Saturday, 3 March 2018

It's Snow Joke: Redux

I didn't think I would be revisiting snow again so soon after my blog in December last year, but this week's weather cannot pass without comment.

December's post was about "winter service" (gritting to most people), but this week, I'm going to broaden the discussion as there are other issues to think about and learn from.

The first thing to note was that it is hard to forecast snow accurately and so this in turn makes it hard for transport operators to decide whether to put contingency plans into place. On Monday evening, I was catching a train and the announcements were that trains would be stopping earlier than normal because Network Rail needed to run more deicing trains. In the event, Tuesday was snow-free, although cold and the forecast for Wednesday was snow-free.

So on Wednesday, I woke up to snow! Given the amount I go on about cycling, I had to get to work under my own power. I had slipped off my bike on black ice just before Christmas and so I elected to switch to 3-wheels and it was an absolute joy because the morning was clear and sunny with my usual journey not being much slower than normal.

Having two front wheels made for excellent stability and the fresh snow provided no issues with grip. Of course, I had to release the inner geek as I went through a modal filter which, despite the snow, was perfectly legible to use and fully accessible to the tricycle.

Going home was a little more challenging (more of it uphill) and half-way back, I copped the full force of the easterly wind which was driving snow straight at me.

Nonetheless, it wasn't too bad and so I was happy to give it another go on Thursday. Conditions along the shared path I use for part of the journey were a little better as some treatment had taken place, although the on-road cycle lanes were half-covered and I had to move out further than I normally would.

Going home, it was another easterly wind and the low temperatures started to freeze the trike, so progress so slow. For the last 400m, I pushed it up the hill and resigned to getting the bus to work on Friday.

On Friday morning, I put on my walking boots and went to the bus stop which luckily for me, is just around the corner.

As is always the case, the main road was perfectly clear, but the path to the bus stop hadn't seen any treatment. The bus journey was straight-forward because it is direct and on main roads. Because the roads were quiet (snow and the usual Friday pattern) the bus driver had to wait at a couple of stops to let the timetable catch up!

While perhaps not the most impressive examples, I managed to get a couple of "sneckdown" photos on Friday which show that traffic doesn't quite need all the space the designers provide.

A bit more snow on Friday afternoon topped up the untreated side streets.

And as I got home from 3 days of (not that difficult) snow commuting, I hoped that come Monday, the promised thaw would get me back on my usual bike.

As I write this on Saturday morning, the snow here in London is melting away, but other parts of the country are still in its icy grip. As far as transport is concerned, we're seeing stories of people trapped on trains and on motorways for hours, airport disruption and the usual nonsense about the country being unprepared for a relatively rare event.

What we don't hear are the stories from people who have been trapped for several days at home because they are terrified to walk on frozen footways or the snow means they cannot use their mobility scooters, wheelchairs and indeed their cycles as mobility aids. Gritted bus stops are no use if the walking routes to them aren't clear and untreated cycleways aren't going to move significant numbers of people (yes, there is a cycle track under the snow in the photo below).

The sneckdown photos are great, but they also rely on the fact that far fewer people are driving and so as well as showing the space which could be released, they indirectly show us that we need traffic reduction to release the space (and my bus journey shows how things are set up expecting congestion). For those who were out and about travelling actively, the reduction in traffic and the quietness of the streets was noticeable.

Main routes are rightly treated because at the core, we still want to be able to keep buses, emergency services and other vehicle-based public services running. But core walking and cycling routes tend to be treated highly variably and so unless one drives or can get a bus, then for many, local journeys are difficult or impossible.

The people stuck on trains and motorways show the fragility (to a certain extent) of our longer-distance networks which have enabled some to live a long way from work (or where people are priced out of cities) and how when there is a shift in the weather, the whole system can break down. Thankfully, for most of the UK this is pretty rare and so apart from the places which usually get snow, it's pointless keeping huge resources on standby, although there probably isn't the money for local authorities given the continued cuts to funding.

Over the few days, we'll see the thaw spread and some communities will be at risk from flooding, we'll also see a fair bit of surface and structural failure on our highways because of freeze-thaw action from the low temperatures and again, this will disproportionately affect those walking, cycling and using mobility aids.

So, while there has been plenty of fun in the snow, it has cast transport inequality into sharp relief and that's something we should all think about.


  1. Dear Ranty Highwayman

    Have just read your latest snow blog. I am relatively new to looking at your blogs regularly. But as a pedestrian campaigner, I find them wonderfully informative and helpful.

    And I particularly admire the mix of huge expertise and good values you bring to bear. Of course, by 'good values', I mean I agree (!!) with your commitment to social justice and the legitimacy of all 'co-users' of our streets -- pedestrians, cyclists, shoppers, commuters using buses and other public transport, as well as the drivers of vehicles (especially those who, to do their daily work, still need to drive).

    Please keep up your good work.

    Robert Molteno

    1. Hi Robert. Thank you for your kind words, they're the kind of thing that makes me want to keep on writing!

  2. I'd like to second Robert's comments above!

    I'll also add my admiration for you and anyone else brave enough to cycle through last week's snow.

    I only rode to work on Tuesday, before it got too thick and heavy. After that, though the main roads were reasonably clear fairly quickly, I knew the road narrowing caused by the snow and ice would lead to some very unpleasant riding conditions.

    Experience tells me many people driving cars won't adjust their driving style to the conditions and that cycling on the drier/clear line on the road, therefore, leads to more dangerous overtaking, with less escape room for me to move into.

    Please keep up the excellent writing!


    1. Well, in truth the snow wasn't too bad here, but because it didn't really get cleared from my cycle route I had to give up. The first morning really was a joy though!