Six Road Design Lessons from a Long Winter

sneckdown 2As I write this, it’s 15º outside at 10AM. The 10-year average high for this time of year is 55º. I don’t have to tell you it’s been a long winter.

I was driving around a lot last week, which something I don’t normally do. To me, driving around in late-Winter / early-Spring is fascinating. As everyone knows, roads are different after a long snowy winter. And this was (and is) a long snowy winter.

There was a recent trend on the East Coast where it snowed like once or twice and neologistically inclined urban designers got excited about the tracks that cars made. Yes, I’m talking about “sneckdowns.” Wikipedia defines it thus:

sneckdown,[1] or snowy neckdown[2] is a curb extension caused by snowfall. A natural form of traffic calming, sneckdowns show where a street can potentially be narrowed to slow motor vehicle speeds and shorten pedestrian crossing distances.

 

sneckdown 1

Earlier this winter, a reporter from a local TV station called me about the “sneckdown” concept and asked me whether it applied to Minnesota. I didn’t know what to tell him. It seems to me that great sneckdown examples in the classic sense (curb radii and bumpout potential) are a bit rare around Minneapolis and Saint Paul. Believe it or not, we do a much better job of plowing our streets, and they’re designed around snow removal more than those of lesser winterized cities. The story didn’t go anywhere.

That said, I do think there are a few key “sneckdown”-type lessons you can draw from Minnesota winters. Even without generating any media-grabbing snow-tastic neologisms, winter can teach us a few things.

Lesson #1: Bike lanes are Bull

mpls-1st-ave-bike-lane-snow

1st Avenue.

Everyone who rides a bike in the winter already knows this, but it’s worth telling the world anyway. In the winter, bike lanes become a convenient place to store ice and snow or your parked car. They disappear underneath a bumper or become coated with all possible forms of ice.

The main reason that bike lanes are almost impossible to plow is because turning and parked cars drive over them, and pack any snow into ice before plows can scrape it away. As we build more cycle tracks, I’m hopeful that the combination of more flexible plowing technology and a lack of cars driving on the bike lane will make them easier to clear. But for many months of the year, bike lanes are not much more than lines on maps.

Possible neologism: “Bullsnit”

 

Lesson #2: Narrow Traffic Lanes are Fine

sneckdown-3

Hennepin Avenue.

By the end of winter, almost all our city roads are between 2′ and 5′ narrower than they are in the summer. In a world where people have knock-down drag-out community brawls over a few feet of roadway, that’s a lot of space. Next time an engineer points to state standards and says “we need wider lanes”, ask them about wintertime.

Drivers adapt to narrower road widths in a variety of ways. [For example, see below.]

Possible neologism: “Snarrowing”

Lesson #3: Uncomfortable People Drive Slower

I don’t have data on this, but as the winter narrows our roads, we drive slower. People still get where they’re going. The world does not end. Businesses still have people in them.

Walking on streets feel a bit safer, at least for the speed and threat of car traffic. For a pedestrian or cyclists, though, this extra safety from slower cars is offset by the ice and Alpine mountains of crusted grey snow at many crosswalks.

Possible neologism: “Snowdown”

stp-ugly-icy-sidewalk

This doesn’t illustrate anything. It’s just a really ugly sidewalk.

Lesson #4: Road diet 4-3 Conversions Work

As the roads narrow and every parked car inches a few feet out into the outside lane, 4-lane roads turn into 2+ lane roads where the outside lane is treated as a passing or “advisory” lane. Cars rarely pass each other at speed, but instead treat the road space somewhat like a 3-lane road.

sneckdown-5

Hennepin Avenue.

This is true on most streets in the city, including the busiest ones like Hennepin, Lyndale, University, and West 7th. (These are the examples I’ve observed.) The problem is that there is no middle turn lane, and often these kinds of ex facto winter road diets can seem dangerous or disorganized. If our traffic engineers pulled the trigger and designed 4-3 conversions on these streets, they’d be a lot safer. Winter proves it can work.

Possible neologism: “Snowed diet”

Lesson #5: Parking is More Flexible than you Think

winter traffic calming hennepin

Somewhere in South Minneapolis.

Often when planning a bike lane, development, or sidewalk, everyone gets worked up about on-street parking. “We can’t live without that block or parking!” “I need that space to survive.” [Insert your own parking barking here.]

Well, what it I told you that arbitrarily, in the middle of the night, both cities removed half their on-street parking all at once. It’s true. The city still functions. People walk a bit more. It’s not the end of the world.

Possible neologism: “Snarking.”

Lesson #6: Potholes

Potholes are inverse speed bumps. They’re crazy this time of year, but after you hit a doozy, you drive slower.

Given the amount of streets that look like moonscapes, the fact that transportation policy leaders still talk about “capacity expansion” seems ludicrous. Shouldn’t we make sure our existing roads are well maintained before we start building new ones into distant farm fields?

