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Archive for January 5th, 2010

Notes from a Cold Country

Ian Sacs on the Finns’ approach to snow on streets:

Very snowy holiday greetings from Finland, everyone! While here visiting my in-laws and friends, I wanted to take a quick moment and share an interesting observation about the way Finns handle the incessant layers of snow that blanket their chilly winter country. It seems that aside from limited access highways and some primary arterials, the Finnish standard for snow treatment is to plow to a reasonable depth, but not worry too much about an inch or two of snow base layer covering streets. Some streets get sand treatment as well, but salt is used very, very sparingly.

The result? Careful, responsible, sensible, slow moving traffic that does not take any chances – even on exit ramps! As we all know, the problem with salting is that it is a relentless maintenance effort and results in tons of unwanted salts polluting our waterways. Also, driver expectations for clean, black streets opens the door for many accidents in weather hovering near freezing where seemingly clear streets are covered with so-called “black ice”, unbeknownst to drivers traveling at merely wet (as opposed to frozen) street speeds. This can be confusing and dangerous. With black streets, the message is unclear and covers too broad a set of conditions to always expect drivers to travel at frozen street speeds. With white, snow covered streets, the message is unquestionably clear: Drive Slow! I have been happily observing on my various trips on buses, trams, and in cars here in Helsinki and other regional cities how this likely unintended side-effect of a more practical and environmentally friendly approach to winter roadway maintenance works so well, and offers a beautiful white street to boot!

As promising as this seems, I am of course skeptical about such a policy stateside. As is the case when we attempt to implement other sensible transportation measures from Europe, we often run into the wall of the polar oppisite legal framework whereby in Europe, the onus is on the individual to take proper care in any enviroment, whereas in the States, it´s always someone else’s fault. Alas!

I wonder if that “base layer” has any effect on gas/oil accumulating on streets, which as work by Harvard’s Daniel Eisenberg has shown, is the real source of increased danger — the first day of precipitation after a dry spell. Any DOT workers just back from plowing care to weigh in on the Finnish approach?

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Posted on Tuesday, January 5th, 2010 at 8:45 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
8 Comments. Click here to leave a comment.
Traffic Tom Vanderbilt

How We Drive is the companion blog to Tom Vanderbilt’s New York Times bestselling book, Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us), published by Alfred A. Knopf in the U.S. and Canada, Penguin in the U.K, and in languages other than English by a number of other fine publishers worldwide.

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