Sunday, March 1, 2015

How Cities Kill (Failing That, Inconvenience) Cyclists and Pedestrians in Winter

I’m in Stamford, Connecticut and it’s still winter. I can tell because it is snowing again. 

What makes it especially jarring is that not four days ago I was applying sunscreen before biking in a T-shirt in Redwood City, California (more on why I was there in another post). 

So I had nearly forgotten just how well cities use winter as a tool to harass, confound and confuse cyclists and pedestrians - and how blind cities are to the fact that some of their most valuable public space could be put to better use than comforting empty motor vehicles. 

Let’s start with the road looks like immediately after a snowstorm.

When city streets are covered in snow, the cars that are parked alongside of the road get covered in snow, too. 

I figured that out on my own.

After a period of time - sometime between the middle of the snowstorm and, say July - a city plow will come by and plow the road.

It is usually at this point you’ll find people on Twitter whining about having their cars blocked in by snow (often using the hashtag - and I swear this is A Thing - #snowparking). 

But that isn’t the end of the story for the defenseless motor vehicle. Some people may spend a lot of time shoveling off a spot of public street that they want to claim as theirs when they bring their car back. These parking spots are sometimes guarded zealously. So much so, in fact, that Boston Mayor Marty Walsh recently said people can’t use lawn chairs, trash cans, or other creative parking space savers to ‘save’ their spot. 

Eventually, a person will want to get in their car and go somewhere. So they’ll dig open the driver’s door, start the car, let the engine warm up while they brush the snow off. Then they get back in their car and drive off.

Take a guess where the snow ends up a lot of the time. 

Of course, every Northeastern city goes to great lengths to make sure sidewalks are perfectly accessible during the winter. 

Yeah, I couldn’t keep a straight face when I wrote that.

What a lot of communities do is take care of a few sidewalks here and there but punt everything else foot traffic related to the individual property owners and their own sections of sidewalk. This of course results in an inconsistent quality of said sidewalks. 

So snow piles up on the sidewalks. It’s an easy place to put it. Another convenient place to store snow is in the shoulder of the road or in bike lanes. Dan Haar of the Hartford Courant took the time to point out that people use bikes to commute year-round, but cyclists are even less visible in cold weather than they are in warm, even as they are forced into the middle of the road when they don’t want to. 

And nearly every street has...wait for it...This Car.

Those of you who live in a part of the country where bathing suits and yoga mats aren’t sold in gas stations know what I’m talking about. I pass by one of these cars every time I leave my house.  The car never moves. It's forever immobilized like one of those volcano victims in Pompeii. The plow goes around - being careful not to hit the car - and the snow piles up.

Sadly, people who store their motor vehicles on public streets and don’t even use them never seem to ever get punished. But people who have to use the roads do - and if you are waiting for an emergency vehicle to arrive, you may have to wait a bit longer since the street is that much narrower. 

Now of course if you’re a cyclist, the problem is even worse. Not only are the racks covered in snow, but there are few places for you to carry your bike to the street - and it’s tough walking it on narrow, unplowed sidewalks. 

And then it snows again, and the Circle of Icy Winter Death continues: the snow falls, cars get first dibs on the clean pavement, and cycling and pedestrians just have to deal. 

But let’s think about something here: we’ve seen a tremendous number of articles over the past several months that a big problem is finding places to put the confectioners sugar (I mean, snow) after it has fallen. We put it on sidewalks, in bike lanes, pile it high on corners so people crossing the street are completely invisible to drivers - but we don’t think to ourselves that we also need to find a place to put motor vehicles when they aren’t in use and create a city where people don’t have to use them in the first place.

We also need to acknowledge just how valuable the real estate that a parked car takes up. The Transportation Committee in Stamford, tragically, decided recently that parking should stay cheap - when a much smarter move would have been to raise the price of parking and use the money to enable more car-free ways to get around. 

Owning a car in a city shouldn’t be - and, for many other reasons, can’t be - the only option a person has to get from one place to another. Before this snow is done melting, I hope legislators in municipalities across the country realize just how absurd coddling cars and punishing pedestrians and cyclists is. We all have better things to do with our time, money and creativity. Thanks for reading and thanks for riding.

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