Should Seattle rethink its plans for snow plows?
Depending on where you live in Seattle, the recent snowstorms might have had you asking one question: “Why is my street buried under snow, and why hasn’t a plow showed up to clear it?”
The answer: Seattle employs 35 total snow plows, that largely prioritize transit and emergency routes, freeways, and the downtown area.
Take a look at the city’s winter weather response map, and you’ll see that some of the most plowed areas include well-traveled roads like the West Seattle Bridge, 15th Avenue Northwest into Ballard, Madison Street, and Mercer.
Head out to Magnolia, though, and not a single street had been serviced in the last 12 hours as of Monday evening. From Discovery Park all the way to Interbay, an entire neighborhood was socked in by snow with no plows to dig it out.
“The snow and ice response plan is built around getting people to use public transportation,” SDOT’s Steve Pratt told CityLab back in 2012.
That strategy hasn’t changed much in the years since. But during the recent snowstorms, King County Metro dramatically reduced its service network to a core list of 60 routes. Bus roads were prioritized by snow plows, for a reduced number of actual buses.
So, maybe take a plow or two off of bus routes to help Magnolia? Or a simple solution is more snow plows, right?
Well, maybe not.
A recent estimate from SDOT’s Ronald Maxie said that Seattle would need 200 or more snow plows to fully cover both arterials and side streets.
At roughly $150,000 to $200,000 each, that would run the city anywhere between $24-33 million just to buy the vehicles, without figuring for the manpower needed to staff them for 12-hour shifts (the typical shift for plow drivers in this latest snowstorm).
Seattle averages approximately seven inches of snowfall annually. And the city won’t get record snowfall as experienced this February every year. That being so, feasibly, it wouldn’t make much sense to pour millions into vehicles that would be gathering more dust than snow 11 months out of the year.
For reference, Chicago employs more than 300 snow plows. That city gets around 36 inches of snow every year. A little napkin math tells us that it has over eight times the snow plows to cover five times the snow.
Weirdly enough, Denver reports an average of 64 inches of snow per year, but keeps just 70 plows on-hand to clear it (nine times the snow, but just twice the plows in case you were wondering).
A little closer to home, Portland, Oregon has upwards of 56 snow plows, seven anti-icing trucks, six salt trucks, and 12 service trucks. It also has agreements with private plow companies to help out in the event of larger storms.
Portland also averages just three inches of snow annually.
What this tells us is that not every city functions the same way in a snowstorm. In general, the Northwest can actually be more difficult to drive in the snow than the flatter areas of the Midwest.
Meanwhile, a city like Denver gets its snow in short, but sizable spurts, boasting massive accumulations in single sittings.
In Seattle, the micro-climate is tough to predict when it’s not dumping snow on unsuspecting drivers. Eight to 10 inches of snow later, and you start numbering a week’s worth of road collisions in the hundreds.
So, where does that leave us?
Perhaps a solution for Seattle could be found somewhere in between the egregious amount of snow plows in Chicago, and the 35 it currently has in operation.
Or at least enough to dig out poor Magnolia.