Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Planning for winter weather

With confirmation of the El Niño weather effect occurring this winter, it is hard to say what the effects will be on the DC region.  There could be a lot of snow or not very much at all--I remember in 1998 that because of El Niño, Spring started in late January, with temperatures in the 70° range. Since weather has been that warm this weekend, I'm hopeful there won't be much snow this winter.

Local governments like that because it reduces snow removal costs ("El Nino keeps air warm, and snow removal budgets cool,"Pittsburgh Post-Gazette). Record snows last year in New England crushed the MBTA transit system and the City of Boston spent as much as $50 million on snow removal, far more than had been originally budgeted ("Budgets socked by snow costs, agency finds," Boston Globe).

That being said, I was impressed by the bus wrap ads by the Loudoun County Office of Emergency Management, placed on the commuter buses that travel between Loudoun and DC, which reminded me I ought to do my regular posting on the coming of winter.

The basic point is that if a city claims to prioritize sustainable mobility, it ought to ensure that its planning for winter weather maintenance prioritizes mobility for pedestrians, bicyclists, and transit users, not just motor vehicle operators.

I've been doing the "maintenance of way" post for going on 7 years, and I have seen some improvements, in terms of certain (not all) public facilities doing a better job maintaining their sidewalks after snow events, the city's transportation department is spending more time and money on messaging about winter snow clearance--and unlike many jurisdictions, DDOT does do snow clearance on bike trails, and the City Council has passed some legislation too.

-- "A "maintenance of way" agenda for the walking and transit city (2010)
-- "Testimony on the Winter Sidewalk Safety Amendment Act of 2011" (2011)
-- "Agenda setting: snow clearance in the walking-biking-transit city" (2014)
-- "A reminder about winter-time conditions for pedestrians, cyclists, and transit users" (2014)
-- "Cataloging the various failures to remove snow in the walking/transit/bicycling city" (2015)

That means clearing sidewalks and intersections, especially in places with high pedestrian use--to and from transit stops and stations, schools, local commercial districts, etc.

It means not using bike lanes as "snow storage" spaces.  And it means planning for snow removing on shared use paths that are used for bike commuting.

-- "Level of service and maintenance requirements in planning #2: winter maintenance of bike paths" (2012)

It should also mean renewed attention to lighting issues, because it should be safe to walk, bike and use transit at night too, and it gets dark as earlier as 5pm at some points during the winter months.

-- "Night-time safety: rethinking lighting in the context of a walking community" (2014)

A few years ago, a commenter pointed out that Rochester, NY has a system of city-provided snow clearance on sidewalks when the snowfall is greater than 3 inches.

Preparing underground piping for Holland Michigan's downtown sidewalks.  Holland DPW photo.

Heated sidewalks.  And earlier this year, I learned that the sidewalks in Downtown Holland, Michigan are heated, using the waste heat from a local power plant, which is then pumped through miles of pipes placed under the sidewalks.  It's not new though, they did it in 1988, when they were reconstructing the streetscape.

It's noteworthy for four reasons: (1) being in Western Michigan, Holland gets an inordinate amount of snow in what is called "the Lake effect" because of weather conditions in association with Lake Michigan; (2) it covers a lot of ground, over 10 acres; (3) it was constructed in association with a planned road and sidewalk replacement project, cutting the cost to do it; and (4) it is accomplished using waste heated water produced as a byproduct of electricity production.  (Waste water, which is generally at a constant temperature, could be a source for heating and cooling systems, something Arlington County has pointed out in its energy planning.)

But it was easier for the city to do this because they have a municipally-owned and operated electricity production and distribution system and water and sewer system, the Holland Board of Public Works.

A woman walks on a heated sidewalk by Willis Tower in downtown Chicago (Chris Sweda, Chicago Tribune)

It reminds me that the steps of the Michigan Union at the University of Michigan are heated in the winter months for the same reason.

And the Chicago Tribune ("Heated sidewalks a welcome amenity in brutal winter") points out that some high-value properties, such as the former Sears Tower, have heated sidewalks, as do various public facilities in the suburbs.

Winter Cycling Federation of cities.  I also learned about an association of cities dealing with biking and extreme winter weather conditions, and they have an annual conference too.

-- "Who Knew?: There is a Winter Cycling Federation and annual conference"

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At 11:22 AM, Anonymous charlie said...

RE: heated sidewalks.

There is enough steam heat around the White House and Capitol to do this. I don't know about other local heating.

If you could do it via electrics, I think it would have application for private condos -- cheaper than digging out sidewalks. Condo here has to spend about 10K a year on snow removal, and the sidewalk is a big part.

At 12:19 PM, Anonymous Richard Layman said...

There was a section in the CT article about the increase in installation of such at high end properties. But they talked about NG.

... anyway, I started to include that but excised it as not "public-oriented" enough.

This is a resource:

At 12:23 PM, Anonymous Richard Layman said...

... From a contractor perspective, it's a pain in the ass dealing with condo assns. and "retrofitting" improvements.

e.g., we do it with BicyclePASS and bike rooms. Some of the clients are forward thinking. But others, one or two people are interested and trying to move it forward, but the others aren't interested, or they want to do it at minimal/no cost, etc.

That's why I am big on getting the best practice infrastructure installed at delivery.

Still, when the city tears up sidewalks in mixed use commercial districts, this could be raised as an opportunity.

At 7:25 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

At 4:05 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...


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