Earlier in February, we all experienced one of the biggest blizzards in Massachusetts history. We are used to snow in New England, but we haven’t had so much snow fall in such a short period of time since the blizzard of 1978. Now that we’ve been dug out for a few weeks and the snow is nearly all melted, it’s a good time to reflect on the lessons good and bad that Nemo has taught us.
The travel ban was a great idea
Governor Patrick did something else that hadn’t been done since 1978. As Nemo was approaching, he banned all motor vehicle travel until the storm was over. For 24 hours, the only motorists allowed on the roads throughout Massachusetts were snow plows, healthcare workers, and the media. The purpose of the ban was to keep people from being stranded in their cars as the snow fell faster than it could be cleared, and to allow for DPW crews to keep on top of the snow as much as possible. This turned out to be a good decision, as many who did venture out despite the ban did get stuck, and within hours of when the storm was over, most of our major roads were at least passable.
Another unexpected benefit of the travel ban (and the fast falling snow) was that our streets became a winter wonderland for people. Without cars filling the streets, people went out to explore their snow-covered neighborhoods. They walked, biked, snow-shoed, sledded, and even skied and snowboarded. The narrow hilly streets of Beacon Hill and Charlestown became impromptu slopes for winter sports. There was dancing in Union Square and snowman building in Davis Square. People enjoyed the quiet streets and crisp winter air, sharing it only with the occasional snow plow.
These car-free streets gave people a taste of what life could be if we didn’t give cars so much space so much of the time. No one expects us to be able to eliminate cars to the extent that they were during Nemo, but certainly makes us think about certain times or places where we should reign in car use and turn over more of our streets to people. Somerville, Cambridge, and Boston do have a few times in the summer where a street here or there is made car-free, but there is certainly much more we can do to allow people to enjoy our streets without cars.
Plowing was very good for cars, ok for peds, and bad for bikes
Our state and local public works officials and workers should be commended for doing an overall good job with clearing a record amount of snow in such a short time. Workers plowed all day and into the night for many days to get all of our roads clear. Based on my own observations traveling around, Somerville did the best job at plowing the roadways themselves, followed second by Boston, and third by Cambridge. Somerville roads were clearest to the widest extent much more quickly than Cambridge or Boston. Cambridge made extra efforts this year to better clear the sidewalks in the squares and took on the task of clearing out heavily used bus stops as well. In all three cities, crews were brought in overnight to truck away snow from squares where there was little place to put it.
As required by law, most homeowners did a good job clearing snow from their sidewalks. Sadly, though, some of the worst areas for blocked sidewalks were in and adjacent to parks in Boston. Sidewalks remained uncleared and curb cuts remained full of snow piles for many days. Some were simply left to melt.
By far, though, the people who were least served by the snow plowing efforts were bicyclists. It seems that in all three cities, there is little to no attention given to ensuring that bike lanes or other highly used bicycle routes were clear. It is understandable and expected that pedestrians and transit riders should be given priority, as Cambridge had done, since there are far more of them in the winter than there are bicyclists. But if all three cities want to ensure that our streets are safe and continue to be appealing for bicycling in the winter, there is much more they need to do. An all too common scene for days and weeks after the storm (and in many places still today) are (1) bike lanes full of snow, either by snow banks where they are adjacent to curbs or by occasional piles of snow blocking them in other locations and (2) bike lanes full of parked cars where the parking lanes are still filled in part or in full with snow.
In both of these cases, our DPWs need to have a plan to prioritize the clearing of bike lanes within a few days after a storm. In areas where snow in parking lanes is contributing to the problem, parking should be prohibited temporarily to allow crews to clear the snow, or it should be prohibited altogether until the parking lanes can be cleared enough so that parked cars do not block the bike lanes. Cambridge did put up signage alerting motorists to expect bicyclists in the general travel lanes, but unfortunately made little effort to actually clear the bike or parking lanes of the offending snow. Winter can be challenging enough for bicycling, and to expect bicyclists to share what is often a single narrow travel lane with rush hour traffic on major streets is something that many bicyclists simply are not willing to do.
We can survive with a lot less on-street parking than we think
During Nemo, snow emergencies were declared throughout Massachusetts. In Boston, this means no parking on major arteries such as Comm Ave, Mass Ave, and Boylston St. In Cambridge, similar restrictions as Boston prohibit parking on certain streets within the City. In Somerville, a snow emergency means there is no parking allowed on the even side of ANY street in the City.
Based on news reports and my own observations, Boston’s policy seems to work pretty well, but because parking was still allowed on both sides of the many side streets in the City, there were some streets that were not able to be plowed until special smaller equipment was brought in. Cambridge’s policy resulted in major streets that were not cleared to the width that Somerville’s streets were. Because one side of every street in Somerville is open to the curb during and after the storm, it is much easier for plows to clear the snow to the greatest extent. In fact, bike lanes in Somerville were much clearer than those in Cambridge and Boston, particularly on the even side of the street. This was very apparent as one traveled down Beacon St into Cambridge. As it transitioned to Hampshire St, suddenly the roadway became much narrower, and the bike lanes essentially disappeared under parked cars.
Knowing that Somerville has a much stricter policy on parking during snow emergencies, I have always been very curious to know what many people did with their cars. Many of Somerville’s streets are nearly full of parked cars at night, and as most car-owning residents will tell you, parking in Somerville can often be a challenge. Somerville has regularly scheduled street cleaning, but that impacts different sides of different streets on different days and hours. Only during snow emergencies does so much of the City’s on-street parking become unavailable all at once for an extended period of time. And yes, municipal lots are available to residents during snow emergencies, but there are not nearly enough off-street municipal spaces to make up for the unavailable on-street spaces.
Well it turns out I wasn’t the only one who wondered about this. Local resident and parking consultant Mark Chase set out recently to collect data to shed some light on this issue. He posted an online survey for residents to report what they do with their cars normally and what they did with them during Nemo's snow emergency. He received 218 responses, a good sample size that turned out to represent the population of Somerville very well in terms of how many cars each household owns. Regarding the results, he states:
“So... where did we park. The short answer is, in driveways. Generally our own driveway, but sometimes friend’s driveways. Some people did park in City lots and out of town, but they were not a significant portion of the cars parked.”
(Read the full analysis on his Parking Reform blog.)
My own conclusion from this survey is that it seems that many people with driveways normally choose to park in the street because it is more convenient (certainly with a single car-width driveway it’s easier than shuffling cars around.) But when snow makes on-street parking difficult and people don’t want to deal with the added challenge of shoveling out of an on-street space after a storm, people choose to fully utilize their driveways. This leaves the remaining on-street spaces available for people who truly do have no other option (Mark noted that about 40% of the people who responded do not have driveways).
This leads me to believe that we really do need to think a lot more closely about how much on-street parking we actually need. For example on Beacon Street where the City thinks there is too much parking demand to reduce parking and add cycle tracks, is what we are seeing the true demand or the result of many people choosing to park on the street when they do have other options available? And do we really need to provide additional parking that uses valuable street space for people that have driveways they could otherwise be using?
Nemo is certainly a storm that will go into the history books, and one that has taught us many things. If anything, it has got many of us thinking more about how we respond with limited resources immediately after it snows, and also about how we use our streets when it’s not snowing. I’m hoping that this is the beginning of a dialogue about changing how we allocate our street space and our resources to better prioritize people over cars.