Snow Demands Urbanism

As my hometown of Ottawa, Ontario, Canada lurches dramatically into the coldest chunk of winter for several years and I prepare for some balmy foreign travel, it is difficult to avoid thinking about how much more pleasant my existence in this snow-choked city could be. Winter often brings critics of urbanism smug satisfaction, as they look down at us mere transit users from their heated vehicles that migrate from sealed garage to sealed garage. They watch us trudge through snow or sigh in defeat when paths are blocked, often by snow cleared for cars’ benefit in nearby areas, and imagine that this imbalance is a fact of nature. Well, very little about our relationship with automobiles is a fact of nature. Contrary to their privileged imagination, it is not the dashboard vents delivering slightly burnt-smelling warmth to frozen hands on steering wheels that make winter so much easier for them. Cities are systems that reflect the forces shaping them and past the most basic physical realities, every factor that makes winter feel like motorist territory that has trapped the rest of us until spring is the result of human decisions. And different decisions could have been and could still be made.

I Desire Paths

Snowplows are one of the most critical pieces of winter infrastructure and the people who operate them do not get nearly the credit that they deserve. Driving a snowplow is hard, thankless work with hours that complicate social relationships and sizable business expenses, especially for people who keep intercity routes clear. The arrival of the plows turns impassable oceans of gleaming crystals into usable paths that let a city keep living through the long dark night.

Unless it doesn’t.

Most cities have very different standards for when and how well to plow different sorts of paths. Major highways and arterials are kept comparatively immaculate, smaller streets are left to suffer for longer, and driveways and parking lots are the province of individual landowners. Rail lines usually have dedicated snow removal tools, such as separate plow vehicles or attachments for existing trains, that keep them comparatively safe from snow-related delays. Everything else, however, is often far less attended. Snow that falls on lawns and other passable terrain is left in place, rapidly removing that terrain from travel possibilities. Sidewalks often keep a layer of snow that would be unacceptable on roads even when plowed and deal with snow dumped in them by road plows, occasionally driving desperate pedestrians with strollers or grocery carts into the street exactly when drivers are most likely to lose control of their vehicles and injure them. Bicycle paths in North America, which struggle to even exist in most places at most times, are treated as recreational rather than transport infrastructure and often neglected entirely during winter or used as sites for parking snowbanks. Curbside snowbanks block access to bus doors, forcing bus users to walk in the street to access buses or crowd through the remaining doors, slowing the whole system precisely when the weather is already doing that for other reasons.

It is not difficult to see which infrastructure a city thinks is non-negotiable and which can be neglected. In winter, even more than the rest of the year, North American cities make very clear that they don’t think the people who use non-car modes of travel actually matter. Everything, right down to the mounds of slippery ice (and then mud!) at the base of pedestrian beg buttons that are entirely too far from the paths they activate, placed there by snowplows and menacing the ankles of the very foot-travelers those plows think they are helping, tells us very clearly that motorists get to say “our city” with far more conviction than we do.

Snow has one other interesting consequence for those outside of cars. Much more so than in other times of year, the snowy time makes desire paths obvious. It is easy to spot the footprints and places where snowbanks have been compressed or had holes kicked in them to facilitate pedestrian movement, and these are especially obvious when they are far from designated crossings. Every one of these is somewhere that is natural and obvious for people to use as a path to a destination and that the city has failed to make safe and easy for this purpose.

A city that aims to demonstrate with its actions that it thinks pedestrians, cyclists, and transit users, to say nothing of the unhoused, are people, can start by treating their paths as the same level of critical, non-negotiable infrastructure that it does paths used by motorists. The obstacle for winter cycling is safe, accessible paths that remain so in winter, as demonstrated by snowy cities like Oulu, Finland that maintain thriving hibernal bicycle cultures. Transit use is as miserable as it is in winter in part because snow removal patterns make buses themselves more difficult to for their drivers to operate and their patrons to enter and exit, as well as the slippery mess that awaits many transit users once they exit their buses and have to walk the rest of the way to their destinations. These problems are all solvable, better cities have already solved them, and solving them here is a matter of the right people deciding that they are to be solved.

Cellar Door

The other sticking point for winter is cold. Cold is what makes winter what it is and there is only so much that bundling up can do when temperatures get so low that frost forms on people’s eyelashes. Waiting for transit in the cold is universally acknowledged as a dreadful experience and one I have the dubious pleasure of experiencing far too often. That fact makes it all the more baffling how many transit systems double- and triple-down on making their users wait in the cold. Looking at North American train and bus stations, one gets the sense that transit planners think a stint in the bracing sub-zero wind between vehicles is a necessary penance to make the lowly transit riders appreciate that their networks exist at all. It does not have to be this way.

