More questions were asked than answered at this morning’s public oversight hearing on the District’s response to the recent “snow events” (i.e. back-to-back blizzards in February.) The hearing, held in the John A. Wilson Building, was led by Councilmember Jim Graham, who was joined by an official panel of D.C. councilmembers, who tried to understand the successes and failures of the District Department of Transportation’s snow removal efforts.
Which neighborhoods got the best and worst treatment? How effectively did DDOT document what was cleared and what wasn’t? How should the city have engaged with residents to coordinate more volunteer shoveling efforts? To what degree was sidewalk accessibility a part of the city’s snow removal plan? How should DDOT train its front line personnel, in case of another snow emergency? Who’s responsible for clearing sidewalks and bus stops?
These and other questions were still largely unresolved by the end of the meeting and will continue to receive feedback from city leaders and their constituents over a planned series of hearings that will occur over the next several weeks.
The one question that wasn’t asked — but should have been — is about the bigger picture: Did the city learn anything about how it should prioritize pedestrians and transit users when we’re NOT in a snowstorm? It’s great to come up with a more robust emergency response policy — a contingency plan — in the event we get hit with another blizzard, but it would be even better to use the recent “snowmaggedon” experience to identify weaknesses and propose solutions related to the city’s transportation and urban planning decisions, as a whole.
DDOT Director Gabe Klein and Department of Public Works Director Bill Howland gave their testimony in front of about 25 people who attended the hearing. To a large degree, they asserted, the District was successful in responding to the snowstorms, but at the same time, the conditions were hard to measure because there is no clear standard for dealing with 40 to 50 inches of snow. (Klein expressed confidence in dealing with up to 18 inches of the white stuff.) In response, Councilmember Graham said he would like the Council to consider a new set of standards that will hopefully manage the expectations — and thus quell the frustration and anger — of many local residents who faced problems during the region’s unprecedented snowfall.
Besides generating negative feelings and causing a lot of confusion, the snowstorm also placed a huge drain on the city’s finances. Klein, who is “still tallying” the numbers, said the city had already exceeded the $6.2 million budget for snow removal before the historic storms even hit, so he anticipates significant costs over budget.
DON’T BLAME THE MESSENGER
One of the biggest problems that fed many snow-related frustrations — from figuring out which buses were running to coordinating volunteer shoveling activities — was a lack of communication, both between different municipal departments and among local residents.
“Having a lot of volunteers and effectively organizing them are two different things,” Graham said, providing one example of how a communication breakdown prevented successful community-wide engagement. “The city should have a plan.”
But of course, a plan is worthless without a way to broadcast it to everyone. Councilmember Mary Cheh recommended the “use of listservs or some other vehicle.” Councilmember Graham admitted that he sent a direct e-mail to Gabe Klein himself, alerting him to an uncleared section of Livingstone Road. Klein, who has worked hard to improve DDOT’s communications strategy, gave special shout-outs to Twitter and Facebook during his testimony — hopefully, it’s a sign that DDOT will continue to take advantage of social media to get the word out about its plans. Consistent and direct communication would ease the worries of many residents who aren’t sure whether or not “help is on the way,” as Cheh said, and it would also help city agencies keep track of its own priorities.
As we mentioned in a previous post, many snow removal efforts were organized at the grassroots level, often through collaborative online tools, like SeeClickFix (whose maps are embedded across TheCityFix local blogs). During his public testimony, David Alpert, the founder of Greater Greater Washingon, highlighted some of his own efforts to organize volunteer outings to clear the snow in neighborhoods like Columbia Heights, Foggy Bottom and Georgetown, as well as on roads like Connecticut Avenue. But, he added, city officials should not just rely on residents but, instead, have a plan of their own.
BOGGED DOWN BY DETAILS
This morning’s hearing also made it clear that there’s a lot of complexity in snow removal. “It’s very technical,” Klein said.
There’s the question of whether to use salt or beet brine to melt snow (who knew the root vegetable was so powerful). Then there’s all that equipment: Bobcats, front-end loaders, plows, tractors… There’s the management of a GPS-based Snow Response Reporting System. And then there’s the thorny issue of who owns what sidewalk/street/bus stop, and who’s responsible for keeping it safe and clear? Is it DDOT? DPW? NPS? DCRA? WMATA? Clear Channel? Who should be the District’s Snow Commander-in-Chief? (This year, it was Robert Marsili.) To which “Snow University” should we send city personnel to get trained on snow clearance? What snow “simulator” should we buy? What’s the best snow melting machine on the market right now?
When you consider that a 50-inch snowfall is hard to come by, it seems like overkill (…”snoverkill?”) to invest too much effort in determining the best technology to choose. There are faster, low-cost solutions, like revising regulations to make sure cars only park on one side of the street in certain neighborhoods during a snow emergency, as proposed by Councilmember Muriel Bowser. Or hiring unemployed people (or underutilized city staff) to help clear giant snow dams blocking sidewalks, curbs and intersections, as proposed by Councilmember Cheh.
KEEPING PEDESTRIANS IN MIND
The general public was invited to give testimony following the Councilmembers’ discussions and comments. Cheryle Adams, a pedestrian safety advocate, noted that there is a great disparity in the way the city handles pedestrians and automobiles. She said the city should have focused more on deploying small tractors to clear snow from curb cuts and bus stops, rather than just main streets. She said the District snow team should include a strategy for clearing intersections with the highest number of pedestrians, especially during rush hour. And though the snowstorm was an isolated event, it was still indicative of the city’s priorities, Adams said. “During winter snow storms, that’s the greatest test,” she said, referring to pedestrian safety and mobility.
Councilmember Graham agreed and said that DDOT will work to address more pedestrian issues, during its full de-briefing of snow removal efforts. “We’ve spent so much time worrying about how automobiles move, that we’re forgetting how people move on their feet,” he said.
David Alpert from Greater Greater Washington echoed Adams’ sentiments, saying, “It’s vital we have a plan for pedestrian mobility.” Considering half of residents in D.C. commute to work by transportation other than a car, we must ensure pedestrians are safe, he reiterated.