What snow teaches us about roads

Snow on a corner.

Snow on a corner.

One thing I look forward to every winter is seeing where snow builds up in the roadways, effectively making that portion of the roadway unusable for several months until the spring thaw. I love that snow teaches us where people are driving, where they aren’t driving, and leaves evidence of them driving where they shouldn’t be.

After it snows, there is a ritual as old as time itself. Snow plow drivers clear the streets and push the snow up onto the sidewalks and into peoples driveways. Then homeowners shovel the snow back out into the street just in time for the plows to come back for their second pass. Where the piles of unwanted snow will end up is a fun game enjoyed by shovelers and plowers everywhere. Some of it invariably ends up staying in the street, as we reach an unspoken compromise. Sidewalks and roadways alike become several feet narrower, and we all carry on.

Which isn’t to say that there aren’t impacts. I recall the winter of 2010 where the snow drifts along Lake Street (I remember Midtown especially well, but it was probably the same elsewhere) became so large that what was normally a four-lane roadway effectively became a two-lane roadway. I thought it still operated fine (better almost), although I’m sure I never saw the most congested times. The parking lanes became so full of snow that they were unusable, but it didn’t stop people from parking, they just parked in the roadway.

In Minnesota, where we can generally count on a couple feet of snow each winter (though global warming may change this), it behooves us to plan ahead for snow storage, and to account for it in the design of our roadways and public spaces. Generally, this is best accomplished with a generous boulevard between the curb and the sidewalk. Most of the residential streets in Minneapolis were constructed with a 6-8 foot boulevard, which can accommodate quite a bit of snow. However, in some other communities where sidewalks are constructed immediately adjacent to the curb, snow storage can become a real problem. Simply put, given the inevitable need for snow storage along Minnesota roadways, sidewalks constructed immediately adjacent to the curb are problematic, unless other arrangements for snow storage have been made.

However, even in areas with generous boulevards, some amount of snow always remains in the street. A 10′ snow plow is not exactly a precision tool, and the benefits of trying to clear all the way to the curb might be offset by the costs associated with replacing a bunch of curb sections broken by plow drivers who missed the mark. Generally, losing a foot or two (or five or six) of roadway width doesn’t really tend to have much impact on traffic or our ability to drive where we want.

Which forces the question, if we can give up several feet of roadway width for a few months each year and it’s not really a problem, does that mean our roadways were overdesigned from the start? Should we have just constructed it a few feet narrower to begin with?

Of course, many will recall that planning for snow storage in the road is already a generally accepted practice. In Minneapolis, the original proposed design for the reconstructed Nicollet Avenue was several feet narrower than the final design. The reason for increasing the width of the roadway was in part due to business owners being worried that snow storage would make on-street parking impossible (or at least unpleasant) for several months every year. Essentially, we purposely build the roadway wider than it needed to be so that we could use a portion of it for snow storage. But given that roadways are not cheap (or generally attractive compared to boulevards), is this the best way to plan for snow storage?

I snapped the photos in this post one morning along my bicycle commute to work. In each of them, the street corners are surrounded by a buffer of several feet of snow and ice. Where the snow remains allow us to identify space that (apparently) isn’t necessary for the movement of vehicles. People still drive and park along these roadways (and enjoy an acceptable quality of life, I presume) despite the fact that they are now a few feet narrower than originally designed. Even trucks and buses can still (apparently) navigate the streets just fine.

Snow on a corner at the intersection with a one-way street.

Snow on a corner at the intersection with a one-way street.

Snow on a corner.

Snow on a corner.

Snow on a corner.

Snow on a corner.

Snow on a corner.

Snow on a corner.

Snow on a corner.

Snow on a corner.

Snow next to Pork Chop island on a freeway on-ramp.

Snow next to Pork Chop island on a freeway on-ramp.

We could build smaller roads and larger boulevards, which would be cheaper, but then we’d have to be more accurate with our plowing (which may not really be possible).

What do you think? What do these ubiquitous piles of snow in the roadways tell us about how we design roadways? Is there a lesson to learn? What is it?


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5 Responses to What snow teaches us about roads

  1. Janne January 10, 2013 at 5:25 am #

    I hadn't thought much about this until I was riding the Loring Bike Bridge/Bikeway into downtown, and noticed how the crossings at the Lyndale South exit off of 94 was MUCH narrower… and much easier to cross. This is a perfect reinforcement for that. Together, they reminded me of the giant corner piles of snow I walk past in The Wedge at 24th (and at ever other intersection).

    Me, I want cheap, easy to cross with my niece, and green.

  2. Bill Lindeke
    Bill Lindeke January 10, 2013 at 11:19 am #

    the other lesson that snow on roads teaches me is that calming is good for everyone (drivers included).

    back in the really snowy 2010 winter, lots of 4-lane (2 way) roads accumulated so much snow that the roads got 'calmed' down to 2-lane roads (w/ some wiggle room). this was particularly true if they had parking.

    for winter cycling, this was kind of amazing. the routes that had been the worst for riding (4 lane arterials) became some of the best for riding. i think that average speeds going down from 35-45 down to 25 or so is good for everyone, and snow can teach us that when it starts to affect the working width of streets.

    anyway, the other lesson from snow has to do w/ pedestrian access. i blogged about that a while ago (http://tcsidewalks.blogspot.com/2010/12/sidewalk-game-3.html), the way that snowdrifts can turn into labyrinths for pedestrians after a snowy winter.

  3. Sean Hayford Oleary
    Sean Hayford Oleary January 11, 2013 at 5:38 am #

    I very much agree that any street without boulevard space (or very wide usable sidewalk — over 12 feet) is a design flaw. In Richfield, our five major arterials (Penn, Lyndale, Nicollet, Portland, 66th St) all have a similar design for most of their length: no boulevard and a skimpy 5-6 ft immediately against the curb. This is unpleasant in all seasons, but particularly bad during the winter. Since the majority of the snow on the sidewalks is plow tailings from the street, it becomes an impossible expectation to get homeowners to clear their sidewalks. Thus, the City has the added maintenance burden of running small plows on the sidewalks — which does leave a very precision-cut snow divider between sidewalk and street, but is much slower than the normal windows for homeowners to clear, and doesn't really clear the concrete as cleanly. Not to mention the expense.

    One of the things I think is so cool about the snowy season is the footprints… particularly, people crossing where the engineers don't intend them to cross. Cedar Avenue in Apple Valley is the most interesting I've found. A 45 mph stroad, there are only designated crossings at signalized intersections. But of course, because those are major intersections, they're an extraordinary distance to cross, with added turn lanes and massive curb radii. The pedestrians of Apple Valley seem to agree: you'll see many more footprints in the snow mid-block or at partially closed intersections than at the signals.

    • Matt January 14, 2013 at 4:57 am #

      Don't forget we just spent a hundred million dollars on a transit project that actually reduced the points at which pedestrians can cross Cedar! Glad we spent lots of money on that "transit" project. Good points!

    • Sean Hayford Oleary
      Sean Hayford Oleary January 17, 2013 at 6:28 am #

      Yes, I got into an extended argument with one of the project engineers about why they couldn't at least offer curb cuts at unsignalized intersections, even if they refused to stripe crosswalks. For your safety, pedestrians should walk half a mile out of their way to use the signal. The "shared-use path" (massive sidewalk) is very poorly designed for bikes, and the new bus shoulders are intimidating as well.

      I am going to try to be open-minded about the bus service, but it seems like a way to spend transit dollars on an aging roadway, to make it better and faster for cars.