Postmortem: Seattle and Snowpocolypse

About once a year Seattle gets snow, and invariably we do not handle it well. The shock is how, year after year, an entire city seems stunned by how fragile our transportation system is.  And then, during the failure, some people complain that the city didn’t do enough to fix or prevent the problem.

Here’s a postmortem on what happened:

  • Our geography sucks. We have hills. It doesn’t take much ice to make hills dangerous. There isn’t much a plow or salt can do in a large city with lots of hills, with once a season snow. And many Seattle-ites have limited first hand experience with cars losing control on hills: they becomes unguided missiles (see videos below).
  • All our transportation is surface level. Due to our geography, we have no true subway. Buses run on surface roads and are not immune to surface level problems. I didn’t hear any reports of light-rail issues yesterday, likely because it’s an independent system.
  • We have inexperienced drivers. Since it snows once a year, whatever lessons people learn about how ineffective ABS brakes and fancy cars are in bad conditions, they’re forgotten 8 to 10 months later. And as driving home is a (understandably) selfish activity on normal days, people don’t realize the risks they’re taking in aggressively trying to beat the weather to get home.
  • Issues have compounding effects. Traffic is comprised of non-linear relationships, meaning it can accelerate faster through the traffic system than people expect. An accident here, can lead to a backed up exit there, and soon there is the equivalent of gridlock on arterials or even highways.
  • Plows, police and emergency crews can’t magically teleport through traffic. Once nothing is moving, there is no magic way for buses, tow trucks, or ambulances to get anywhere. We so rarely have bad weather it doesn’t make budgetary sense to maintain a large staff of plows and salt trucks that will sit dormant 95% of the season.
  • Thanksgiving/Holiday week’s amplify issues. More people are out and rushing to get things done.

The net lesson is it’s not the amount of snow that matters. It’s recognition of how:

  1. Easily traffic flow can fall apart
  2. The prime danger isn’t the roads but the other drivers on the road
  3. Using a vacation day to avoid the whole thing might be a brilliant move

Yes, many people had no choice yesterday and I empathize. But many of you reading this probably did.

It’s interesting to read through this list of stories shared to the Seattle times – there’s a persistent sense of shock and surprise. I’d love to know how long these people have lived here. And what, if anything, they’ll do differently next time they hear a report of snow in the winter in Seattle.

Here are two videos from last night:

9 Responses to “Postmortem: Seattle and Snowpocolypse”

  1. Divya

    I found it so absurd that people were less willing to take the light rail than to wait for a taxi at the airport!

    And this kind of unpredictable weather is why Seattle needs multiple options for public transport.

  2. Michael Hodgson

    You’re not alone Seattlers, Seattlites? People of Seattle, you’re not alone. Here in Aberdeen (Scotland) we get snow regularly enough to deal with it, but we invariably don’t. Too many SUV drivers who think that grip to go means grip to stop. Our transport is pretty limited to road too.
    Still, we cope better than England, who get a light dusting and collapse into Pandemonium.

  3. Scott Berkun

    Divya: takes awhile for people to get used to real public transit like light rail I suppose. We’re way behind the rest of civilization.

  4. Andy Leonard

    There’s a lot of fascinating things that went wrong on Monday – things that the idealistic part of me thinks are an opportunity to learn from. Two thoughts:

    – By mid-morning Monday, the weather forecast had clearly gone wrong, and forecasters – diligent, skilled professionals – were forced to make “seat of the pants” calls on what the storm was going to do. The forthcoming coastal weather radar would have helped here, but I don’t get the sense that the forecaster’s message – even with its flaws – is reaching the general populace as well as it could. Is it poor science education? Apathy? TV weathercasters? Poor communication from the forecasters themselves? I don’t know, but there’s a lot of opportunity here.

    – The “inexperienced drivers” argument is overplayed. I’m looking at a photo from Monday morning, with no fewer than seven vehicles spun out or wrecked on a hill, including a school bus. However, this hill isn’t in the Puget Sound area – it’s outside of Fairbanks, Alaska, where, if anything, the drivers are very experienced in driving in snow. Yet, I’m told that this hill is full of wrecked cars every time there’s an ice storm. There’s got to be some hidden opportunities in this problem to save lives and protect property.

  5. rodica

    It’s funny you write about this. I lived in the NW for almost 4-5 years now and people’s utter shock at snow never ceases to make me chuckle. Thank goodness we don’t get any real amount of snow or we’d be living on canned food for months!

  6. Maarten

    Be sure to catch the article in the Seattle Times “Why We Can’t Handle Snow”. Among other things, it mentions that road conditions in Seattle more commonly involve a layer of ice than in other regions.

    One thing the article misses is that conditions also tend to be very variable around the city. The north end gets more snow than the rest of the city; the hilltops are a few degrees colder, etc. You can live in the south end, think that things look fine outside, and find very different conditions in other parts of the city. And once you’re out on the road, it takes a slide or two before people will park the car and walk…



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