. The city snow removal budget was blown by $60 million that year, a lot of money for a city dominated by winter rain. They say this winter is lining up to be even worse, thanks to la Nina, and getting it in November can’t be a good sign. Snow is usually a New Year’s thing on BC’s Southwest Coast and the Pacific Northwest.
    I was able to build a 3+m mountain of snow in my boulevard that year just from clearing our short sidewalk and road parking space for our VW Golf. As soon as I got it shovelled, down came another 20 cm. People started barricading the parking spaces on the public roads … if I shovelled it, it’s mine!
    The Vancouver trolley buses ran well with the exception of the first ‘morning after’ when someone forgot to keep a few trolleys running all night to prevent the ice from building up too much on the wires. But it wasn’t long before the first wave of trolleys took care of that problem, with sparks flying.
    SkyTrain had a lot of bugs with snow getting into the door channels, causing them to not close properly, therein keeping a few trains stuck at stations. But they worked it out quickly, and they used the same techniques (heated door tracks?) this time.
    If SkyTrain worked fine this time, then as Jarrett mentioned, the Canada Line stopped because of ice buildup on the power rail, which was fixed fairly quickly. Let’s hope they’ve got their responses down now, and that they actually listen to the weather reports.
    The best thing I remember about the Big Storm of ’08 is that it snowed 30 cm on Christmas Eve, and it was very fluffy powder, not the usual heavy wet goop. Christmas Day dawned clear and cold, an absolutely beautiful day with the quietest city experience I can remember in my 31 years in Vancouver.
    Naturally, we went for a walk.

  2. Agustin November 29, 2010 at 4:15 pm #

    As someone who grew up in Calgary, and still drives there for work sometimes, I can say that winter does indeed delay commuting everywhere. Calgary can’t claim that it was caught unawares when winter comes, but alas it causes havoc for transportation there every year. Anyone who has been caught in the 150+ km traffic jam that Highway 401 becomes around Toronto the first time it snows each year can testify the same.
    I’ve also seen busses sliding down icy hills in Calgary, much to the dismay of the owners of the cars parked along the roads (not to mention the bus driver’s dismay!).
    … and I’ve also seen busses stuck in the snow in Ottawa after a particularly large snowfall.
    The list goes on and on…
    Mind you, if we can’t make fun of Vancouver for its aversion to cold, what can we make fun of it for?!

  3. MB November 29, 2010 at 4:20 pm #

    As it happens, we plan on seeing the Picasso exhibit in Seattle in January. I recommended to my wife that we take the Amtrak Cascades run (Vancouver-Seattle twice a day). Sure, it’s a little more travel time than driving, but it’s practically downtown to downtown service.
    Snow? No problem!
    One day high-speed rail on the US West Coast may have a northern terminus in Vancouver, and the run to Seattle could be done in 90 minutes. I wonder how many more decades that will take? I believe it’s inevitable, but that’s another story.

  4. JJJ November 29, 2010 at 6:51 pm #

    I agree that trains handle snow better than buses. Of course, part of that is very few buses in the US run in dedicated ROWs where a plow could be sent to do a run in front of buses. Trains are pretty good at clearing their own rails. Frequent lines dont need any extra equipment. Less frequent commuter rail trains can be given plows.
    Trains do suffer with one problem in major storms: The drivers dont show up to work because they can’t. So trains run with much longer headways. Of course, less people chose to travel during a storm, so there’s no crowding, just waiting.
    Ive been through a few major storms in Boston, and because I love snow, I make sure Im out walking around taking pictures. I can always rely on the trains to be running.

