Feb 12, 2019

Want to know how a city thinks about its curbs? Watch how it handles a blizzard.

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Jordan Anderson

Software Engineer

Photo by Joy Real

Photo by Joy Real

Imagine, if you will, the first light of day breaking over a pristine, white city. It’s the type of scene you might see on a postcard, or inside a child’s snow globe.

But take a closer look: in this particular city, more than 50,000 cars sit in the middle of streets and highways, their occupants having abandoned them to escape the frigid temperatures and the nearly two feet of snow that now blankets the landscape — and continues to fall, blown in every direction by winds gusting in excess of 50 miles per hour.

The date: January 27, 1967. The place: not the Twilight Zone, but Chicago, where private helicopters have been pressed into service to deliver medical supplies because plows can’t work around the stranded vehicles.

More than a half-century later, the effects of this blizzard can still be felt in the city’s winter parking regulations.

Traffic flow is a priority everywhere, but in many places, curb access is an afterthought

A survey of the policies of several northern municipalities, from metropolises to villages, reveals a range of approaches for handling snowfall.

As if no one wants a repeat of 1967 Chicago, the first goal is universal: make sure the arterial streets remain clear.

But when it comes to restoring curb access — which some urban planners might consider the second goal — some approaches are much better than others. The worst can have negative effects on the safety and mobility of pedestrians, cars and delivery people far beyond the end of the storm.

The curb, you see, is the natural home of the snowbank — a no-man’s land between plows pushing snow toward the sidewalk and property owners shoveling snow toward the street. Unless some intrepid sherpa has already blazed a trail, you’re going to have a hard time getting over.

Instead, you’ll have to walk to the street corner, where a giant puddle of slush invariably waits, occasionally concealing a bonus layer of black ice. It’s hard enough just walking; imagine how challenging it is for a delivery person with a dolly piled high with heavy goods, or for a sanitation worker who has to climb over a pile of snow to dig out countless bags of trash. No wonder garbage in New York sometimes goes uncollected for weeks at a time.

Clearing the curb during the storm is the optimal approach — but it’s incredibly expensive

Perhaps the gold standard for restoring curb access is Montreal, which has a policy of complete street clearance. During snow operations, splits its streets into two groups: street parking in one half is banned from 7 a.m. until 7 p.m., and in the other half for the other 12-hour shift.

In a coordinated effort, sanitation crews clear both the street and the sidewalk simultaneously, ultimately directing the snow into dump trucks for removal and disposal.

The end result: curb space becomes accessible soon after a storm has passed.

On the other end of the spectrum are cities like New York. During even minor storms, these cities will often suspend street cleaning regulations, allowing vehicles to remain on most curbs. Each time the plow comes by, it further entombs the cars on one half of the street.

Responsibility to remove the snow falls to individual vehicle owners, who often do the bare minimum to escape — and, in many cases, try to reserve their spots, which can lead to a whole different set of issues. South Boston, for one, is infamous for its unwritten rules around claiming spots one has taken the time to dig out, with violators occasionally suffering slashed tires or smashed windows.

Once a vehicle moves from its spot, it leaves behind a “mold” of its position as it was during the storm, impeding access to the curb — particularly to larger vehicles like delivery trucks. It’s impossible to plow so long as parking regulations remain suspended; in the meantime, the leftover snow can become frozen, further hindering cleanup efforts and accessibility.

Unsurprisingly, this approach is much cheaper. When Calgary recently looked into adopting a Montreal-style plan, officials estimated that taking responsibility for the sidewalks alone would more than double the city’s snow removal budget.

There are solutions between these two extremes, of course. In Spokane, Washington, residents must park on the odd-numbered side of the street throughout the entire snow season. And in a case that should give ambitious planners hope that things can change, the city of Kingston, N.Y., recently approved an amendment to its parking rules, stipulating that cars must park during a snow emergency on the odd-numbered side of the street on odd-numbered days and on the even-numbered side on even-numbered days.

Regardless of a city’s policy, good communication is critical

No matter what, a city’s response to snow will invariably be met with criticism. The plows should have been out earlier (or later)! There should have been more (or less) salt! They should(n’t) have cancelled school!

Do a great job clearing the streets, and you’ll get a few stones thrown at you in the local tabloids — par for the course for government work. Do a terrible job, and you could end up like Michael Bilandic, whose mishandling of Chicago’s Blizzard of 1979 doomed his mayoral reelection campaign.

While there are countless unpredictable variables in emergency management, there is one realm over which local governments have near-complete control: communicating their winter parking regulations in a way that is easy to understand, especially for new residents and visitors. After all, nothing engenders distrust of government quite like receiving a parking ticket for an unposted rule.

Social media might seem like a simple solution, but not everyone is following parking announcements on Twitter — or even has access to the Internet in the first place.

Montreal’s approach is decidedly old school, if labor-intensive: workers post bright orange “no parking” signs several hours in advance of the street’s first 12-hour ban. (Despite the warning, Montreal tows an average of 6,000 cars per storm.)

While Chicago’s policy is more complicated, with two levels of snow season parking regulations, it has the advantage of permanent signage.

The first level is a total overnight ban affecting more than 100 miles of arterial routes, regardless of weather. The second, which applies to an additional 500 miles of main streets, prohibits curb parking during snowstorms that have at least two inches of accumulation. Affected streets are bedecked with unmistakable signs crowned by a large snowflake.

You won’t see officials on the street with a ruler, however. The general rule of thumb on these secondary streets is to move your car if any winter weather is coming. That’s because forecasts can be wildly inaccurate: meteorologists predicted a mere four inches of snow before the Blizzard of 1967, while New York was paralyzed by an unexpected six inches in November 2018.

There’s no one-size-fits-all solution

While the goal of snow policy is universal — getting life back to normal — the different regulations municipalities adopt to achieve that goal can offer valuable insight into the way they think about their curbs and streets. For policies to be effective, municipalities must first engage their stakeholders to weigh the trade-offs of various policy options, then communicate their selected policies as clearly and as widely as they can. After all, if nobody knows what the rules are, they won’t work, no matter how good they might be in theory.

Taken as a whole, these factors illustrate why it is so vital for local governments to understand their curb regulations, even when — perhaps especially when — those regulations are complicated. That’s why we at Coord are so passionate about making this task easier for everyone.

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Jordan Anderson

Software Engineer

Jordan is a software engineer at Coord. He was an urban planner for 8 years, working on everything from analyzing the economic impact of universities on their communities to modeling ferry ridership on the East River. In his spare time he loves playing the banjo and riding bikes in Brooklyn with his family.