Fast-falling snow can lead to unsafe driving conditions, massive pile-ups, delayed trains, cancelled flights and slippery sidewalks. But advocates for safer streets say the snow can also help illustrate how conditions can be improved. “The snow is almost like nature’s tracing paper,” says Clarence Eckerson Jr, the director of StreetFilms, which documents pedestrian- and cycle-friendly streets across the globe. He says that snow can be helpful in pointing out traffic patterns and changing street composition for the better. “When you dump some snow on this giant grid of streets, now you can see, visually, how people can better use the streets,” he says.
The best example of this is what Eckerson calls a snowy neckdown. Neckdowns, protrusions of pavement that give pedestrians a safe place to stand as they wait to cross the street and make street crossing easier, have long been a tool for traffic planners, says Stefanie Seskin, deputy director of the National Complete Streets Coalition. “It’s a terrible name for a really great concept,” says Seskin, who prefers the name “kerb extenders”. Streets should be designed for everyone who uses them, not just drivers, she says. Neckdowns are one way to help make roads more inclusive. “You extend the pedestrian area into the intersection to make the crossing distance shorter and give a greater level of visibility to people who are driving.” The wider kerbs allow pedestrians to spend less time crossing the street, since the driving lanes are narrower. The neckdowns also force cars to make slower, safer turns into intersections. By discouraging drivers from parking close to a corner, they give motorists a better view of the intersection as they head into a turn. Though popular with those who favour more pedestrian-friendly streets, neckdown critics say they take needed street space away from cars and slow emergency vehicles and cause traffic delays. After a winter storm, snow ploughed to the side of the road creates temporary neckdowns and demonstrates the principle in action. “When that snow piles up at a lot of intersections in neighbourhoods, you see that space where they could put a kerb extension,” says Eckerson. “The cars still can make the turn, including trash trucks and school buses, but you see the slow, more deliberate turn around the corner instead of cutting it.”
Now “snowy neckdowns” have been christened sneckdowns or through the magic of Twitter: #sneckdown
For example, Jon Geeting of This Old City shows how these so-called ‘sneckdowns’ can work after a snowstorm in Philadelphia.