Seattle’s Crazy Snow Daze

Weather in Seattle is currently hovering between freezing rain and snow for Christmas, which should add to the crazy mess left after our week long (or maybe longer) snow storm as depicted in Horsey’s Christmas cartoon in today’s PI.

For once in my life, I’m glad I don’t have to go anywhere in it, at least by bus (I may venture out for a walk around the neighborhood).  I’m normally not a weather wimp, and always laugh at people who take the day off from work in Seattle at the least little dusting of snow.  Given the policies of the city, county and Metro transit, however, commuting became enough of a nightmare for even me and I finally took a snow day off yesterday.

I find myself agreeing with Joel Connelly’s column in the Dec. 23 PI:

ANY COMPETENTLY RUN city would have plowed out and sanded Seattle’s 34th Avenue by midday on Tuesday, since it is a major escape route into the city for Madrona and Mount Baker neighborhood residents.

As both the PI and Times note, Seattle does not use salt for environmental reasons, and, according to the Times article:

Instead of clearing major roads, Seattle aims to create a “hard-packed” snow surface suitable for all-wheel and four-wheel-drive vehicles, and front-wheel-drive vehicles with chains. The packed snow is then sprinkled with sand and sprayed with de-icer.

I’m also not sure how many plows we have. I do recall hearing a few years back we had fewer plows than Portland (which is further south and has fewer people than Seattle), and it doesn’t sound like anything has changed. Portland also rarely gets snow and it can be difficult at first, but they did plow all the major streets when I lived there and when buses got stuck, it was on hills, real hills, not slight inclines like the Ave (as we call University Way).

In spite of occasionally getting stuck, Metro buses used to be pretty reliable to get around on in the snow.  It always made perfect sense that they’d tell drivers to leave their cars at home and take Metro.  At least it did before this snow storm.  At this point, it might be better for them to take their chances driving. 

As Mr. Connelly notes, he could not get a previously reliable Route 3 downtown from his neighborhood.  He waited 45 minutes and it never came.  Hopefully someone has told him by now that it is one of the buses Metro decided not to run (and is still off line today, Christmas day, according to Metro’s Ice & Snow page).

In fact, as both the PI and Times reported, Metro shut down over 100 routes Thursday, the day of the first storm, stranding people like my co-worker who lives out in Burien. Service just kept getting worse and worse on the rest of the routes, and by Tuesday night I was ready to walk all the way home from Pioneer Square to the U District (finally squeezing onto a bus just north of the Fred Hutchinson complex on Eastlake, more in a minute). 

No doubt part of the problem was due to the city and county’s policies of not properly maintaining their streets, but I recall an announcement, that now seems to be down, on the Metro site patting themselves on the back for cutting back service and getting people safely and soundly to their destinations (well, if and when they were running there, or anywhere near there).

Part of the problem is Seattle really counts on snowy weather only lasting a day or two.  The first day, last Thursday, was typical, and while it took longer than usual to get downtown via Eastlake not the freeway, and I had to walk in because of a traffic jam from the Greyhound depot across downtown to my job near Pioneer Square, I had no real concerns.

In fact, I took pictures.

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Of course, there were articulated buses jack-knifed. All the articulated buses still being run were, as Joel Connelly notes in his Dec. 21 article, part of the trouble.  I suspect Seattle just doesn’t have enough of the regular buses.

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I even froze my fingers off (well, not literally) taking pictures in Pioneer Square in 20 degree weather on my lunch break.

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I went to a meeting with a couple of my Amnesty International friends at the Espresso Vivace near REI, and caught a bus home right afterward around 8 pm, which was very packed for that time of night. One of my co-workers from Burien spent the night, though, as the routes weren’t running out there.

On Friday morning, 5 buses went by going the opposite direction before we finally got one going downtown, which took the freeway; and I caught a bus immediately going home. While the people waiting at the bus stop, unable to get to West Seattle the previous day, were getting surly and the buses were too packed; my co-worker from Burien did make it home, after a long walk, by catching one later in the evening.

It started snowing lovely, powdery snow on last Saturday night.  Continued on Sunday.  I took pictures of kids (and grown ups) sledding in Cowen Park.

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And of the University of Washington campus:

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When the bus driver said Eastlake (our usual snow route) was closed Monday morning was the first time I worried a little.  Although he just turned us around and took us back to 45th to get on the freeway’s non-express lanes.

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Our building management had brought in an espresso cart and was offering free coffee and pastries Monday morning.  As very few people in the building made it in, there were a lot of pastries left.  When I heard they were going to toss what we didn’t take, I thought it would be a good deed to take some to Nickelsville, the tent city in the U District (now in the church parking lot on 45th and 15th Ave.) Especially as I’ve been too broke myself to help out much.

