Greater Greater Washington

Sneckdowns take over the streets

The recent snow made for the best sneckdown spotting weather in DC since the term first entered our lexicon. Last week we put out a call for photos of sneckdowns in the wild, and plenty of you responded. Here are some of the best.


17th and Potomac Ave, SE. Photo by Justin Antos.

In the wonky world of urbanism advocacy, sneckdowns have gone viral. The term, referring to places where snow formations show street spaces cars don't use, first popped up in New York. Since then it's made headlines in Philadelphia, Chicago, Vancouver, and more.

It's true that actual engineers shouldn't design streets solely around piled snow, but certainly sneckdowns are a handy illustration of how we give too much pavement to cars.

Here are more local examples, sent in by readers.


14th St and Independence Ave, SW. Photo by @gregbilling.


M St and Jefferson St, NW. Photo by @gregbilling.


Rhode Island Ave and R St, NW. Photo by @MaryLauran.


Rhode Island Ave and Q St, NW. Photo by @MaryLauran.


4th St, NE. Photo by @TonyTGoodman.


Fairfax Dr and 10th St N, in Arlington. Photo by @guusbosman.


Ridge Road in Greenbelt. Photo by msickle.

Thanks to everyone who sent in photos! Keep watching #dcsneckdown on Twitter for more.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

Dan Malouff is a professional transportation planner for the Arlington County Department of Transportation. He has a degree in Urban Planning from the University of Colorado, and lives a car-free lifestyle in Northwest Washington. His posts are his own opinions and do not represent the views of his employer in any way. He runs the blog BeyondDC and also contributes to the Washington Post Local Opinions blog. 

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I think this is a useful exercise, if we believe that only cars ought to be on the roads. To assume that cutting down roadways per the sneckdowns will be helpful to cyclists in any way is a bridge too far.

BTW: a shout out to Mike Goodno and Jim Sebastian from DDOT for trying to help: http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/dr-gridlock/wp/2014/02/14/d-c-transportation-team-clears-snow-from-bike-lanes/

by fongfong on Feb 18, 2014 11:45 am • linkreport

It seems like you guys are misinterpreting what's happening here. These spaces in the intersections are only going unused because they haven't been cleared of snow. You ought to know that intersections and their respective turning radii are typically designed with safety in mind, not convenience.

by Kevin on Feb 18, 2014 11:54 am • linkreport

This is such terribly flawed logic. Consider this, one of my neighbors only shoveled a path the width of their snow shovel on their section of the sidewalk. Kinda lazy but it's passable and people just walk where he shoveled. Using the exact exact same logic as you are using in this piece we can determine that the sidewalks on my street can now be reduced to only 18 inches wide because that's clearly all anyone needs.

by Doug on Feb 18, 2014 11:55 am • linkreport

I like the idea of finding "sneckdowns," but I'm not fully convinced of it conceptually because in at least some less-traveled locations like my rowhouse block, drivers are unwilling to follow their true path of desire because it places them in a pile of snow they don't think they can drive through. Instead they follow the route that has been plowed. This might be a more robust exercise the morning after 1/2 inch of snow and full traffic.

Again, I like what this is about, but I'd be cautious to go very far with it.

by Andy on Feb 18, 2014 11:59 am • linkreport

You ought to know that intersections and their respective turning radii are typically designed with safety in mind, not convenience.

Safety for whom exactly?

Also complainers, note this caveat:
It's true that actual engineers shouldn't design streets solely around piled snow, but certainly sneckdowns are a handy illustration of how we give too much pavement to cars.

These visualizations are but one way in which we can see where we might reclaim some road space!

by MLD on Feb 18, 2014 11:59 am • linkreport

Fong's comment about bikes is correct; those are almost always obstructed by snow.

The other problem with the whole "sneckdown" logic is that it assumes cars behave the same when there's snow on the ground, which is simply not true. In the days after a storm, lots of narrow streets become functionally one-way, parking is lost, and intersection don't have space to accommodate all the traffic they're supposed to fit. That means you might see snow on pavement that is normally used by cars.

Now, maybe the response to that is "well clearly you don't NEED this space", and that's probably true. But it's not true that these reveal "unused" street space.

by Jon M. on Feb 18, 2014 12:10 pm • linkreport

Jon M, if capacity has been reduced greatly, and yet theres no additional congestion....but there is greater safety, that sounds like a win

by JJJJ on Feb 18, 2014 12:19 pm • linkreport

Who said congestion wasn't increased and there is greater safety? I see no evidence to support either of those claims.

by Jon M. on Feb 18, 2014 12:24 pm • linkreport

The other day, the entire eastbound lane of D St SW between 6th and 4th wasn't plowed. Westbound was.

