15.12.10

The Epic Battle of Snow vs. Cars

[Well, at least now I know what to talk to people about in the elevator. Img Avidor.]

The blizzard that dumped two feet of snow on Friday and Saturday was epic. There's no doubt about that. The slow moving low pressure system came from the north-west and blasted Minnesota with a massive belt of snow for a good twelve hours.

But what's interesting to me is what happened afterward. What did you talk about? What did you say? What did you think when you emerged from your snowy house, opened your front door and saw a blinding new world laid out before you in the morning?

Chances are good that you thought about your your car. For every person that says “wow, isn't the snow beautiful” or “let's go sledding”, there were at least seven or eight people muttering things like this:

Where is my car? Is that it under that snowbank? How do I get the snow off my hood? Is my windshield scraped? I the hell do I shovel through that snowbank? Is my street plowed? How do I plow out my driveway? Do you need help pushing your car out of the snow? Can you help me push my car out of the snow? Why isn't this snowblower working? Is there a snow emergency? Where do I park with all this snow? Did I just lock my keys in my snowbound car? What do I do if there's a second straight day of snow emergency? How long will it be until my street is plowed? Can you still park on the street if its already been plowed but its also a snow emergency? Is school still closed? Why are they having another snow emergency? Where do I park if the city goes to a one-side-only parking system? Are these my tax dollars at work? Who do I call when my plow driver gets stuck in my driveway?* Who will stop this illegal plowing? Why hasn't the city plowed my street yet? What do I do at 2 in the morning when I realize that I dropped my car keys in the snow bank an hour ago? What if the metal detector still can't find the keys? Is the car dealership open at 4 am? Will this cheap plastic shovel be able to handle all this snow?** Where can I buy a new snowshovel? Where do I go when I find out that Target is out of snowshovels? How long will my commute on 94 be through downtown Minneapolis today? If the wheels are spinning, why isn't my car going forward? Why didn't they plow the street all the way to the curb? If I'm averaging going 20 miles per hour, how long will it take me to get to River Falls? If my foot is on the brake, why isn't my car stopping … oh shit! How did I drive off the Lafeyette Bridge and how am I still alive?

It's a blizzard of car questions, car car concerns, car catastrophes, car-pocalypse. And just like snowflakes, each car calamity is unique.

See, the thing is, since time immemorial, or at least since Henry Ford invented the Ford in snowy Detroit Michigan, Cars have been battling Winter's snow and vice versa. The two combatants have been locked in combat, vying for dominance, an eternal yin and yang of precipitation and petroleum. And most of this time Cars seem to have been winning. In the early years, Old Man Winter would deal a knockout blow, incapacitating Cars for a spell until the referee counted to 1- 2- 3- 4- 5- days, before Cars bounced back and Old Man got tired and let cars have their way for a few rounds or months. But thanks to a scientific diet of Barry Bonds growth hormones and Eisenhower interstate highways, Cars have been routinely knocking the snot and snow out of Old Man Winter for years now, Winter getting in a good roundhouse once in a while, temporarily stunning cars for a second or two, before the Cars goliath, now grown golem-like to massive proportions, kept up the pummeling, the horseless carriage beating the dead horse.

[Old Man Winter lands a solid punch on Portland Avenue in 1940. Img MNHS.]

But every once in a while the tables are turned. This weekend's big-time KO throws into relief the car system as a whole. When it snows like this, you see so clearly all the parts that are needed for this “happy motoring” car world to function. Something like a mega-blizzard makes all the little things we take for granted a giant pain in the carseat. In Minneapolis alone, there are 100 plows plowing over 1,000 miles of streets, not to mention 400 miles of alleys and tons of other sidewalks, bridges, and culs-de-sac. And that's just one small (but onerous) part of the Twin Cities' car landscape. Think of all the driveways and freeways and parking lots and small city streets and yet more culs-de-sac on which we all depend to drive everywhere. If there are 1,500 miles of plowable surfaces in Minneapolis alone, how many miles of plowing must the entire Twin Cities metro amount to? Could you plow once around the world?

Whereas … and here's where I offer you an alternative … on snowy nights and snow days like this weekend, I like to imagine an alternative. I like to stand out on my porch in the cold and snowy night when everything is quiet, when the snowpiles muffle even the sound of the freight train running through the city, when you can stand there for half an hour and not one car dares traverse the snow-piled street. During a blizzard, I like to walk up from the bus stop in the middle of the road and not once think that I should get out of the way, because for a brief moment or two, I'm in a world without cars.

Even on Saturday morning, during the height of the storm, my corner store was open and I could walk to it and buy some Triscuits. It was like walking into a happier world, far from car kvetches and asphalt anxiety. Nobody there was worried about their commute, because almost everyone lived walking distance from the store. It was warm and lit up and had food and you could trudge there through the snow no matter how much blizzard was blizzarding outside.

And, despite the complaints, the same is pretty much true for the Twin Cities bus system. Sure there was a stretch on Saturday where the buses weren't running, but from when I got dropped off at 1 AM by the bus on Friday night (when the snow was just starting) until Sunday when the bus picked me up again, you could travel through the cities at a decent pace (provided you weren't going through one of the car-clogged stretches of Minneapolis) without thinking for a second about cars and all their problems.

This blizzard was something to remember, and points to how much maintenance and technical ecngineering is involved in our auto-dependent lifestyle. At least for a day or two, we pause and forget and live life without our car, not only because we have to, but to see what it might be like.

[On foot, this is no snowpacalypse. This is a snowtacular snowscape. It's a snow-a-palooza, a snow-athon, a snowventure!]

* True story, happened to my mom.
** True story, happened to my neighbor.

4 comments:

Alex said...

Thanks for this exposition of our snow-white car-free alternative - I had that same thought on Saturday: Around dusk I stepped onto a side street that was bathed in the otherworldly light of a towering snow plow, which created a stark contrast between the whiteness of the new snow and the dark silhouettes of 15-odd people walking down this street. This is a side street I had never seen more than one or two people on and in reaction to this storm it was suddenly clogged with people! The weird light from dusk and the plow made it feel that much more like another universe, one I desperately wanted to move to.

guv said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
guv said...

This is an awesomely insightful post -thanks for writing it!
I often think of snow as a gift from the heavens, a reason to slow down and appreciate the daily grind from a different perspective. I can't stand how after two or three days, the lovely blanket of white has turned into grey slush and black snow around roadways and adjacent sidewalks. This is a dramatic instance, albeit one of many, where automobile based systems turn natural beauty into incredibly ugly forms, largely to the sole detriment of those on foot. And at what cost?
And what about the massive use of salt? Not sure about MPLS, but here in CLEV, we throw down salt like it was free, b/c it almost is - Cargill has a massive salt mining operation 1/2 west of downtown, under Great Lake Erie. Salt not only leads to slush (much more difficult to navigate than snow when on foot), but also leads to deterioration of road infrastructure including asphalt and concrete and directly corrodes steel infrastructure, not to mention it's affect on plant life (for a region w/ a rather short growing season). Yet we continue to dump it on! Why? The bane of 50+ years creating systems and infrastructure to support car-based lifestyles at any cost.

I'm sure you see this in MPLS, but during heavy snow in Cleveland, not only do neighborhood street rights-of-way get taken over by pedestrians, but often by XC Skiers, which is something I've also enjoyed watching, but as of yet been unable to do. It's yet another beautiful example of how snow can alter your experience of routine tasks when on foot.

Thanks again for sharing and btw, I found this post via Streetsblog.
Do you have a twitter account? I'm @pedestrianism
Cheers!

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That's why I hate snow so much! I prefer prefer the sunny weather of the beach!