  5. John Walker November 29, 2010 at 7:09 pm #

    People who’ve moved to Vancouver and Seattle from snowy areas are quick to decry the cities for not having snow removal equipment, and drivers for not driving well in the snow. I agree with Jarrett; it is enormously expensive for those cities to have staff, equipment and/or a contract to perfectly remove snow when it comes. In Vancouver, it isn’t even a once-a-year event! And having that extra equipment would probably only give you a few extra days of cleared roads on average. The snow doesn’t stay long enough normally to justify the ability to clear a once-in-twenty-year snowstorm.
    I would add that for a driver, Vancouver snow is not the same as Edmonton snow (for example). In the 2008/9 Vancouver winter, in the month or so that we had snow, I needed snow chains on 3-4 days in order to travel. Those are the days that people complained that “nobody here knows how to drive in the snow.” In Alberta, I never felt like I needed winter tires, let alone snow chains. The Vancouver freezing rain, icy slush that doesn’t get removed overnight is much worse to drive in than the alternating periods of dry cold and dry cold with fluffy snow. Vancouver also has bridge decks that probably hover right around the freezing point all winter.
    I didn’t hear about the Canada Line stopping until now. Hopefully it’s preventable in the future. The other train lines did well in the 2008/9 storms if I remember correctly. The electric buses on Oak street (and Broadway), on the other hand, frequently stop for brief periods during freezing rain so they can deice the lines, and sometimes stop for long periods when Oak street is icy (it’s pretty hilly). This is annoying, but running diesel buses uphill is LOUD and expensive -and it doesn’t solve the icy hill problem anyway.

  6. Mike November 29, 2010 at 11:41 pm #

    As a growing computech and biotech centre. Seattle has a constant influx of new (international) residents who simply don’t know how to handle these weather conditions.
    There’s also a bit of a “whoah we’ve never had that weather before” syndrome that affects drivers in Seattle. Give them ANY sort of weather that they ahven’t had in the preceding week and they can’t figure out how to handle it.

  7. Alex November 30, 2010 at 6:17 am #

    Even if it is rare that Seattle gets a debilitating winter storm like last week’s, it apparently happens often enough that people remember the trouble points, like the one featured in your video. So it doesn’t seem like it would be an unreasonable expenditure to come up with some Snow Routes (or Ice Routes?), where buses could be rerouted to safer streets in winter events.

  8. jim November 30, 2010 at 8:31 am #

    Third rail systems can become inoperable if the snow is deep enough that the third rail can’t be kept clear. Last winter the Washington DC Metro shut down above ground operations during the two large snow events — “Snowpocalypse” and “Snowmageddon” — when that happened. There was a two or three hour warning, though.

  9. joshuadf November 30, 2010 at 9:19 am #

    For what it’s worth, the Seattle Streetcar also did fine in the snow, but right now there’s only the short, flat South Lake Union line:
    It will be interesting to see how snow and ice effect the First Hill Line which will be constructed in the next few years with SoundTransit funding.

  10. Mark November 30, 2010 at 11:55 am #

    Quote: For what it’s worth, the Seattle Streetcar also did fine in the snow, but right now there’s only the short, flat South Lake Union line
    The SLU line did indeed do well THIS storm, but it was unfortunately completely shut down for days after the 2008 snow. Ice several inches thick covered the tracks. I wish there had been some way they could have been cleared (that would show ’em)–ditto in the future for the much hillier (in spots) First Hill line-to-be.

  11. November 30, 2010 at 12:06 pm #

    Great analysis – I agree completely.
    Expecting a municipality to act responsibily during times of weather emergency is one thing. Expecting the impossible is quite another.
    Thanks for the reality check on this one.

  12. Barny November 30, 2010 at 2:43 pm #

    Snowpocalypse was the 2008 Christmas storm. This one was way too minor to warrant that title.
    This one is officially called #SnOMG – look it up on Twitter. Everyone else was just confused/wishful thinking.

  13. Paul C, Vancouver November 30, 2010 at 4:02 pm #

    People should blame themselves when they get into a rush during a snow storm. There isn’t much that anyone can do. So why not just take your time and get to where you want to go whenever you get there. Blaming the city for not removing the snow fast enough or enough times doesn’t help. Based on the amount of snow that Vancouver,Seattle and Portland gets. The best you will ever get is the salting and clearing of snow from the major streets. Your never going to get the side streets plowed as it just wouldn’t be economically feasible.
    Back in the ’08 winter. When I had to go to work on the monday before christmas. It had snowed that night a lot more than I expected. I usually left for work at 6:30 am for a 7:00 am start. It took me till 8:30 am to dig my way down my back lane to the side street. I finally got to work at 9:00 am. I got there but I never rushed myself.
    John Walker made a comment about the difference of snow between Vancouver and Edmonton. There is no doubt the snow is much heavier and wetter in Vancouver. Even when it looks fluffy it is heavy. I remember reading a report that if you were to dig a typical detach home sidewalk in Vancouver where the snow was a foot deep. You will have moved approx 6 tons of snow and water. This would apply to Seattle as well which is just as wet. That is the biggest reason you need to take your time when shovelling snow in the PNW and heart problems have to be watched.