All this demonstrates is that plow operation is not a hard science.

by Another Nick on Feb 18, 2014 12:36 pm • linkreport

Fong,
The space could be used for cyclists via bike lanes/boxes. Not just wider sidewalks.

Jon M.

Yes, people drive differently when conditions demand it. The point of this is to show how we can create those conditions ourselves by making sure drivers are paying attention.

by Drumz on Feb 18, 2014 12:40 pm • linkreport

I agree that the logic is faulty here. Snow is a special situation - not an indication of what should be. By this logic, un-shoveled sidewalks aren't being used by pedestrians either. Perhaps that means we should extend our yards to the street to reclaim that "unused" space!

by Ben on Feb 18, 2014 1:00 pm • linkreport

Not "should be" but "could be".

The snow helps illustrate how we prioritize our street space. Snow on sidewalks proves how vital they are to those that need them (I.e. Everybody). And snow on the streets that creates tighter corners that slow down traffic shows that there are ways to design our streets that make things better for non-drivers thr don't actually take away lanes.

That's why we can talk about sneckdowns and unshoveled walks and there's not any contradiction.

Again, these are illustrative. And anyone can document them rather than having to use photoshop to create a rendering.

by Drumz on Feb 18, 2014 1:22 pm • linkreport

JJJ,

I agree with Jon M. I mean, take Friday morning for example. There were some really passable lanes on Wisconsin Ave, for cars. They maybe weren't getting congested from the "sneckdowns" left in the road, but the buses were completely dysfunctional all morning bc the far right lane ends up half full of snow. So I mean, sure, maybe CARS don't "need" the space, but losing it hurts transit riders too, in some cases.

by Daniel on Feb 18, 2014 2:44 pm • linkreport

I tend to agree that Sneckdowns (new word please?) offer a valuable lesson on street use - after normal snow conditions. However, given the sheer amount of snow we received last week, which sidelined a sizeable proportion of drivers and bikers alike, I don't think this exercise works with large storms, as others have noted.

Take the area around Potomac ave, for example. The city plows did such a poor job of removing the snow that almost every side street in the neighborhood was reduced to one travel lane for both directions, while the intersections became home to massive snow banks. A car, much less a bike or ped, could not physically use any of that space.

So the snowy areas reflected not normal use patterns, but emergency use patterns.

Now look the morning after a 2-4" snowfall and see where cars don't drive.

In other news, the K street shared lanes are still half snow in MVT.

by PotomacAveres on Feb 18, 2014 3:26 pm • linkreport

How about we look at where Snowmorebikelanes are and determine that bike lanes really aren't needed? clearly lame logic - just like drawing conclusions based on Sneckdowns. Really, you can do better with a drawing of how you propose using the space and explaining the benefit. This just looks like poking fun at someone else's misfortune. I say that as a bicyclist, pedestrian, and occasional driver.

by Lame Attempt on Feb 18, 2014 8:35 pm • linkreport

TL;dr- all it takes to see the difference between sneckdowns and ire over uncleared bike lanes/sidewalks is nuance.

Anyway,
A few of the pictures do explain what could be added to the space.

These work well because more people have cameras an can take pictures of actual conditions rather than drawing a nice/professional looking rendering.

This is to alert people to think about these thigs and inspire people to do the renderings.

Snow highlights what may otherwise be invisible. That includes places where we can calm streets AND show how our city depts. are biased towards autos (since they often clear the road lanes and ignore the bike lanes.

At least on the L street lane the snow piled between the bollards and did a pretty good approximation of what a hard curb would look like instead of flexi-posts.

by Drumz on Feb 18, 2014 9:13 pm • linkreport

I'm a big advocate for pedestrian and bicycle improvement, but I'm not an advocate of bad thinking, and that's what this "sneckdown" exercise is. It's complete nonsense and it gives those of us who'd like to see real improvements made a bad name with organizations like the AAA.

It's incredibly flawed logic. It's simply unplowed snow. I could just as easily argue that because those areas aren't in use by pedestrians, then they should be reserved by cars. Or why stop there? Because cars and pedestrians aren't able to use those unplowed areas, we should reserve them for big purple elephants.

by OX4 on Feb 19, 2014 7:33 am • linkreport

I'm afraid that the author assumed that his audience understood sneckdowns. From the response, it's obvious that their utility is not understood by many. This is just a tool to easily envision areas of the street that are rarely used. There's no intent to just sidewalk any area that hasn't been cleared of snow. Sheesh.

by Greg on Feb 19, 2014 8:22 am • linkreport

I could just as easily argue that because those areas aren't in use by pedestrians, then they should be reserved by cars.