I took 3 boxes of assorted pastries with me down to the bus tunnel, for what ended up being a long wait.  When the first 70 series bus came, a half hour later, it was standing room only without enough room for everyone, so with my boxes, I waited.  Finally we at least saw a couple coming the other way, then one more came through going toward the U District.  It was pretty packed already, but I managed to get a seat near the front, and squeeze my way off at 45th and the Ave. for the block walk to Nickelsville, without dropping any of them (no small feat). I was home about an hour late.  No big deal.

Although, I was a little concerned when the driver said he had been driving since 4 am and state (or maybe federal) regulations said he had to get off work by 8:30 pm.  I do think the Metro drivers are the heroes of the whole situation, and it can’t be easy driving packed buses of people (with more waiting you can’t get on) on barely maintained icy and snowy streets can’t be easy.

Tuesday was really slow going down Eastlake (and the kind hearted driver kept picking up people waiting for the 70, even though we were supposed to be the express bus).  One of my co-workers said our boss, who couldn’t make it in herself, said we should all go home early, before it got bad.  Actually two of my co-workers decided to spend the night, but I figured I’d be fine, waiting until the usual time.

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The tunnel was already packed.  We waited a half hour with no 71s, 72s, or 73s coming through from either direction.  A Metro employee who called to check thought we’d be better off going up to the street and catching a 66 or 70.  I did wait a little while longer, hoping eventually one would come through the other way to the end of the line one station down, and finally went up to the street. 

A lot of people there who had been waiting a long time.  Buses passing us by thoroughly packed.  I thought of going to the end of the line, but which line, and what if that route’s buses weren’t running.  I decided this might well be the night I walk all the way home, and started walking. 

I did take it easy, and stopped at the Westlake food court first for dinner, then Pacific Place as I heard a rumor some of last year’s Nutcrackers ended up there (more in my next entry on those).  I did check the tunnel at Westlake, which was packed with people waiting and no sign of buses as well.  Then each time I was near a bus stop and a bus was coming, always too packed.

I walked up Fairview after a 70 passed me up.  Past the Seattle Times office.

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A packed 66 passed by while I was walking as well.  Then a 72 or 73 (as it was after 7 pm by then, when they stop going Express) near Fairview and Eastlake.  I was ready to walk all the way, if I needed to (and planned on stopping for coffee once or twice on the way).  Just as I got passed the Fred Hutchinson complex (which I hadn’t realized had grown so much), I was near a stop when I saw a packed 66 coming.  I figured it wouldn’t stop, but thought I’d wait and see.  Someone got off, making room for me to hop on.  As we got further along, approaching the bridge to the University District, the ride started getting bumpy as the slush was re-freezing over to ice. Just as we approached 45th, where I had decided to get off in search of an ATM (wanting cash in case I was stranded and needed coffee somewhere during the next morning or evening’s commute), the bus slid a little and was stuck for a couple minutes, as conditions were deteriorating.

It started snowing more before bed, and when I got up yesterday morning, I was feeling like I was about to come down with something, and with that on top of wondering if I was going to be stranded and need to walk all the way home (which I didn’t feel up to at that point, and maybe especially on Christmas eve), I wimped out and called in for a snow day.

Still, going back to the city, county and Metro’s response, I think we could do better.  Granted, we would need to spend a bit more money for snow plows and make some decisions weighing environmental costs on the salt vs extra expense maybe for a reliable alternative; but the current policy is based on people just being able to take the time off and stay home for a snow day or two.  Tough luck if it lasts longer. 

Of course, cities where it regularly snows have to work out something.  You can’t just shut down the city for the winter!  Microsoft’s Fargo Campus (who knew?) sent out a mock emergency alert, reposted on the PI’s blog, after finding out how soft their Seattle co-workers had it, where they posted suggestions (in an alert running from Dec. 18 to the end of April) like:

Please exercise normal caution driving and walking on campus as you are more likely to be attacked by a bunny than slip and fall on the ice.

and

Connectivity: You shouldn’t have any connectivity issues because you’re expected to be at work. We only had 10″ of snow and 40mph wind.
Area Roads: In light of the continuing snowfall and icy road conditions, most local roads are snow-covered and slippery and will remain that way until March. For information on current road conditions, please look out the window.

 

Some of the PI readers claimed it was no fair, as Fargo had no hills. True enough, but it occurs to me there are cities back east where it snows that do.  I remember staying on a very steep hill at a hostel in Pittsburgh when I went there for Amnesty International’s Annual General Meeting in 2002.  Granted, it was spring, but somehow I think cars and maybe trucks get around Pittsburgh in the winter (and hopefully without the amount of slipping and sliding in Seattle, as it was a long way down).

 

We could do better.  This is getting just a little ridiculous.

 

 

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