Slim Streets with Sneckdowns: We Could Reduce Road Infrastructure Wherever the Snow Sticks


Every winter snowfall gives a golden opportunity to see how our city infrastructure gets used (and when it doesn’t).  Sneckdown spotting shows us areas of roadway both small and large that no one is driving on.  All that asphalt comes at a cost, so maybe we should think about reclaiming that public space for other purposes.  Let us tell you why.

Road Infrastructure: We Have SO MUCH of it (and can’t take care of it properly)

google search: chicago pothole mosaic

Anyone who lives in Chicago is well aware, we have a problem with road maintenance.  Pot holes are rife, making streets unpleasant and sometimes unsafe despite your mode of transportation.  Drains are blocked and the sidewalk cuts fill with puddles when it rains or thaws.  Days like today can be an icy wet mess.  We’re not trying to cast blame on Chicago, specifically, here.  We have a lot of roadway to maintain; the City of Chicago estimates 4,000 miles of streets and 1,900 of alleys.

To get some perspective: with 5,900 miles of road you could drive to Madison, Wisconsin … by way of New York, Miami, LA and Seattle.  That’s a lot of road.

Maintaining that is a full time job for CDOT and they keep at it (an estimated 1000 miles of road repaved since 2011) but this is a never ending and truly thankless task.  And it is not only Chicago – this is a problem in every city and town in the USA – we have a lot of infrastructure and not a lot of resources are devoted to keeping it up to snuff.

America’s Under-Appreciated Infrastructure

One of our office’s favorite TV shows is John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight.  It is generally a brilliant (and consistenly informative) weekly dose of under-reported issues and current events.  Coincidentally, last Sunday’s feature topic was Infrastructure.  As Oliver pointed out, we love to watch American bridges, dams and towers be decimated by aliens, terrorists and oversized gorillas on the silver screen.  Less dramatic but much more dangerous, however, are the big chunks of our infrastructure will simply get old and fail (from pot holes in city streets to fully collapsed interstate highway bridges).  The whole feature is well worth watching.  If you don’t have 20 minutes for the whole segment skip to 17:45 for the punch line.

In a hilarious (to architects) attempt to generate more excitement around the issue the Last Week Tonight team produced this movie trailer dramatizing the intensity, and importance, of … routine maintenance and repair.  You can also find it here.

Sneckdowns (or) What does this have to do with snow?

As last year’s flurry of #Sneckdown Spotting demonstrated, every winter snow fall shows us big chunks of street that are going un (or under) used by regular car traffic.  Moss joined in the fun last year seeking out opportunities to reclaim chunks of street with our post on Sneckdowns.

Here’s a quick refresher:

Sneckdown: (noun) a “snowy neckdown” or curb extension; any place where snow remains on paved streets for hours or days after a snow fall showing areas where cars don’t actually drive; coined in a tweet last January by Streetsblog founder Aaron Naparstek.

Here are a few examples from my morning commute through Lakeview last week.  At Clark and Wellington the right hand turn area hugs the paved curb but left hand turns from Clark onto (one way) Wellington swing nearly a lane out from the curve.  Does that area need to be paved?

sneckdown chicago clark and wellington

Its even more obvious once you get off arterial streets and into neighborhoods.  Any intersection of one way streets (Chicago’s got lots of these) means that two of four corners could be pushed another 12′ into the roadway without obstructing any traffic.  In fact it would help clue unfamiliar drivers into the one-way nature of the street.  Here’s an example of that at Eddy and Lakewood.

sneckdown chicago lakewood and eddy

Once you start looking, you’ll see them everywhere, little islands in the middle of busy intersections (future pedestrian refuges), corners extended and curbs bumped out parallel with adjacent parked cars.  Each time makes you wonder – does that area need to be paved?

Sneckdowns sightings and commentary are not an attack on cars – they don’t try to remove roadway or restrict existing traffic – they just point out areas of paved street that aren’t getting used.

The fact is, that a lot of street policy is still guided by out dated attitudes to planning.  Highway engineers of early 20th century were just getting really excited about how fast cars could go and they stamped their Bigger and Straighter is Better attitude all over this country’s cities and towns. The result is a nation full of streets that are always as wide as their most crowded moment, instead of adjusting for differing traffic conditions.

Our streets are oriented for the maximum convenience of a car rather than the PERSON who might be driving one, or who might have just parked it and is now trying to cross the street.

Why we could use a little less street in our streets

Streets are great.  We all use them daily to get from home to work and fun.  However, every square foot of paved roadway in Chicago, and elsewhere, needs to be regularly maintained and occasionally replaced. Plus, as we have mentioned in the past:

So, why not use this winter (and every winter) to look for ways to eliminate wasted road?  We can make the city safer, cooler and less full of icky puddles by removing paving where its not needed.  The evidence is all around us.  Chicago, take note!