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.

9 thoughts on “Winter is When We Need Alternative Transit the Most

  1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

    Yes, when it snows or gets slippery is exactly when you should not be driving. Transit can be a great option, reducing congestion on streets with weather-reduced capacity and in a vehicle that’s far safer and less likely to lose control or crash. It would help if everyone shovelled their sidewalks so it was easier to walk to the bus stop!

    (Although I suppose I should mention that I saw a bus get stuck trying to go up a hill yesterday. That can happen too.)

  2. Janne

    I had two meetings yesterday, and was able to arrive for both on time, with only a few extra minutes of travel time, by bike. There are two marvels that made this possible.

    First, there are parts of the city that have enough stuff nearby that you can easily avoid traveling long distances, and that means going slower doesn’t take much more time. I’m happy that the Minneapolis comp plan draft is designed to make space for more people in these sorts of places, and to create more of these sorts of places.

    Second, human-powered travel like feet and bikes are more resilient than cars — which is why you were the one pushing stuck cars. It’s also why I could simply walk my bike a block up a very icy hill and also across a totally unmaintained bike bridge and it was no big deal.

  3. Daniel Hartigkingledion

    Just a note, Sweden and Finland and their ilk in Europe are _not_ valid comparisons for Minnesota winter weather.

    The Dec/Jan/Feb average lows in Stockholm (in C) are -2/-4/-4. Helsinki is -5/-6/-7.

    By comparison, Minneapolis is -11/-14/-11. Chicago is colder than Helsinki (-6/-8/-7). Boston is colder than Stockholm (-2/-5/-4). The only comparable large city for Minneapolis among wealthy countries is Montreal at -9/-14/-12. Toronto is warmer than Chicago, believe it or not.

    That being said, the point stands about Montreal in particular having higher alternate transit mode shares. Public transit is at 22% and walk/bike at 6% _for the entire metro area_ of over 4 million people. Needless to say, the entire MSP metro area is not close to that.

    1. Joe

      -13/-15/-12 Edmonton, 1.6x our ridership with a city ~1/2-1/3 our size
      -6/-7/-5 Calgary, 1.3x ridership with only ~1/2-1/3 our size of city.
      -18/-21/-18 Winnipeg, transit ridership 1/2 ours with a city ~1/4 our size.
      -8/-8/-7 Saskatoon, transit ridership 1/8 ours with a population ~1/10 ours.

      I think we compare to Stockholm because saying “we want to be a warm Winnipeg” or “a bigger Edmonton” or even “a colder Saskatoon” are all pretty uninspiring…

  4. Brian

    If cars can’t move in the winter how are buses supposed to drive on those same roads?

    I take the bus to work every weekday and snow days usually turn into a cluster. The number of people waiting for the bus will exceed the total capacity of the bus including standing room. A third of the passengers will get left behind and by the time the next bus arrives the cycle repeats. Throw in a bus that simply never shows up and things get even worse.

    1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

      To the extent that buses experience snow delays, it’s almost always because there are too many cars in their way.

      Passenger capacity is, of course, an issue, but less so with more regular riders.

  5. Betsy

    And here in the South, the red herring is just the opposite: “it’s hot here” (meaning too hot to walk, bike, wait for bus, etc.). I guess every climate is supposed to be good for more cars, huh?

    But all that “too hot” really means is –we need better transit shelters, more shade trees over sidewalks, and showers at workplaces.

  6. bettybarcode

    The best way to reduce automobile use in wintery cities is municipal sidewalk plowing. When you cannot count on navigable sidewalks, who wouldn’t opt for a motor vehicle?

    When people inside of cars are entitled to rights-of-way plowed at public expense and people outside of cars are not, we have the grounds for an equal protection lawsuit.


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