Weather, urban planning, and regional differences


So, you may or may not be aware, Portland got some snow. Compared to my friends in Pittsburgh, it was about the same they were getting every few weekends. We got between 5-8 inches in the span of a day or so. The impact compared to the east coast city was absolutely insane. There were 500 accidents on Thursday night alone. The public transportation system was almost completely shut down and tomorrow may not be running – I’ll be working from home tomorrow because of that risk. I’ve seen more tire chains here than I have in my entire life having grown up in part of the Snow Belt. It’s amazing the differences.

The major highway between myself and Portland had multiple inches of snow standing on it after a full day with light snowing. I’ve never seen it before. There was actually a full lane missing because of it.

Why does this happen? Well, first Portland normally doesn’t get this type of snow, this was the most since 1971 or something like that. Second, they just don’t have the infrastructure for it. To buy enough salt or trucks to deal with this once in 30 year incident isn’t really responsible buying for a government.

Compared to Pittsburgh which deals with this sort of thing on a regular basis they have designed their infrastructure around dealing with snow or enabling people to get around it. Plus, they just drive through that stuff even if they shouldn’t because they have no choice. Unlike Portland, Pittsburgh doesn’t have as robust of a public transportation system, not that it mattered since the Max was down for a bulk of the weekend.

What does this tell us about urban planning? First, because of climate change, we need to begin thinking about how we’ll be experiencing more snow and extreme storms similar to this. How can we design our mass transit systems and our highway systems to be able to handle these extreme storms? In the case of the Max in Portland, I think they should install some sort of heating element into the switches, which apparently freeze over, so these don’t stop the Max from running.

I think the interesting thing about the snow here and in other locations is that it really brings out spaces that aren’t used by vehicles. This article really pointed it out for me: What Snows Tells Us About Creating Better Public Places. I think that it’s not just snow that points out the spaces that we to design better, but rain does so as well. Thinking back to the flash flooding we’d get in Austin and how that would impact moving around the city, we need to think about how to design these spaces to minimize the impact on people and the environment around the city.

Overall, we need to think about how to plan our cities better for new weather patterns. This is going to take some serious investment into our infrastructure. This will create jobs, but unfortunately mean we need to spend more tax money on our cities. Portland shouldn’t have been shut down from 5 inches of snow, especially not the public transportation, we need to figure out how to enable public transportation no matter what. People that don’t want to drive need that, plus parking in the city costs a ton more than parking. Let’s figure this out.

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