Monday, December 22, 2008

The Paralytic City

As we spend another day cooped up inside, waiting out what has lovingly been dubbed 'Arctic Blast' - the most massive of winter storms - seriously. In a place of the country that has an occasional ice storm, but doesn't typically have snow stick around for more than a day or two at most - any significant and long-lasting accumulation of snow and cold is both mind-numbing (watching the news) and paralyzing (due to really minimal storm infrastructure). Growing up in North Dakota, which doesn't know the term 'snow day', it's always interesting to see what reactions For some reference... here's what it's like right now...

:: conditions on I-5 at 6:33pm - image via TripCheck

Here's the typical reactions... 1) OMG, we are ALL GOING TO DIE...! 2) weeee, snow... 3) wow, now I can try out those snow chains I got in 1997... and 4) zzzzzzzzzzzzzzz... After a weekend of some of all of these (even blogging gets old sometimes), it was time to venture out and get supplies, test out the road handling capabilities of the Honda Element, and see what all the fuss was about.

:: images via NWCN

My reaction continues to be one of a mixture of disgust (at people who don't know how to drive in snow) [video is from Seattle, but same diff], amazement (that this has been on the news non-stop for days...), shock (people burning houses and dying from CO2 from bringing stove indoors) and sheer unadulterated joy (i heart snow). But I digress. My point is to take a quick peek at the preparation - even that which perhaps cannot (or due to it's infrequency should not) be prepared for.

From the Portland Office of Emergency Management, some quick facts... "Winter Storms are deceptive killers since most of thedeaths that occur are indirectly related to the actual storm...

• People die in traffic accidents on icy roads
• People die of heart attacks while shoveling snow
• People die of hypothermia from prolonged exposure to the cold"

I would add 'People die from boredom... or perhaps stupidity' but enough beer and movies stocked up can mitigate the first half of this - and staying away from roadways is the way to avoid the second part. It's one of those unseen aspects of urban life that the icy/snowy/wintry conditions offer perhaps a different animal in the city versus outlying areas. It's also interesting to see a major metropolitan area paralyzed by weather - whereas many others would keep on rolling along without skipping a beat.

One is that transportation is such a key. In Portland for instance, even with our multi-modal transporation - including MAX light rail, buses, walking, biking, and x-country skiing to no name a few there are still a litany of problems. But to focus on roads for a second... what is done here to solve said problems with the over 4000 miles of roadways in the Portland area (via Portland Office of Transportation):

a. Anti- Icing: To commence, at the discretion of the Incident Commander, whenever the early application of anti icing agents may effectively improve street conditions, or add to the effectiveness of sanding or plowing operations.
b. Sanding: Sufficient to provide traction without waste of materials.
c. Plowing: To commence, at the discretion of the Incident Commander, whenever plowing effectively improves the street condition, or when sanding operations are no longer effective.
d. Snow Removal in Selected Areas: To commence at the discretion of the Incident Commander, when the size of the snow storage area restricts the use of the cleared traffic lane, or when accumulations create danger of drainage hazards."

:: images via Portland Office of Transportation

The issue is not approach but it's not as much a question of quantity. As mentioned on the site, the snowfall is not predictable, there is topographic change, and their is variability of local microclimates - making it easier to pinpoint trouble spots but near impossible to cover the entire City with this collection (via PDOT):

Trucks fitted with snowplows and sanders: 55
Liquid anti-icer trucks: 4
Service trucks: 10
Big-wheel loaders: 5
Backhoes: 2
Road graders: 2
Emergency trucks: 2
Street closure trucks: 2
Fuel truck: 1

That's for the whole city... wonder why nothing is plowed? One aspect that some people were pretty adamant about was that we should be using 'salt' to clean roads... Why not? From ODOT's TripCheck website: " ODOT doesn’t use salt because it has detrimental effects to vehicles, structures and the environment. Salt, rock salt, or road salt are the common terms for sodium chloride, a product traditionally used in the eastern United States. While road salt is an effective tool for melting snow and ice, it also causes severe rust damage to vehicles, degrades the road surface, corrodes bridges, and may harm roadside vegetation."

Oregon (and Portland), amongst many other cities, use Magnesium chloride - a deicing liquid that has an internal corrosion inhibitor... a relatively safe and non-corrosive alternative. In fact, the naturally derived material is used in the production of tofu and soy milk, as well as used transdermally to increase magnesium levels. Tofu... deicer... I guess it all comes down to what works for your city... to keep it running.

:: Tofu - image via Wing Yip Store

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