Possible neologism: “Negative speedbumps”

That is all. Hopefully winter will be gone soon and we can forget this ever happened.

 

sneckdown-4

Nobody is gonna pass that guy.

 


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27 Responses to Six Road Design Lessons from a Long Winter

  1. Sean Hayford Oleary
    Sean Hayford Oleary March 25, 2014 at 12:27 pm #

    “The main reason that bike lanes are almost impossible to plow is because turning and parked cars drive over them, and pack any snow into ice before plows can scrape it away.”

    I think you actually have this backwards. If cars driving on snow caused it to stay more persistently, then presumably we’d have immaculate sidewalks and snowy/icy travel lanes. Instead we have the opposite.

    It’s difficult to clear completely because snow plows are not precision machines — and in bike lanes, we don’t have large, frequent vehicles with big tires to break up what remains. If we really wanted to maintain it during the winter, I think we need pedestrian-scale snow sweepers, like you’ll find on medical or college campuses. It’s probably not practical to do that everywhere, but it could certainly be done for high-volume lanes.

    I have mixed feelings on the bike lane issue. On the one hand, demand for cycling facilities is objectively greater in the summer months — doesn’t it stand to reason that we could use a separate lane then, while it may not be necessary during the winter? And aren’t the hardier winter riders likely to be comfortable sharing the lane? On the other hand, that may be a self-fulfilling assumption, since those more-timid riders may be staying home in part due to lack of safe bike lanes.

    • Jeff Klein March 27, 2014 at 10:15 am #

      Yeah, I found #1 to be an odd conclusion. In my experience this winter, and I rode every day, having a bike lane on the side of the road gave me a little extra width to work with, width that was clearned down to the pavement by plows or car tires. Most of the winter separated paths were simply unridable. I have photos of 6″ of crusty snow covering the MUP along the Hennepin/Lyndale mashup and relatively clear bike lanes not a block away. I literally had to walk four blocks and that experience was one of many that did not endear me to separated paths.

      If you’re going to be a supporter of the separated paths, fine, but then you’re also stuck lobbying for the sort of intensive, sweep-down-to-the-pavement college-campus snow removal efforts that Sean mentions. At least the with the bike lanes we benefit a little from the effort put forward for cars.

  2. Sean Hayford Oleary
    Sean Hayford Oleary March 25, 2014 at 12:30 pm #

    I also worry that engineers may go the opposite way on lane width: we need 12′ lanes, because we’ll inevitably lose 3′ to snow in the winter. A 9′ lane works in a pinch, but a 6′ lane would not.

    Then again, the Minneapolis parkways provide good examples of very narrow streets (that do not meet state aid standards) that are cleared curb-to-curb. I’m not sure if it’s significantly more expensive or time-consuming to achieve that.

    • Matt BK March 27, 2014 at 11:18 am #

      The argument for wider car lanes is what we just ran into in Grand Forks, ND. According to math, there is just enough room to put a bike lane in along University Avenue between downtown and UND campus. The city engineers, however, say that we need wider car and parking lanes because
      a) it snows in the winter and people can’t park close to the curb*, and
      b) people up here drive wide pickup trucks.

      If Grand Forks actually ticketed people for parking on the street on plow days, we’d probably be a lot closer to clearing the street curb to curb and being able to use all the space.

      *Another point made was that you can’t put a bike lane next to a parking lane next to a snow bank, because if the snow bank is too wide, people will have to park in the bike lane, which is illegal in North Dakota. I’ll keep the snark to myself on that one.

  3. Bill Lindeke
    Bill Lindeke March 25, 2014 at 12:33 pm #

    Well, this is what public works folks in St Paul told me. A lot of the “clearing” after the plow goes by is actually done by the car tires themselves, which move and kick the snow to the periphery of the roadway. This is why you get such stark car tread paths in wintertime after a snowstorm. It’s not necessarily the plows, it’s the plows in combination with salt and hundreds and hundreds of car tires.

    Bike tires don’t have the weight or frequency to do this kind of thing.

    That said, I agree about the precision plow situation. We’re talking in St Paul about having a few key designated winter bike routes where special attention is paid to plowing them. The greenway is a saving grace in wintertime in Mpls just for this reason.

    • Dave P March 25, 2014 at 1:36 pm #

      I think the Greenway may suffer from an overuse issue. Many times I found the conditions on it difficult this winter due to the path being icy/rutted. I also rode on Minnehaha Parkway trail frequently and found it to be mostly well plowed, and infrequent bicycle traffic with very few ruts.

  4. Joe Laha March 25, 2014 at 1:06 pm #

    Adding to the bike lane problem is the practice of clearing the snow off the sidewalk and into the street. I see this all the time downtown. Actually the part of the cycletrack on First Ave protected by the bollards is usually pretty clear. Probably because it needs to be plowed separately.

    • Bill Lindeke
      Bill Lindeke March 26, 2014 at 5:45 am #

      This is a cost prioritization issue. “Snow removal” is way more expensive. That said, they do it from the tops of parking lots all the time.

  5. Dave P March 25, 2014 at 1:31 pm #

    Fun article. I have a suggested alternative for #5: sNOw Parking.

    #6: Bi-partisan Friendship Bracelets. Seriously, potholes might be the most universally hated thing in the state. Politics, bike vs. car, Coke vs. Pepsi, et al are put aside in the demand the fix these atrocities. To borrow from Samuel Jackson. “We’re tired of these MFing potholes, on this MFing street.”

    I’d also offer #7: Snowicidal and/or snowenfreude. The maniacal drivers who insist their snow tires/all wheel drive/huge SUV can handle the speed limit regardless of the conditions and the feeling you get when you seem them in the ditch, curb, whatever, a few miles down the ride.

    • Bill Lindeke
      Bill Lindeke March 26, 2014 at 5:46 am #

      There are some gruesome videos of snowicidal drivers out there if you look around.

  6. Walker Angell
    Walker Angell March 25, 2014 at 1:35 pm #

    I hope this gets a lot of attention from pols, planners, and traffic engineers. Great stuff.

    On lanes vs segregated tracks. Amsterdam and Stockholm do a great job of keeping theirs clear and in both cities the segregated tracks are consistently much clearer than bike lanes painted next to traffic lanes. They do not have as much snow or cold as we do though. It’d be interesting to visit Montreal during a snowy and cold winter to see how they do. BTW, even low curbs like about 3″ between a traffic land and cycle track seem to do a remarkable job of keeping road traffic debris and slush from getting in to cycle tracks, one element where bollards fall short.

    I’d guess that part of the issue with cars packing down the stuff in our bike lanes is that a slow moving car (parking, etc.) will pack it down vs a faster car that will tend to throw the snow/slush to the side (IOW, a bit more in the bike lane for parking cars to pack down).

    In any case, there does need to be space to pile the snow. I’d think it better to plan this space ahead and design it in as extra space between a traffic lane and cycle track for instance.

    We also need to remember that part of the lower numbers of bicyclists in the winter is due to the lack of safe/comfortable space to ride. I ride in Shoreview throughout the winter, not at all in Vadnais Heights. We need to provide bicycle facilities that are safe, feel safe, and are reliably available every day of the year.

    • Sean Hayford Oleary
      Sean Hayford Oleary March 25, 2014 at 4:21 pm #

      I was in Copenhagen over the winter, and they haven’t really mastered the snow storage problem, either. They basically just mash it up between the cycletrack and sidewalk and wait for it to melt. Most winters, that works out fine. On particularly snowy or cold winters, cycletracks become significantly narrowed.

      That said, the actual clearing is much better — out with small machines immediately, prioritizing cycletracks and crosswalks.

      I think the bottom line in our climate is that we either need a place to store the snow, or a way to get rid of it. Ideally, you have either a grassy boulevard (in a more suburban context) or an “amenity zone” of the sidewalk (in a more urban context) where you can pile snow without impeding anyone’s travel. Short of removing the parking/rush hour lane, you just can’t do that on 1st Ave N. So then snow must either be trucked off or melted on-site.

      One thing that might be helpful is a snow plan as part of a roadway design. “On 66th Street, we will have a 5′ boulevard and will pile snow there. Snow will be cleared by the City.” “On Nicollet Mall, snow will be removed for melting off-site, and cleared by the DID.” “On 1st Ave N, snow will be stored in the seasonal cycletrack, and motorists will share the lane with cyclists.”

      This doesn’t necessarily improve the situation, but having such a statement/plan gets everyone on the same page during the design process.

  7. Morgan March 25, 2014 at 1:40 pm #

    I loved the East Coast urbanist images from this winter of the wasted space discovered by the plows that could be reclaimed for people.

  8. Presley March 25, 2014 at 1:45 pm #

    I’m not up on the law, but does it change in the winter? I assume it’s illegal to park in a marked bike lane, but if that is the furthest over you can get does that make it legal? And vice versa why do cops yell at you to ride in the bike lane in the winter when it’s full of (illegally?) parked cars.

    I found the Greenway this winter, even in it’s rutted iciness to be pleasant compared the the mashed potato streets with unpredictable cars.

    • hokan March 25, 2014 at 4:47 pm #

      Presley, it is not legal to park in a bike lane. It’s also not legal to park in a travel lane. (In both cases exceptions can be marked on signs).

      It’s just generally understood by drivers and police that if you’re parked in a general travel lane or a bike lane next to a parking space that’s inaccessible due to snow or ice, then that’s good enough. Parking laws are enforced differently in the winter.

