Saturday, December 20, 2008

WTF is it with Seattle and snow?

I survived four years of Massachusetts winters in college. That's mostly where I learned to drive; I picked up some snow skillz during shifts piloting the (16-passenger, RWD, usually-empty) campus shuttle van. It just wasn't that scary.

One year I invited a Mass-native friend (hi Katy!) home to see Seattle during winter break, and my family wouldn't let us go anywhere after < 1" of snow fell on the city. She was disgusted; I was mortified.

So what is the deal with snow in Seattle? If, e.g., Bostonians, had our attitude about it, they'd be forced into hibernation six months of the year. Non-natives never seem to tire of pointing out what pantywaists we Seattleites are about this.

Most obvious reason: It rarely snows in Seattle. My entire childhood, twice a year (November and March), lasting 1-3 days, if we kids were lucky. This leads to side-effects, and not just the one where Seattleites hardly ever get to practice driving in snow.

Seattle and King County own fewer snowplows than other cities. Many or most snowplows are fitted with rubber blades to keep from damaging the extensive network of raised-button and reflective lane markers:

Roads crews are working around the clock to continuously plow and sand City streets.... Following the plows are the sanders to provide traction on the ice. Snow plows’ rubber blades do not remove ice.

(We use raised lane markers because it rains here. Ever seen the lane markings when it's wet in Boston? Neither have Bostonians.)

No wonder most of Burien today looked more like it had been polished than plowed, though.

Seattle and King County say it is not cost-effective to maintain any larger a fleet of snowplows or sanding trucks for how infrequently they are needed. This seems reasonable to me, unless these last few years of storms are harbingers of long-term climate change or something.

On the flip side of this, as alluded-to above, cities with regular heavy snowfall get good at dealing with it out of practical and economic necessity. People couldn't live there if they didn't. People would have to move to friendlier climes, like Seattle... hey, waitaminnit....

A related reason: Snow in Seattle is almost always wet snow. Even when it gets cold enough for precipitation to fall as snow, we're usually flirting with 32°F.
Several of you commented about the nature of the snow last night. Most of you are used to the large, dendritic crystals that fall when temperatures are near freezing...our usual situation. Last night you got to enjoy the type of snow they get in colder climates.
Most of the time, that means what little snow we got will melt away quickly, completely. But when we get snow of any quantity, often, it'll melt partially during the day and re-freeze as sheets of solid ice.

Also, wet snow compacts differently when driven on than dry snow does, which is especially relevant when the streets aren't getting plowed right away (or at all).

A frequent complaint: We don't salt the roads. The poor salmon! Think of the salmon! (Or is it "think of the undercarriage"?)

Another obvious, though debatable, reason: Seattle is really, really hilly. Stuff other places call "mountains", we call "housing developments" and "arterials". I have to negotiate several steep hills to get out of my neighborhood in any direction. Only one of these is ever sanded; none are ever plowed. It is claimed, however, that other actual hilly cities manage better than Seattle does. See above and below.

The oft-cited reason: "I can drive fine on snow... it's all those other maniacs." Does this refer to all those native Seattleites who can't drive on snow? The natives I grew up with refuse to leave the house at the first sight of flurries. Could it be all those transplanted drivers zipping around assuming our roads are as driveable as the ones where they came from? (Maybe it's just the free lobotomy given to both kinds of drivers when they buy an SUV.)

Case study: This super-awesome news story from yesterday, wherein two charter buses nearly plunged 20 feet onto I-5 after trying to take an icy hill without chains, arguably had several of the above causes:
  • Steep urban hills
  • Closure of an unplowed arterial
  • Icy Side Street of Death™
  • Some kind of driver cluelessness, or reckless bravado, which led the first bus to ignore pedestrians frantically trying to wave it off its ill-fated left turn and the second bus to make the same turn after the first bus was already sliding and the second bus' passengers were screaming at the driver to stop
What have we learned? I dunno, but Washington state seems to do reasonably kind of OK with that big ol' mountain pass we have (I-90, known elsewhere as the Mass Pike); we manage to keep it open most of the time, even during avalanche season, so somebody somewhere in this state must know something about making roads driveable in snow. Maybe just not so much down here at sea level.

In conclusion: A couple years ago, I waited a few hours after the snow had started to begin my trek through the city from work toward home. I Had a Bad Experience. Two to three HOURS of road closures, crazy heavy traffic on unplowed urban side street detours, unwise steep hill attempts blocked by other people's earlier unsuccessful unwise hill attempts, jackknifed Metro buses, and finally utterly fucking clueless pedestrian neighbors who let their kids and dogs frolic in front of me on the steep unplowed hill I was, at that moment, sliding down uncontrollably. ¡No más! I got nothin' to prove any more, and I ain't goin' out in this stuff if I don't have to.

Bonus update: Dear Science explains how your SUV is subject to the same Newtonian physics (hi lafe!) as the rest of us, no matter what the dealer may have told you.

Another bonus update: Cliff Mass wonders whether it's really more cost-effective for Seattle to skimp on plows:
It is true that having extra plows for city trucks are not free and that snow events like this are unusual. But the economic loss of allowing the city to be crippled by such modest snows is substantial...and major decisions (like the cancellation of schools last Wednesday when no snow fell) are made in the context of such poor snow removal.
It would be interesting to try to quantify, indeed.