  14. Mark November 30, 2010 at 9:02 pm #

    Rail transit. Seattle doesn’t have much, but the one line it has did well.
    I guess you are referring to Central Link light rail here, but of course we’ve got a great commuter rail line (Sounder), with both a north and south branch. It carries thousands of passengers a day and I believe did quite well during the recent snow.

  15. Jarrett at November 30, 2010 at 9:05 pm #

    Mark.  Yes, I was thinking in terms of rail rapid transit, and commuter rail is not frequent enough to be that.  But yes, good to hear Sounder did well.

  16. teme December 1, 2010 at 9:53 am #

    Well in Helsinki snow is normal and it aggrevates already existing problems like any other trouble. For example cars (by mistake) parking too wide often obstructs trams, but this gets lot worse when snow is piled on the side of the roads. Of course there shouldn’t be parking by the tracks in the first place. Buses break all the time and have problems with keeping on schedule, with snow and cold it just gets worse, but it has to be said that not all the busses break at the same time while a rail system without enough redundant routes can shut down. What I am saying is that good systems do well even in difficult circumstances.

  17. Ted December 1, 2010 at 11:35 am #

    Exellent analysis and right on the mark. My experience from the snow event here in Seattle was that the main problems occured on the Monday of the snowstorm. Most people made it to work that day, but the commute home was a nightmare because I-5 had significant problems. The combination of some serious traffic accidents on I-5 south of Seattle and a decision not to open the I-5 Express Lanes northbound let to some serious gridlock on city streets.
    I had the unfortunate experience to be trying to go north that day. With the Express Lanes not open northbound, roughly eight lanes of traffic was trying to squeeze into four lanes on I-5 out of Seattle. This simply overwhelmed the system and all roads leading to on-ramps to northbound I-5 GP entrances were simply clogged. This included Olive Way, Mercer Street, Fairview Ave, Virginia St, etc. Conversely, streets that had no entrances to I-5 northbound had little or no traffic, so after a significant delay I was able to convince the bus driver on my bus to re-route over to Eastlake Ave. Once we reached there we were able to bypass all the gridlock.
    What this tells me is that we don’t have good contingency plans for when the Interstate system breaks down. Given our significant reliance on I-5 to flush traffic out of the Seattle CBD (and South Lake Union/First Hill/SODO) we can’t afford a major break down of the system. Link light rail will eventually provide a secondary option for riders heading north, but it will be 5-10 years depending on how far north you need to get.
    Besides the nightmare Monday commute home, I experienced delays of only 25-50% of my normal commute time (by bus) which is not unreasonable given the snow. All in all I felt that Metro and SDOT did a good job of maintaining the bus service and streets.
    Thanks again for the excellent analysis.

  18. Riordan Frost December 1, 2010 at 12:50 pm #

    I live in St. Paul, so I’ve enjoyed the efficient and thorough plowing services that the weather pretty clearly justifies. But since Seattle doesn’t have Minnesotan weather, I agree that laying the blame on the DOT is unfair. And as you said, even snow-hardened DOTs can’t just make it disappear. The Twin Cities had a freezing rain-ice storm the weekend before Thanksgiving, and there were over 400 car crashes.
    No matter how rare or frequent it is, I think there is a lot of merit to the realization that weather is more powerful than we are, as Jarrett pointed out in the Fellows quote. We should all be a little more humble before we careen down hills in our cars and buses trying in vain to pretend all is normal. And snow is quite beautiful!

