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Stop Salting City Streets

Bird seed instead of salt? Hmm, maybe.
EcoRI News made an interesting recommendation recently: people should stop salting their sidewalks, and use sand and birdseed to create traction for walking instead. One has to only think of the destruction of Carthage to recall quickly how much of an environmental stress salt can create when it is applied in large amounts. The RI DEM recently asked communities to avoid putting removed snow near waterways, for instance, because the combined effect of salt and car effluents in the removed snow is extremely toxic to the water system when it hits all at once.

I tried the birdseed method out on my own sidewalk. It does help a bit with traction, although it's definitely a downgrade from a complete cleared walkway. I also like the aesthetic quality of the seeds, and it appears that the darker color actually helps melt uneven speckles in the ice much the way that salt does. The jury is still out for me as to whether I think it should completely replace salt on sidewalks.

A City of Central Falls-owned bus stop Thursday. 
By Friday afternoon, the city had apparently cleared the 
bus shelter itself at my request, but the sidewalk was still 
blocked. Note that the street is bare asphalt though.
One thing is certain though. We should stop salting streets whose speed limit is set at 25 mph or lower. It's important for us to remove the majority of snow in order to keep the utility of our streets, but having some snow is actually a blessing to safety.

hashtag, created by Jef Nickerson of Greater City Providence, has captured some of the experience of being a pedestrian in our city during these snowy times. When property owners don't shovel their walkways, or when RIDOT or the city haphazardly drop huge snow drifts onto sidewalks, pedestrians are forced out into the street.

What I've noticed over the past several days is that so long as the street is covered with a half-inch or so of snow, vehicles go at or below the speed limit, but have smooth traffic-flow. At the earliest stages, this looks like what I've dubbed a "sneet" or "snow street" which has been returned effectively to pedestrians by its conditions. But even as driving conditions get good enough to allow vehicles relatively normalized access, the snow cover that remains changes their behavior. I would estimate the average speed during these times to have been 15-20 mph, with the fastest cars I've observed pushing to 25 mph. Your head really turns for the person who is driving at the full speed limit during a snow storm, but if you're a traffic nerd you actually know that you're relatively safe around that person, as compared to if there was no snow on the ground. The existence of pedestrians in our overly wide streets has not impeded the flow of traffic, but has caused drivers to pay more attention, and to drive at reasonable speeds. 

Thayer "Sneet" 
Since salt has been better applied to the streets, the asphalt is now completely visible, and drivers have to experience of being able to forget entirely that there even was a storm. Speeds have gone up. The average speed on my front street is now back to its normal level, which hovers around 30 mph. On Hope Street, the speeds range between 30-35 for most drivers. The important thing to remember about this is that the drivers themselves are not being actively inconsiderate, but are just responding to environmental cues. It feels safe to go 35 on Hope Street, and going 25 mph feels incredibly slow. Doing 15-20 mph, which would be the ideal speed for a pedestrian environment, feels totally inappropriate to most drivers, even though there's clear data to show that a street that is reduced to those lower speeds can lose its signals, and thus move traffic more quickly.

A family tries to cross Broad Street because of
uncleared #CFsidewalks Friday.
We're very cognizant of the danger of slipping on ice, but the truth is that even if a driver hits ice and slips off the road at 15-20 mph, the chances of him/her seriously injuring or killing a pedestrian are small: at 20 mph, the estimate is a 10% or below mortality. By 30-35 mph, the serious injury/mortality rate for pedestrians jumps exponentially higher, to around 40%. The stray driver who speeds to 40 mph on clear streets carries a 90% chance of killing any person they may hit, while that same driver pushing it to 25 mph in the snowy conditions may have left their victim relatively unharmed.

The real danger to pedestrians from the clearance of streets comes from not only the fact that perfectly clear streets induce speeding, but also the known fact that sidewalks remain imperfectly cleared. So long as one or two houses or businesses along a route have blocked access, pedestrians will be forced into the road. This is no big deal during the sneet phase, and is tolerable after half-normal conditions return, but by the time salt has hit the ground and the street is bare pavement, all bets are off.

Streets are much wider than sidewalks. Applying salt to streets costs a lot of money. A WPRI estimate cited that one-third to two-thirds of the RIDOT winter budget goes to salt. Municipalities have their own budgets for snow clearance in addition to that. Providence's budget for plowing and salting last year was $1.8 million, and like many communities, it faced shortfalls due to heavy snowfall. While higher speed regional routes account for a portion of this spending, eliminating our salt usage on local streets would save taxpayers money.

I spoke to Central Falls officials on Thursday after my tweets brought them quickly to the street to discuss the sidewalk conditions. I was impressed with their initial response time but disappointed at their level of commitment to fixing the situation. The officials, I believe, want the best thing, but their overall message was that getting sidewalks right is hard, and that they have higher priorities given a serious snowfall. Realigning our expectations for street clearance quality would change this conversation.

The conclusions I'm drawing are not meant to be applied to higher speed, long distance roads like I-95. A road that is designed to move traffic very fast over long distances has totally different qualities than a city street. We should adjust our expectations in the center of towns and cities. The sense of unease we have at snowy streets is the very thing that might keep us safe.


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