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:
- Easily traffic flow can fall apart
- The prime danger isn’t the roads but the other drivers on the road
- 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: