Snowbound parked cars

Winter is When We Need Alternative Transit the Most

Snowbound parked cars

The first blizzard this winter hit squarely over the entire workday, timing that was bad news for the plow crews trying to clear the streets in time for the city’s commuters to get home. My partner and I took a walk in the early evening and without ever making it more than four blocks from home, we helped push out five different stuck cars. One of those cars we had to push out twice. Another took a solid 10-15 minutes of pushing to free it. As I watched vehicles fishtailing down 46th Street, skidding through stop signs and spinning their tires around corners, all I could think was: nobody should be out driving in this weather. Our walk, by the way, was lovely.

A common refrain in civic planning discussions is “it gets cold here”. This is uttered as the centerpiece of an argument that we should not be adding more bike lanes, or improving sidewalk accessibility, or funding mass transit—the reasoning being that when it gets cold everyone retreats to their cars and thus we should focus on car facilities because that’s all we’ll need once winter arrives. Alternative forms of transportation, by this viewpoint, are mere trifles; summertime pleasures with no real utility because hey, it gets cold here.

Snow-covered car on an unplowed street

I don’t buy this. First, plenty of Minnesotans already do get around by other means throughout the winter. Second, there’s no reason those numbers can’t go up just because we live a bit north—just ask Sweden or Finland or Norway. Third, it’s highly important that our multimodal transit options work well in the winter because driving costs us and winter is when driving costs us most dearly.

Weekdays of winter storms are easily the most miserable time to be on the road in Minnesota. You’re guaranteed to reach your destination late, tired, and frazzled, and you should consider yourself lucky just to be reaching your destination in one piece. On the average day in Minnesota, about 200 car crashes occur, causing 1 death, 80 injuries, and an estimated $4.85 million in economic damage*. On a bad storm day, the number of crashes may triple. January typically sees the highest rate of car crashes in the entire year. The lucky people who sat in traffic without crashing still pay an economic penalty in lost time, and while we don’t have a quantitative way to measure lost happiness, every driver knows how much joy a bad traffic day can suck out of you.

Winter is when the negative externalities of driving are highest. If we can take one car off the road on a winter day, we’ll do much more good than taking that same car off the road on a summer day. Strong alternative transportation options are a key piece of the puzzle if we expect to achieve a safe, happy, and economically prosperous society.

I say let’s drop the sunny-day disposition when we talk about transportation planning. It does get cold here. Let’s use that not as an excuse to stop trying but as a challenge to do better. We should build transit modes that serve us on the worst days, and we will enjoy them all the more on the best days.

A bus with a bike on the front rack picking up passengers in a snowstorm


*All statistics in this section are taken from the 2015 “Crash Facts” report.