Nearly two weeks ago, Baltimore was covered in a record snowfall. Maryland Transit Authority cancelled services for only the third time in forty years. Baltimore City schools were closed for six days. In the days and now weeks that followed we have learned a lot about how our Department of Transportation responds in snow emergencies. And the prioritization of certain road users over others has had disastrous consequences.
We Don't Need as Much Space For Cars
Snow on roads and on sidewalks can teach us a lot about how we use our road ways. The popular urbanist hashtag #sneckdown always pops up on social media after a big snowstorm. A Sneckdown is essentially a neckdown or curb extension created by unplowed snow. It creates instant traffic calming, narrowing lanes, shortening pedestrian crossings, and slowing turning traffic.
It also shows how little space cars actually use. Even when snow is plowed, often you can see that the travel patters are much tighter and smaller than how we build out our roads. This is an important point considering that often people opposed to building more bike or pedestrian facilities on roadways point to scarcity of space.
When You Eliminate or Calm Traffic, Streets Become Places For People Again
One of my favorite outcomes of the blizzard was how many people I saw out walking both during and the days that followed. With cars still buried, side streets unplowed, and MTA service suspended if folks wanted to combat cabin fever they had to use their feet. With cars mostly off the road, folks felt free to walk in groups down the center of the street, people chatted with neighbors as they shoveled. All of sudden people were hanging out outside again--together.
While some businesses reported being negatively impacted by the snow, some other businesses hit record sales as folks looked to leave the house. It would be really interesting to look at sales numbers of those businesses in more dense walkable neighborhoods, versus those that require you to drive there. What implication does that have for our future zoning decisions? What really drives economic growth? Is it really the number of parking spaces, or is actually the number of people who can easily access the space?
We know that activating public spaces with people walking and biking can improve public safety. We also know that communities that make it easier and safer to bike and walk places have improved public health outcomes. But the solution--restricting or calming traffic is often met with opposition. In the snowy days following the blizzard when traffic was light, we got a glimpse of what could be.
City Residents Pay for Snow Removal, But County Residents See Most Benefit
In the days before the blizzard, DOT was mobilizing resources. To the extent that we were in communication, we knew that resources existed to plow both protected bike lanes and sidewalks. Once snowfall accumulated in excess of two feet however, those resources were reallocated to continue to move snow along "gateway routes".
We understand and support the need to prioritize snow removal to ensure emergency vehicles have access. We also don't expect to have bike lanes cleared mere days after an historic record snowfall. What we don't understand is why there is no written prioritization when it comes to facilities. One third of residents in Baltimore City don't have access to a vehicle. There is an average of 300K Transit trips per day. At what point in the snow removal process do we devote resources to city residents who choose another mode of travel? Who have to get around inside the city and not just on "gateway routes"? When do we send bobcats to clear sidewalks and cross walks that lead to the schools where Baltimore City taxpayers send their children?
In the week following the blizzard, there were two separate pedestrian collisions in Baltimore City. One with an MTA bus, and another a hit and run that was fatal. Both were walking to the bus and were forced to walk in the street due to uncleared sidewalks. These incidents didn't occur one or two days after the blizzard. They happened five and seven days after storm clean up began. So when we are talking about prioritization, this is what we mean. We believe it's reasonable to demand the city clear public walkways or enforce the clearing of private ones 72 hours after a storm--yes, even a "historic" one. And the reason we demand this--it saves lives. It prevents injury. It serves our disabled residents who depend on our sidewalk system to navigate to public transit and mobility services. It ensures our school children remain safe, educated and fed without missing a week or more of school.
Why is the priority to ensure a County resident can get to their office job downtown via our "gateway" roads, while a Baltimore school child had to remain at home because we couldn't figure out how to transport him to his neighborhood school?
Many residents and business did clear their sidewalks and crosswalks only to have massive amounts of snow piled there by contractors. Many of those piles still remain, obstructing crosswalk access and visibility. Why not store in a mid block parking space on a snow route, versus cutting off access to hundreds of people that cross the street each day?
A modern Department of Transportation has to adapt to give consideration to all modes of travel. We shouldn't allow them to use the record snowfall as an excuse. A city should function at it's best during an emergency because the stakes are so much higher. But without a written plan for prioritization, without thoughtfulness in regards to how taxpayers actually move around this city, we can expect more of the same. And that could have continued deadly consequences.