You can learn an awful lot about traffic problems from snow. Sometimes, what you discover is obvious and kind of depressing, like that the Atlanta metro area is really not prepared for a winter storm and there's a lot of sad historical and systemic reasons for that. Thankfully, other times snow teaches happier lessons. That’s the takeaway from what might be termed the Great #Sneckdown Season of 2014.
Let's get this out of the way first: the term “sneckdown” is a brutally cheesy combination of the words “snowy” and “neckdown.” In case you’re not a transportation wonk, “neckdown” refers to a sidewalk extension installed at a crosswalk, which gives pedestrians a shorter distance to traverse and naturally calms car traffic.
Way back in 2006, New York–based Clarence Eckerson of Streetfilms shot a video showing how heavy snowfall creates natural neckdowns, as plows push snow to the curb and cars take only the space that they need — leaving the untouched snow to mark the space that maybe isn’t all necessary for cars. He expanded on the concept in another film in 2011.
Then, this winter, thanks to frequent heavy snowfalls across most of the country, Eckerson and a few like-minded people started talking about the concept again. They decided that they needed a catchy name for the snowy neckdowns in order to help spread the concept on social media. Soon enough, a hashtag was born.
In the first few weeks of 2014, according to Eckerson, the concept quickly gained ground, prompting articles from dozens of outlets as far-flung as the BBC. Bloggers in Philadelphia and Vancouver, among other places, started pointing out sneckdowns in their own streets and discussing what they reveal about usage patterns.
This isn’t a new idea. Dan Burden, director of the Walkable and Livable Communities Institute, says he has been using traffic patterns in snow to teach basic street engineering concepts since the 1990s. In places with no snow, he says, astute street designers sometimes get even more creative.
“A really good engineering friend of mine was from Australia,” says Burden. “He said, 'Dan, when we really want to figure out how to improve a road, we will throw down cake flour in an intersection and then wait an hour and get up high and photograph it.'” Other Australian engineers have used the oil stains left by vehicles to glean the same information, Burden says. “I call something like that highway forensics.”
The next step after the initial patterns are documented, according to Burden, is to put out traffic cones where the lines fall and see how motorists handle that. After those observations are incorporated, you can start making more permanent changes, which can benefit pedestrians without conflicting with the natural tendencies of responsible drivers.
But Burden says that far too often in the United States, road designers go by books of standards rather than looking carefully at the way humans use roads and streets, and end up over-designing streets to accommodate the most extreme and dangerous motorist behavior. “They don’t observe. They open their books," he says. "And because they’re not observing, they become very bad designers. A huge amount of bad design I find at intersections is that the engineers never went out and made the observations.”
Then, once the asphalt has been poured and smoothed, they walk away without ever following up to see how people use the new design. “It’s one of the saddest things,” says Burden. “What if a doctor just kept doing operations and never followed up to see if the patient survives? I don’t think you’d want to go to that doctor.”
Eckerson wants people to use snow, which he's called “nature’s tracing paper,” along with their own powers of observation to advocate for better, safer streets in their own neighborhoods. He says the coinage of the curious term “sneckdown” was a critical factor in getting thousands more people to watch the videos he had shot years ago and use this winter's heavy snows as an opportunity to go out and document conditions in their own cities and towns. “The hashtag got people curious to find out what it was,” he writes in an email. “To me it almost sounds Muppet-like.”
People are definitely picking up on the idea. On Twitter, folks have posted dozens of sneckdown pictures from cities including Seattle; Madison, Wisconsin; and Chicago. On Monday, with snow in the forecast for the southern United States once again, the official Twitter account for the office of transportation planning in Raleigh, North Carolina, urged residents: “Since we know the snow is coming, send us your pictures of wasted space at intersections in Raleigh.” That prompted Patrick McDonough, who blogs about North Carolina streets at the City Beautiful 21 to write, “#Sneckdown planning in #Raleigh; Hope #Durham joins in!” It's a teachable moment that any Muppet would love.