Sunday, February 10, 2013

Thoughts on a Blizzard

First of all, hello there. I am still around, a fact that you can verify any time by visiting my daily photo blog. I have not posted on this blog lately, but that is one of the benefits of having a second blog that I don't promise to post on with a specific schedule. I am still car-free and living in Portland so I will continue to have thoughts to post here every now and then.

Today I want to write a little bit about the recent blizzard, named Nemo, which forcefully swept through the city over the past two days. The total snowfall of 31.9 inches was a record for the city, and an impressive total to actually see, and travel through, in person.

As is the case during any substantial snow storm, one of the first changes you notice is how quiet it becomes. Streets that were once clogged with noisy traffic become almost eerily quiet as the number of cars decrease and the sound of the remaining cars is substantially reduced by the surrounding snow. There are still sounds of the city and its inhabitants, but those sounds generally take a softer and more pleasant tone.

The other thing that is immediately noticeable, as hinted at above, is the reduction in automobile traffic. Streets such as Congress Street, the main route through the center of the peninsula for both automobiles and pedestrians, becomes a shared-use street that peacefully accommodate a small amount of traffic and pedestrians equally.

Not only is traffic reduced, but more importantly, it is significantly tamed.  Snow covered streets require cars to move slowly and to be more thoughtful of their surroundings. Politely asking motorists to obey specific speed limits or to stop for pedestrians in crosswalks often does not work, but snow does.

As illustrated in the example above from Fore Street, pedestrians have been forced to the road due to the sidewalks not yet being cleared (more on that later). The car that went past them was moving at the same speed, and the movement of neither party was impeded. This was a pleasant situation where a road was efficiently shared by different modes of transportation.

I've never been to another continent to see it in person, but I admire some parts of the world where cities are built to embrace pedestrians and cyclists (or at the very least, are not built to ignore everything but cars). I would love to see a Portland that operates more like the parts of Paris shown in this Streetfilms video. Just like some European cities, Portland's downtown area has a lot of streets that are not wide enough to make reasonable accommodations for all uses such as mass transit, cars, pedestrians, and bicycles. Building roads that combine all those uses seems like a win-win. Our existing streets and sidewalks, our largest public open spaces, could be used to their fullest potential if they were designed in this manner.

There are challenges to creating more people-friendly streets. The foremost may be our auto-centric culture, which is more complex than I am able to eloquently describe or to prescribe a cure for. On a local level, calming traffic is generally seen as waging a "war on cars." Such a narrow view of our shared spaces is a major obstacle. Our current transportation networks and land use patterns basically force most people to car ownership, so it would take  a drastic change in our culture to make people aware of any alternatives to the current situation. The positive news is that a change is already under way. A Press Herald story from this past July notes that car registration in Portland has fallen an amazing 23% from 2004 to 2011.

But back to the topic of snow. As noted in the example above, the roads here cleared before sidewalks by the public works department. This is common practice that we can all support because it allows emergency vehicles to move around the city when needed. For the most part the City of Portland does a great job at taking care of our streets and sidewalk all winter, but snow will always be a challenge for all modes of urban transportation. One of my favorite things about snow is that, in moderation, it can make the city a more charming place to live for pedestrians (and cyclists if you have the right equipment for a winter commute!).

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