Far too many North American bus stops are literally just signs without so much as a posted schedule, let alone a shelter. Even when shelters are present, they are often designed to let the elements in to make sure they’re just hostile enough to unhoused people to keep them from sleeping there. In Ottawa, they are often made of glass that frequently shatters due to vandalism, automobile collisions, and snowbanks getting heaped on them until they break. Even when an intact shelter is present, bus drivers often do not stop for people inside a shelter and getting their attention requires a person to stand outside it, defeating their purpose. Bus shelters end up being a backstop against unpleasantly long connection times, usable mainly when a person is sure their bus isn’t coming soon, which is an utterly perverse reality that transit systems deliberately create.

Stock photo of a bus stop in the snow showing a bench within three glass walls.
This is an unusually nice bus stop by North American standards and a pretty dismal one for most of Europe.

What’s most shocking is that passenger rail networks routinely replicate this problem on an even grander scale. The most modern passenger rail networks have an innovation almost unheard-of in North America: platform-screen doors. A train station equipped with platform-screen doors has a platform physically separated from the space the trains inhabit, with doors on the platform that align with doors on the trains much like the dual doors of an elevator. These were invented to prevent unauthorized access to the tracks and provide an immediate safety improvement when installed, but they also enable a transit platform to be completely enclosed and sealed against the elements. With such an enclosure in place, a train platform is literally indoors and can be climate-controlled along with the rest of a station structure, sparing transit users the indignity of shivering on an exposed platform while they wait for their vehicles. Using these well requires modern train control and signaling systems to make sure trains consistently align with station doors, and the improved experience for everyone involved makes the upgrade worth every cent.

Platform-screen doors and enclosed platforms are vanishingly rare in North America, even in snowy places. Canada’s intercity heavy rail service, VIA Rail, has huge platforms with no such amenities, forcing travelers to endure a cold shock whenever they enter or exit trains in winter. Ottawa’s nascent metro is often swamped in slush or drenched in rain from partially roofed platforms seemingly designed to make sure patrons never get too comfortable with their ability to maneuver away from precipitation. Across North America, this innovation seems restricted to airport people-movers and the occasional newer network such as Montréal’s incipient suburban rail system, and that fact is tragic when so much of this continent is annually snowbound.

A train platform in Barcelona with platform-screen doors completely sealing off the train tunnel.
Platform-screen doors completely enclosing a train platform in Barcelona, Spain.

The elephant in this particular room is transit frequency. For rail and bus journeys alike, more frequent transit means less time spent waiting for vehicles, and when waiting means icy wind and feeling one’s hands go numb, that counts for even more than it does in summer. High, consistent frequency is critical for building a transfer-based network in which people are comfortable switching between buses, metro lines, and other travel modes. Especially when being outdoors is as unpleasant as it can be in winter, having to spend 20 or more minutes in the middle of one’s journey waiting for the vehicle that will complete it is galling…especially when that wait, often, does not have so much as a glass bus shelter to make it more bearable.

Motor No

Few people can truly say they enjoy driving in winter. Even well-plowed roads can be icy, visibility is often poor, and winter is notorious for shredding roads into pothole obstacle courses wherever a city has failed to prioritize road maintenance. Winter tests the skills of all but the most competent and aware drivers. In a world where the relative handful of people who consistently switch to winter tires on time and know how to slide safely around an icy curve must endure roads choked with everyone else, getting people who cannot handle winter driving off the road and into public transit vehicles should be a universal desire. When many winter drivers would rather not be driving and when other winter drivers also want those people to not be driving, incentives have aligned in an improbably perfect way. Telling reluctant drivers that they don’t have to do this anymore should be an easy pitch for a city to make for its residents. A functioning public transit and bicycle network with an urban layout to support it would take enormous numbers of motor vehicles off the street, biased heavily toward people whose lack of skill and enthusiasm for driving actively makes the road experience worse for everyone. This results in everyone having a better time getting where they are going precisely when most people would rather not be outside at all.

American-style urban planning has conspired otherwise. Car-centric urban layouts force people to drive long distances year-round and are fought for tooth and nail for a variety of selfish, contrived, and short-sighted reasons. For too many in too many places, driving is not optional, regardless of a person’s skill or comfort with the task, because the alternative is never getting anywhere on time. Many urban areas are functionally impassable badlands without a car and become even more so in winter. People who would rather not be and absolutely should not be driving fill roads with jittery, slow, and outright incompetent drivers in vehicles that have not been properly maintained because, in a world that neither funds a livable existence for most of its residents nor provides other options for getting around, they have no other choice. Car-centric urban planning is why bad drivers exist, and winter is when this is often felt most acutely.

It does not have to be this way. Urban planning is power and that power can be wielded better than it has been in North America. We can make our cities more liveable for people who are not currently inside of automobiles. We can give people who are not comfortable behind the wheel of a car other ways to get where they are going, and make cities better for everyone, including motorists, in so doing. We already know how.

And it starts with cities not assuming that winter belongs to the car.

Snow Demands Urbanism