  19. Crimson P. December 1, 2010 at 2:54 pm #

    Well as a out-of-town Portlander who got stuck in Seattle’s Snow, I would say there defenitely was a information gap compared to Tri-met. For instance, knew it was going to snow was on the hill so ran down to the bus tunnel because I understand the archepelegio effect. The problem was as soon as I got to the bus tunnel I knew I wanted a 70-series bus (71,72,73.74) to get to U-District, but in the tunnel there is 1) no real-time arrival systems outside link, 2) no annoucenments about buses which in a large crowds means pacing back and forth just to see which bus is that and 3) no cell phone service, On top of the fact NextBus is never going to beat Tri-met’s gps-based arrival system.
    A further thing is when I have been in Winter storms in portland my phone is set up with email and text alerts for the major routes I use and I can access tri-met’s website to get relatively update to route changes, cancellations and other alerts. Tried as i must with Metro (and I checked after) there is no real system like this with Metro. Finally, Metro’s website does not have a well developed transit planner and even though google can work great I find Tri-met to still have a easy system that overall gives you a whole lot more information.
    If you want to capture a choice rider to a system providing consist, clear, quickly update information is key and not fustrate me to all hell sitting there for 45-hour waiting to see if a particular bus is coming.

  20. Risto R December 2, 2010 at 4:37 am #

    I’m writing from Finland, where Helsinki has the northernmost rapid-transit metro in the world and possibly the second northernmost streetcar system after Trondheim, Norway. It’s true that the rail technology itself seems to do mostly fine in cold and snow, or at least much better than rubber tires and internal combustion engines, but as has been mentioned here in the comments, the effects of difficult conditions compound each other.
    Last winter brought some record-breaking low temperatures and very large amounts of snow to Helsinki. Some of the piles at the snow disposal sites took well into the summer to melt (and revealed an amazing collection of junk when the snow was finally gone). The metro did just fine throughout, except for an unrelated-to-rail-transport bursting of a water mains that flooded the central underground station of the system and caused a lot of damage. The metro station was closed for weeks in the middle of a winter that was very challenging for private cars, but as seems to happen in these sort of cases, people route around the problem in unexpected ways, using alternative transit services, going by foot etc. Streetcars didn’t seem to suffer from technical problems, but the heavy-rail local commuter trains had a fair amount of difficulties. It seems that a lot of those were because the authority in charge of the tracks (a separate entity from the metro) had too little resources for keeping the switches operational in cold and icy conditions. Also, the commuter trains are at least partly parked outdoors at the depot unlike trams and metro trains, and the record-low temperatures caused some problems because of that.
    Then there was the one serious accident where four double-decker long-distance passenger cars became uncoupled from a train and rolled uncontrolled into and over a buffer stop at the Helsinki Central station, the first car crashing into a hotel building. The cars were empty apart from three staff members. They suffered only minor injuries and very fortunately no-one on the platform or in the hotel was hurt. The uncoupling and uncontrolled rolling was caused by snow packed into the couplers and a series of human errors.
    Anyway, the first day of the fall with icy street surface conditions seems to cause havoc on the roads and streets of Helsinki every year, even though everyone knows that it’s coming. I suppose it’s just human nature.

  21. Pete (UK) December 2, 2010 at 5:11 am #

    This article struck a chord as most of the UK has shut down due to snow. One train operator (Southern Railway) has stopped running today following a night of stalled trains on the third rail electric lines:
    Bus attempts a hill video (last year) but similar conditions:

  22. Matt the Engineer December 3, 2010 at 2:17 pm #

    There’s something I’ve noticed in both recent Seattle snowstorms: attitudes are generally dependant on how far your commute is, how flexible your workplace is, and how walkable your neighborhood is.
    Those of us that could walk to work but had the day off anyway and could walk to stores had a great time. All of the neighborhood families used our snow-covered hills as sled runs and played all day. Then again I know people who spent more than 8 hours in their cars, and others that were stuck at their homes and couldn’t get groceries for days. They were less happy, and generally take it out on local politicians (snow response was clearly the reason our last mayor was removed).

  23. Pete (UK) December 10, 2010 at 9:28 am #

    Arriva bus driver shows motorists how to climb icy hill:
    The background story: