On uncleared streets and expecting better

day after 2017 March blizzard Willett Street

Late Wednesday afternoon -- Willett Street is in there somewhere.

A lot of the post-blizzard talk Wednesday in Albany was about snow plowing -- in some cases, the lack of snow plowing. While the city's main streets were (remarkably) clear by Wednesday, many of the neighborhood side streets were decidedly not.

Here are some thoughts about how the city -- and all us -- might do better next time.

Let people know what's up

The city makes a good effort to get the word out about snow emergencies, pushing notifications along a bunch of different channels -- the media, social media, its website, and the Nixle service (you should sign up for that).

day after 2017 March blizzard Myrtle Ave snow emergency sign
Myrtle Ave near Main.

That said, there's still room for providing residents with updates about snow clearing. The info doesn't have be to where every plow is at every moment (though apparently it's getting easier to do that), but posting regular updates about which streets or neighborhoods have been plowed -- and, more importantly, when the next set of streets can expect to be plowed -- would go some way toward helping people see that there's a plan at work. Sure, people aren't necessarily going to be happy to learn that their street isn't going to get plowed for another four hours -- but knowing that fact is better than wondering if it's going to happen.

And just making it explicit about how everything works can also help. It's pretty clear streets get plowed according to a hierarchy of priority. (As they should.) So publish a color-coded map noting which streets are which. Share it widely. People handle situations better when they know what to expect.

Also: Directly address problem spots. There are some streets around the city that, even by late Wednesday afternoon, were a mess and looked like they had gotten very little attention from plow crews. The people on those streets should be getting some sort of update about what's going on and how the city plans to fix it.

Review -- and be open about it

This blizzard is an unusual event. We just don't get 20some inches of snow in a typical winter storm. It's understandable that the systems and processes in place are going to bend, and maybe even break in a few places under that sort of strain. That's not good a thing, but it happens.

day after 2017 March blizzard Hudson Ave
Hudson Ave on Wednesday afternoon.

So there should be some review after all this is over about what went right and went wrong. Share the results of that review. And if something could have gone better, say so. That might feel hard when politics are involved because of the way criticism is often delivered in that context (less than constructive). But there's strength in admitting you could have done better and then explaining how you intend to do so.

Also: The city should ask for feedback from residents in a systematic way -- maybe that's a survey, maybe it's working with neighborhood associations to gather comments.

Plan for the future

A question for that review: Are there better, more neighborhood-specific ways of approaching snow events? The challenge of clearing snow in a neighborhood such as the South End is a lot of different than, say, clearing snow in the area of upper New Scotland Ave because of the differences in the types of streets and the amount of on-street parking.

An example of the sort of neighborhood-specific problems than can crop up: Telling the residents of a narrow, tightly-parked street in Center Square that they could potentially get ticketed for not moving their car to the alternate side when there's literally a foot of snow standing on their street -- and the snow is still coming down -- just doesn't cut it. (Yep. At least the city reps were friendly about it.)

In that case, maybe there needs to be a set plan for relaxing parking rules ahead of a snow emergency in these sorts of situations. (The city did just that Wednesday morning.)

And we're betting neighborhood residents have other ideas about to make things work more smoothly -- maybe it's about which streets plows should prioritize or closing certain streets to all but local traffic so people have the space to safely clear out their cars.

Again, this is an area where public feedback could help.

day after 2017 March blizzard Myrtle Ave car push
Sections of Myrtle Ave had at least 4-5 inches of snow packed down in the center of the street late Wednesday afternoon. A group of guys stopped to give this woman's car a push after it got stuck. Walking across neighborhoods that afternoon, we saw multiple people shoveling together and helping each other out. The city should be proud of that.

Embrace the cold reality

Here's the hard thing about this whole situation: When the weather dumps two feet of snow on the city in the span of a day there's virtually no scenario in which things are going to work out smoothly. There's just too much snow, too many streets, too many cars, and not enough resources. The city has something like 30-40 plows and trucks -- it's going to take a while. The best we can expect is a solid plan and a good-faith attempt to keep up.

So we all need to take a deep breath in these situations and do what we can, as individuals, to help out. As we said on Twitter Wednesday morning, events like the blizzard are opportunities to be a good neighbor: To make sure the full width of our sidewalk is cleared in a timely manner, to help get a car unstuck, to shovel out the space around the fire hydrant down the street, to use your snowblower to clear the remainder plow pile that's partially blocking the street, to check in on an elderly neighbor to see if they're OK.

We should have high expectation for our governments. But we should also have high expectations for ourselves. And that means sometimes we need to pick up a shovel and dig in.

____

More blizzard

+ Blizzard scenes from Albany
+ Map: Blizzard snow totals
+ Why is this a "blizzard" and not just a big snowstorm?

Comments

People need to be more patient. Albany and Colonie each have about 300 miles of streets. Assuming they average 30 feet wide, an 18 inch snowfall drops about 5 Billion cubic feet of snow on the streets that has to be moved to ... somewhere.

Unfortunately, it usually ends up on the sidewalks.

Speaking of color coded maps - a single color would do to show which side of every street is even numbered. It's not easy to see house numbers in blowing snow on virtually unplowed streets.

The Delso area was in pretty tough shape today: Despite no one parking last night on the even numbered side of Delaware Ave. (because there wasn't room, not because of a snow emergency), the plowed up piles today were at least three feet from the curb.
Summit Ave. and Federal St. looked like they hadn't been touched by a plow, while Bertha and Marshall might have seen a plow several hours before the snow stopped, but not since.

Were people supposed to move their cars on an unplowed Willett Street to "EVEN" side by Wed. at 8:00 p.m.? Or had the street been plowed by then? There is shoveling one's car out, on the one hand, and shoveling out an entire street, on the other. One is reasonable, the other impossible.

There are a lot of things to complain about, including the city not plowing access roads to the hospital, it having left some of the streets going into the park (where scores of people were told to leave their cars) a complete mess at the start of the snow emergency, the mayor putting out false information about the city's plans (she tweeted in the midst of the storm that people whose cars were in spots where there's no parking on Tuesday morning would need to move their cars, causing numerous people to drive around in the worst of it), and the plows that operated early going the wrong way on one-way streets, resulting in snow deposits at intersections that made it completely impossible to turn.

But what bugs me the most about this storm and several past ones is that the city's the last property owner to clean its sidewalks. It's difficult to own a car during a storm like this, but that's something you have to accept when making the choice to buy a car in the northeast. But a lot of the problems with traffic can be solved if more people than normal walk for their commute, and that's something the city seems to actively discourage. I live downtown, and by Tuesday night, pretty much every house within three blocks of mine had their sidewalks in good shape. The only exception was the property owned by the city, a park that hundreds of people walk through on their way to work in a typical day. It's currently Thursday morning, and there's still no sign of anybody coming to clean it up. I get that there are union rules, and they couldn't have just handed a bunch of accountants at City Halls shovels on Wednesday and told them to get to work, but the fact that the government body that's theoretically responsible for enforcing laws that require people to keep their sidewalks clean is the worst offender is completely mind-boggling.

@ Bill M -- you have a point. I just drove in the upper New Scotland area and observed that anybody who had to walk anywhere -- to work, to Stewarts, to a bus stop, or to walk a dog -- would be hard pressed to walk anywhere but in the roadway of a busy, high traffic thoroughfare, a clear danger. A fair number of residents have made no attempt to shovel their sidewalks in my neighborhood (the usual culprits), but the city has done nothing to clear the long stretches that are its responsibility. I wonder when they will get around to it. I know that roads are privileged over sidewalks....but how about a Civilian Conservation Corp. that can shovel the city sidewalks for $10 an hr.?

This post is being much more fair to the City of Albany than they deserve this time around.

I understand that main roads are the first priority, as they should be, but it seems that in this instance, making main roads a priority turned into only clearing main roads from Tuesday morning through Wednesday afternoon. Side streets in Pine Hills still as of Thursday morning look like they haven't been plowed at all, while off of New Scotland it seems like every other block (though not that orderly) was missed/skipped.

I get that this was a bad storm and I get that things were going to take slightly longer than usual to get back to normal, but the city fell down on the job this time around.

@GJ I completely agree. The Pine Hills neighborhood is completely hit or miss regarding which side streets are safe to travel on. It's also frustrating when the neighborhood cooperates with the snow emergency, only to have no work AT ALL done mitigating the massive snow banks taking over half the road. Other communities can get their streets in order in a timely manner, the capital of New York State should certainly be able to so.

I'm curious as to the underlying reason for the uncleared streets.

Is it an insufficient number of snowplows and operators? Inefficient deployment of existing equipment and drivers? An inability to call in sufficient additional plowing help? Do residents have unrealistic expectations in light of a very heavy snowstorm? Or some combination of the above?

This is more than an inconvenience for residents. This is an economic issue. I am trying to plan a major event and I am hoping to host it at the Albany Capital Center - but there is NO WAY I am going into downtown to visit the site and possibly spend $30K until it is clear and easy for me. In the meantime I will be visiting other places with cleared streets and plowed parking lots.

The city needs a plan - this isn't the first time they've basically told residents to suck it up. They need to have on-call contract plowing. The Town of Bethlehem does a REMARKABLE job of snow removal - and it is directly adjacent to the City of Albany. The reality is Albany doesn't devote adequate resources to snow removal.

This just strikes me as an ill-conceived idea of trying to bully that state into covering the $12.5 million budget shortfall. When the City of Albany doesn't clean up after a storm the entire state government suffers - from the lowest clerk to the Governor. Doing a crappy job on the roads because you aren't getting enough money from the State is just bad form.

I feel fortunate for a couple things in times like these:

1) Having an SUV with 4 wheel drive
2) Living on major street that gets plowed

Driving around Albany yesterday and today, it was clear that more street clean up needs to be done. I wanted to drive down Willett yesterday, but it had not been plowed. The roads around the park were not in great shape either. I use to have a 4 door sedan and know that I would have definitely gotten stuck trying to drive anywhere. We pay a lot of taxes in this city comparatively to other places and I guess I would like to get better services for that money.

Very fair article.

A storm of this magnitude doesn't happen very often, and it's not like the city can keep dozens of employees and trucks 'standing by' just waiting for a snow emergency.

On the other hand, every other community in the area got cleared out faster than Albany. How do we know this? because at both my and my partner's workplaces, everyone who doesn't live in Albany got to work more or less on time. And everyone who lives in Albany was really, really late or didn't even make it.

The idea of using existing tech to show people where the plows are now, and publishing a plan, is really interesting and would be valuable. Transparency always goes a long way. Don't expect it from Sheehan.

A City Mayor has one job he or she has to do right.. move the snow. In my long lifetime in Albany, there was only one mayor who figured it out, Jennings. So I forgot what it was like to live in Albany back in the days when I was child, and some streets went unplowed for days and there was enormous favoritism in who got plowed and how. (Have YOU seen video of plowing of Sheehan's and Shahinfar's neighborhood in the wee hours of the morning of the storm down to almost bare pavement? )

BB - do you live outside the city and work here? Just curious.

Good to remember - the City alone is responsible for plowing every one of its streets. Surrounding suburbs have half the responsibility because the state and county is responsible for many of their streets, particularly the main thoroughfares.

My street was a disaster, but once the snow started piling up, people were parking like they forgot how to drive. With cars on both sides of the street, a plow would've taken off a bunch of car mirrors. And then people would've been up in arms over that.

I think we all need to give credit where due - Albany DGS did a great job on the main roads. But otherwise, take a deep breathe and realize no one has control over the weather. Everyone wants to see their street plowed perfectly. Magic wands do not exist.

My street is a dead end street by Westgate. The plow came by just once Tues morning during the storm. Not another one until 3am Wed that my SO witnessed the plow only went halfway down our street and then it turned around! So half of my street was completely unplowed. I had a hell of a time getting out for work Wed morning and I have a SUV with 4WD. :(

Who do we let know that nixel is not functioning properly- that is, it is not functioning the way the directions on its page suggest it will?

@Christine on Mar 16, 2017 at 1:47 PM

I too am on one those dead-end streets by Westgate Plaza (the last house at the bottom of one of those dead-end streets) and I feel your pain. I had to high-step it 100 yards to make it to a piece of road that was clear enough for me to reasonably walk across to eventually make to the bus to get to work. My husband told me the plows did not come by our way until 3:30 in the afternoon.

Just going to say ... it's really embarrassing when multiple CDTA buses are getting stuck in a 2 block radius. For all parties involved (CDTA: Why when bus #1 got stuck weren't the other two re-routed? Or in the case of 12+ inches of snow, why was the system still running?); Albany: When you hear reports of buses getting stuck, why aren't you getting in touch with CDTA to find out what roads on the bus routes need plowing badly?).

This article bends over backwards to be fair. Those of us who have lived here for a long time know that we have had this much snow before and it's been cleared in a far more efficient manner than we just experienced. I think it's quite possible that among the mayor's many talents being a city manager isn't one of them.

To Wesley: Yes, I lived in the city for awhile and moved to the suburbs long ago. I worked downtown for many, many years and now work uptown - fortunately not on a side street!

One major problem for pedestrians is corner property owners who clear the sidewalks in front of their property but do not remove the snow at the corner to allow access to the street. So pedestrians who reach a corner and need to cross the street are faced with a wall of snow. Gradually enough people seem to stomp through, but the passage they create is like the Cumberland Gap.

Pedestrians and public transportation users seem to be the last thought when the city is plowing up the snow. Corners that were shoveled out by the home owner get plowed in by the city trucks. CTDA bus stops are untouched unless a business owner or property owner has cleared them out. If you are lucky there is a drive way or intersection near your bus stop. If you bus stop is in the middle of a block, you are out of luck and need to stand in the street or hope the bus will stop at the closest cleared space. Also, every snow storm I need to call the city to say that the cross walks by my house are useless if only one side of the street is cleared out. I did see progress today. Allen Street was looking pretty good by this afternoon, but still a long way to go.

@Peter I believe Willett was not plowed on the end in between Madison and Hudson because there was a stuck car on that block, and I believe it was there for a while. When I walked past Willett on Wednesday afternoon it had been plowed in time for the snow emergency. When you have that much snow, its almost impossible to get rid of it quickly. I do think residents could do a better job of being responsible about moving their cars when needed, digging out their cars, and just being all around good citizens. It takes so long to get the cars towed, time that could be spent removing the snow. And honestly if your car gets towed, you probably deserve it. When I went through my first snow emergency, my car was towed, and I have been very aware ever since then, and always call it check the website to see if there is an emergency issued. I live on a busy section of Hudson, and in our last emergency, it was shocking how many people blatantly ignored the ban, there were three cars in a row that had to be towed right in front of my house. And when the plow came, they couldn't do their job because these people didn't follow the ban. If you don't move your car, the plow people can't do their job. And when it comes to snow emergency removal, they are extremely efficient, and if we do our jobs as citizens, they can do their jobs. I always say you aren't a true Albanian unless you've been towed at least once. Yes, I too was annoyed with the state of the roads, but I do understand the sheer amount of snow along with the multitude of streets makes for a much more complicated procedure than in the suburbs. I think we need to thank our DGS employees and the people working around the clock to clear out streets.

I share the sentiment AOA expressed in the final paragraph that we all need to take some individual responsibility to help out. In that vein, we need to stay off the roads when public officials tell us to stay at home, and we need take the time to understand whether our cars are properly equipped to drive safely in the snow. Several people who admitted they didn't need to drive anywhere (they were just trying to get a jump on the snow emergency parking) got stuck on Dove/Lancaster on Tuesday afternoon in the height of the storm. While it was great that a bunch of us who lived nearby helped to shovel people out and push cars, it got to the point where the disabled cars blocked a city plow, which itself became stuck when it tried to back out of Lancaster Street, and we had to work to free the plow. Two hours of valuable plow time were lost there, at a time when it was snowing over an inch an hour. I heard of several other instances of this in Center Square and Park South. Is it any surprise those roads weren't fully cleared by Wednesday?

This is a fair assessment. I wonder if implementing the snow emergency idea before a snow storm is supposed to take effect might help the city in a big snow storm like this. Meaning all cars move to one side of the street before the snow storm hits. It is a total pain to find parking on snow emergency nights but it might help. I definitely saw instances where stuck and abandoned cars were blocking plows in the neighborhoods. I think a large part of the problem is that some streets are too narrow for a plow to pass through when there are cars parked on both sides of the street. A plow operator I spoke to said they were having trouble passing through the narrow streets, or small one way streets where cars are parked on both sides. It makes absolute sense, they are getting complained about for not plowing but if they damaged a lot of people's cars plowing it would blow up and it would be even worse. I think some of the comments here make a good point. We need to be better citizens and help the city out so they can do their job.On Wednesday night just after the snow emergency took effect, I saw cars still parked on both sides of Lark and two CDTA buses couldn't pass each other because the street was too narrow clogging up all traffic coming up Lark both ways. I am sure this blocked plows too. I tried to remind an apartment of college students on my block about moving their cars before the snow emergency, and they responded that they wanted their cars towed so they didn't have to dig it out and at least one of them did leave their car and get it towed. That is lazy, a waste of time and highlights a problem that hinders the plowing that needs to get done. Yes, this snow storm has shown that Albany needs to plan better in plowing, especially for big storms but I think we could help the city be more efficient just by following the rules.

Comparing suburbs and Albany is unfair. As someone noted above, suburbs get State and County help that the city doesn't. This was set up long ago when the wealth was in the cities and the suburbs were more rural. It should be changed now that wealth has shifted, but probably won't because of where there is money, there is power. (OK, off soap box). Also, there is much more on-street parking in the city which makes clean up much more difficult.

That said, the city could use some improvements. I have family in Minnesota, and snow clean up there is a well-oiled machine. Maybe Albany could get some advice from that part of the country.

BB: Thanks for answering my question.

Here's another one for you: are you willing to contribute something to help pay for the City of Albany services you consume? Seems fair tome and my neighbors that you should.

Susan: "Comparing suburbs and Albany is unfair. As someone noted above, suburbs get State and County help that the city doesn't. "

That's right. In addition:

* Suburbs were all designed for cars. Older cities were designed for pedestrians, horse-drawn transportation and maybe streetcars. They had to adapt to cars. This means the roads are far more channelized.

* City dwellers don't crowd into the suburbs five days a week, using up space and services they didn't help pay for. Suburbanites DO crowd into cities and use up space and services they didn't help pay for.

Wesley wrote: "City dwellers don't crowd into the suburbs five days a week, using up space and services they didn't help pay for. Suburbanites DO crowd into cities and use up space and services they didn't help pay for."

I'm waiting for someone to suggest that city restaurants levy a surcharge for non-city patrons, who use up city space and and services they didn't help pay for.

But seriously, the issue of adequate funding doesn't just concern urban areas, it concerns all areas of the state: Urban, rural, and suburban. Each has its own needs, strengths, and weaknesses. (Apparently, one of Albany's needs at the moment is adequate plowing of heavy snowstorms.) And NYS has a long way to go to adequately support localities -- local property taxes can only go so far.

Rather than pit one group of residents against another -- suburbanites verses urbanites, for example -- we should advocate adequate state support for *all* localities around the state.

@Susan, I lived in the Twin Cities for six years and have a different viewpoint. My experience is while Minnesota highways are always plowed, the urban areas have the same issues Albany does. I think you could replace every mention of "Albany" in this article with "Minneapolis" or "Saint Paul" and not be too far from the truth. The themes are similar: budget issues, lack of communication, perceived lack of effort.

You guys are too generous.

The city was a shitshow because they have a hard ban on overtime and didn't do much plowing until the emergency. That's problematic for a heavy snow because the smaller pickup trucks that typically clear side streets can't handle two feet of heavy packed snow.

The mayor summed it up herself. She doesn't feel that it's reasonable for people to expect to be able to get to work for at least 24 hours after a storm. Failure by design.

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