Snow days

Monday I rode my bike to work. Cold, but no problems.

Tuesday was when the big blizzard was supposed to roll in, so I took the bus. At work, they decided to send everyone home early. We hit the street at 3, and most other offices downtown seem to have decided the same thing. It had been snowing lightly since about noon, but as I waited for the bus I could tell the snow was coming down more heavily, and the wind was picking up. The bus was packed, traffic was slow, and as it turned south on Michigan Avenue, I could see people struggling in the wind. Once on Lake Shore Drive (it was an express bus heading south) I could see how slowly traffic was moving in both directions. Visibility was very bad, just a few car lengths ahead. We crawled. My bike commute is usually about 40 minutes. This “express” trip took an hour.

While I waited for the bus, I counted the number of people in the cars that went by. Overwhelmingly, one person per car.

Wednesday I stayed home. After the storm petered out, I shoveled our walks and then helped neighbors dig out part of the alley. There were three of us with shovels, two with snow blowers. After 4 1/2 hours, my wife came out and asked me why I was still there, since we don’t have a car. Good question, but I was being neighborly. There were chest-high drifts across the alley, and some nearly that high across the sidewalk. When I shoveled it, I was struck by the quiet: no cars, no jets, just the sound of children up the street laughing and squealing, a few shovel sounds, one snowblower a block away.

Thursday I took the bus. Lake Shore Drive was still closed, so the bus went through the neighborhood (47th to King Drive, Cermak to Michigan, Balbo to State). It was slow. Although the streets had been cleared, they were about half their usual width, with huge piles of snow alongside. Side streets were mostly unplowed. Thursday night while waiting for the bus I counted again: Almost every car I saw had two or more people inside. Extremely rare. Bus got on Lake Shore Drive (now open) and, with traffic relatively light, made good time to 47th Street.

This morning traffic was heavy and slow on the drive, and the car/passenger ratio was back to normal: Most of the cars — including big SUVs — had one person. Rush hour, and my bus wasn’t full.

So as I listen to the complaints about Lake Shore Drive and the people trapped on it Tuesday night, I find it hard to blame the city. It’s a consequence of attitudes, and policies, about cars. For 100 years we’ve devoted land, resources, energy to the private automobile at the expense of almost every other form of transportation. Do we teach bike safety, pedestrian safety, anything about public transportation in our schools? No, we teach driver’s ed. The de facto national ID card is the driver’s license. Highways carve up and divide our cities, walling off parks and neighborhoods.

I feel badly for the people who were trapped, and I’m glad no one was hurt. I know plenty of those people left work early, too, trying to beat the storm. But whatever energy we put into figuring out what went wrong that night should be matched by figuring out how to get more people out of their cars and onto trains and buses. And bicycles. I saw cyclists as I waited Tuesday night in the snow, and I saw them Thursday morning from the bus. I’m sure they suffered as much as any motorist or pedestrian as the snow got worse and the roads impassable, but there they were anyway.

And now the loudest complaints are coming from people whose side streets haven’t been plowed yet. A plow made it down my street yesterday, but the only way you can tell is by the snow thrown up against the trapped cars. It’s still a mess. And those piles of snow block the sidewalks, so even the sections my neighbor and I shoveled are inaccessible. People have to walk in the street. And yet our public policy is that the city clears the street, individuals are responsible for the sidewalks. This is what we pay for.

There are parts of the country, parts of the city even, where it’s hard to get around without a car. That’s the world we’ve built. But we don’t have to keep building it that way and we don’t have to keep looking at it from behind the wheel. Yes, let’s figure out how to get people off Lake Shore Drive. But let’s also figure out how to keep them away from it in the first place. There are other ways to get around.

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