Yes but that would probably be sophistry. Especially when the article says:

It's true that actual engineers shouldn't design streets solely around piled snow, but certainly sneckdowns are a handy illustration of how we give too much pavement to cars.

So this exercise is entirely about cars meaning that trying to apply the same logic to sidewalks doesn't work. Especially since there are lots of articles on here about the effect of snow on our sidewalks.

by drumz on Feb 19, 2014 9:02 am • linkreport

certainly sneckdowns are a handy illustration of how we give too much pavement to cars.

See, that's the problem. There's nothing certain about it.

It could also illustrate how plows don't clear enough pavement for cars (or sidewalks for peds, or bikelines for cyclists).

Just by way of concrete point: Some of those sharp corners are nearly impossible for trucks and buses to negotiate without turning into oncoming traffic or going over the putative curb one might install.

by ah on Feb 19, 2014 10:00 am • linkreport

It shows the potential. Turning radii is something that we pay engineers for. What this does is show your average citizen that there are different ways of thinking about how our streets are built and that we can choose to have streets that cater to pedestrians that rely on small/easy/cheap incremental changes that have big benefit.

If the sneckdown encourages to look at something and create a wider sidewalk that isn't quite as wide as the snow was then that's still a net-positive for pedestrians.

by drumz on Feb 19, 2014 10:06 am • linkreport

The sneckdown indicates places where or our streets are over-enginnered for cars and under-engineered for ped safety. It is not a 1:1 proof, it just shows where we can do better.

by Clarence on Feb 19, 2014 10:50 am • linkreport

The problem with applying sneckdowns in a region such as DC is that, after a decent snowfall, you often don't have a normal travel/commute pattern for a few days afterwards...businesses and government are closed or reduced and people are staying home. PlanitMetro just had an excellent piece on Metrorail patterns on a "snow day" that reflect this.

Best time to do this is when "business as usual" has returned, or after a snowfall where business wasn't reduced to begin with (as a few earlier comments suggested). Most of the submitted photos look like they were taken the day after...instead of waiting until a normal workday had resumed.

by Froggie on Feb 19, 2014 12:41 pm • linkreport

I do think that sneckdowns are an interesting illustration of road areas that are underutilized by vehicles, bikes and pedestrians alike. The image of Fairfax Dr is a great point in how some intersections are really just too big. However, in many of the residential neighborhoods, I'm not sold on whether or not the sneckdown area would really better serve the public within the sidewalk. Likely it is not changing the paved asphalt area into usable seating or green space and more likely would simply be concrete area within the sidewalk. Only some amount could be grass at best since anything of height would interfere with vehicular sightlines across the corner. Additionally, there's only so many corner restaurants that could utilize it as seating/dining. It also calls into question who would be responsible for maintaining the larger sidewalk area. Since it is within the right of way, the city or municipality is typically responsible - to which these images easily demonstrate the care with which they maintain the other areas they already own.

by jzdc on Feb 19, 2014 10:11 pm • linkreport

I'm in the "this is horribly flawed thinking" camp.
If you drop a foot of snow on a city in winter, and then take pictures of how reduced vehicle, cyclist, mass transit and pedestrian traffic use the areas that can be easily cleared, then call the uncleared road space a sign that roads are too wide, and cars get too much space, this is truly the poster child of bad logic.

Yes, there is the one disclaimer, but the author can't even complete that sentence without contradicting it, the same way the rest of the article contradicts it. Emergency snow clearance is not a basis for drawing conclusions about normal traffic use(of any type).

by Teahouse on Feb 20, 2014 9:08 am • linkreport

If you drop a foot of snow on a city in winter, and then take pictures of how reduced vehicle, cyclist, mass transit and pedestrian traffic use the areas that can be easily cleared, then call the uncleared road space a sign that roads are too wide, and cars get too much space, this is truly the poster child of bad logic.

Looking at the space for cars why is it bad logic?

All these pictures do is ask the question "what if we replaced this pavement with a sidewalk?"

In some instances the answer will be that things are improved for pedestrians without negatively impacting cars (slowing them down to speeds approriate for city streets IS NOT the same as causing congestion) and in some places the answer will have to be modified to accomodate for turning radii or whatever. But that's what we pay engineers for.

In the pictures you've got either blank pavement or snow that's piled up so that while it may not be impassable would be a pain to drive over but most vehicles seem to get by without it. The very first picture shows that all you have to do is sharpen the curve a little bit and all of a sudden you've got a much friendler intersection for pedestrians WITHOUT taking away a lane for cars.

by drumz on Feb 20, 2014 9:21 am • linkreport

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