  9. Janne Flisrand
    Janne March 25, 2014 at 5:31 pm #

    I do find sneckdown opportunities in Minneapolis. My “favorite” ones are along that mixed-use path along Lyndale, right at the freeway exits south of the Methodist church. There’s that porkchop island between the one zooming south on Lyndale and the two zooming north on Hennepin/Lyndale. If you look at any point during the winter, there is at least a full bike length of untouched snow on both sides of that porkchop, and slightly bigger on the south side. I tweeted a picture a year ago, but I’m not sure where that link is…

    • Bill Lindeke
      Bill Lindeke March 26, 2014 at 5:50 am #

      Pics or it didn’t happen.

      (Yeah I was going to take all kinds of photos of things I’ve been noticing, but its a lot harder to snap pics when you’re on the bus or in a car. I need to start biking everywhere again.)

      • Valentine March 27, 2014 at 9:12 am #

        PORKCHOPS — I’ve been wondering what these danged islands are called and why we have them. Bill, do you understand the logic or might you consider exploring it, of these new pavement pods in the middle of streets like Riverside in Mpls and Raymond in St. Paul? On Raymond, they do appear to at least be near busstops (although not crosswalks), so I could imagine them as ped havens — but in both places, they appear to be mostly making the road look as if it couldn’t possibly have parking (in places where parking has been removed).

        But this means that they’ve also (seemingly pointlessly) removed the possibility for actually using the bike lanes that are adjacent to the car lanes, because the whole passage has been so narrowed. These are brand new? Why are they doing this? How can we convince them that this is not doing whatever good they think is happening with them? Or am I missing some point?

  10. minneapolisite March 25, 2014 at 6:58 pm #

    I noticed a lot of road diets where motorists were still able to move along without blocks of backed up traffic. Lowry between Central to abut Washington had the right travel lane covered in snow except for a portion the size of a bike lane. Cars weren’t able to go side by side and instead of having to take the lane the temporary “bike lane” was a breeze and free of debris. I’m betting Broadway could likewise be officially turned into one travel lane with a bike lane and things would be just fine.

    I had the same thought about the on-street parking ban, doesn’t this alone prove we can get along fine with less parking? We were able to do it for a few weeks as though it were a “traffic study”, so don’t the results prove we could easily make such a policy permanent? We could certainly fit more bike lanes onto more roads,…not that they wouldn’t get covered up come winter.

  11. Froggie March 25, 2014 at 8:17 pm #

    A few comments:

    – #5 is effectively a subset of #1.

    – #4 needs to be tempered by the fact that traffic volumes are typically lower in the winter than over the summer.

    – #2 is still an issue with trucks on those streets in the city that have trucking terminals or some sort of truck traffic.

    • Bill Lindeke
      Bill Lindeke March 26, 2014 at 5:48 am #

      First off, everything is everything. We are all patterns in the stardust.

      Second, I’m curious: how much does it vary seasonally? Maybe lower traffic volumes are also an effect of environmental snow-calming? That would add a correlary, that traffic volumes are malleable and respond to design details. Some percentage of traffic will just “melt away.”

      • Monte Castleman
        Monte March 26, 2014 at 7:39 am #

        I’m surprised too that traffic volumes are lower in winter when the U and schools are in session. But then again I don’t feel like a lot of discretionary driving when it’s snowy and cold. I drive to work when I need to and to get groceries, and that’s about it. A lot of my driving is to go to the bicycle trails both in the city and suburbs, to go look at highway construction, leisure road trips, and visit my parents in Shakopee. I don’t do the first couple at all in the winter and the last one a lot less.

  12. Walker Angell
    Walker Angell March 26, 2014 at 11:54 am #

    A good portion of Selby west of the Cathedral has been down to maybe 8′ lanes in each direction. This particularly between Western & Dale. It’s worked. Most people drive quite a bit slower and they pull to the side to let oncoming traffic get by if they’re more nervous about how close it will be.

  13. Richard March 26, 2014 at 3:02 pm #

    I feel like some of your advice is counter-intuitive, unless you mean to apply these lessons to more temperate, southerly cities.

    Specifically, the idea of narrowing streets. If an engineer were to say (in Minnesota) that narrower streets could be built, I’d ask “What about wintertime? If we narrow a three lane street to 2 during the summer it will become one lane during the winter.” I understand the value of slowing traffic, but I feel what you’ve described would bring it to a stop in the Twin Cities during the long winter months. You would need an adaptive system that could expand the streets at the onset of winter, so that they snow returns it to its ideal width.

    • minneapolisite March 27, 2014 at 8:17 pm #

      I believe this rests on one side of the street having no parking allowed as a condition for a road dite to ensure it’s clear whether it snows or not.

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