I’ve only been up to work a couple of times since the snow and ice first settled on Seattle. Even though I simply have to walk across the street from my apartment and take a shuttle bus up the hill, it’s a risky and stressful business. To someone from Boston, familiar with how urban snow removal is supposed to work, the scene is bizarre. The streets are covered in thick, deeply rutted ice. The sidewalks are mostly patches of slick ice and piled snow. Riding on the shuttle bus is a series of spine-jarring bumps, interspersed with barely-controlled sprints across the ice. And the reason? No salt. From the Seattle Times:
To hear the city’s spin, Seattle’s road crews are making “great progress” in clearing the ice-caked streets. But it turns out “plowed streets” in Seattle actually means “snow-packed,” as in there’s snow and ice left on major arterials by design.
“We’e trying to create a hard-packed surface,” said Alex Wiggins, chief of staff for the Seattle Department of Transportation. “It doesn’t look like anything you’d find in Chicago or New York.”
Damn right. Any DPW chief in the north-east who did such a shitty job of clearing the streets would be fired on the spot.
The city’s approach means crews clear the roads enough for all-wheel and four-wheel-drive vehicles, or those with front-wheel drive cars as long as they are using chains, Wiggins said.
The icy streets are the result of Seattle’s refusal to use salt, an effective ice-buster used by the state Department of Transportation and cities accustomed to dealing with heavy winter snows.
Fearing the environmental impact of salt, Seattle is relying on sanding instead. The trouble is that if you put enough sand down to actually make a difference, it clogs storm drains and creates nasty dust in the spring. The result: Seattle uses such a small amount of sand that it makes almost no difference. And they couldn’t really lay down very much sand (or salt) anyway: while Boston has 700 snow plows, Seattle has just 27.
By the way, Seattle’s police cars are all rear-wheel drive. Even with chains, they have difficulty getting along on major arteries, and most secondary streets are impassable to them. Let’s hope that the bad guys aren’t smart enough to buy AWD vehicles….
UPDATE: Responding to Jon’s comment: I do not wish to imply that Seattle should run out and acquire 700 snow plows and thousands of tons of salt to cope with a once-every-20-year event. That would be dumb. What I’m saying is that (a) the city should be honest about this reality, and (b) that it should use established best practices in using the limited resources that it does have available. Using sand without salt is just bad practice: the sand blocks storm drains, and pollutes. Salt – at least in the quantities that Seattle can afford! – is not going to be an environmental hazard.
Claiming that “we’re trying to create a hard-packed surface,” and “we decided not to utilize salt because it’s not a healthy addition to Puget Sound” is either dishonest, or stupid, or both.