What Dallas can learn from the blizzard of ’21
In addition to power outages and impassable roads, the blizzard of 2021 gave the Dallas word smiths a small – very small – consolation: an expanded vocabulary. Before this week, I doubt if many of us were familiar with the term “load shedding,” a utility jargon that can be used to reduce power to large areas to prevent catastrophic system failure. Load sheds result in rolling power outages that are all too common in Dallas – something we all know too well.
Another undesirable addition to the local lexicon: ERCOT, the acronym for the Texas Electric Reliability Council. Reliability? We can put that in the oxymoron category, or maybe under “profanity”.
A better tasting addition to the citizen dictionary is the “Sneckdown”. The word conjures up an image of desperate smooching under the high school bleachers, but it has nothing to do with adolescent hormones. Coined by transit attorney Aaron Naparstek, it is a portmanteau of snow and precipitation. It refers to the snow-covered areas that remain on the roads after storms, creating artificial extensions of sidewalks and traffic islands. (A section is street design jargon for a street narrowing.)
What makes clippings more interesting than a seasonal anomaly is what they can teach us about how our roads are used – and how they can be improved. Like the black light of a homicide detective, they reveal the traces of a scene that are normally invisible.
Sneckdowns specifically illustrate the spaces on the street that are typically reserved for automobiles that are not used by automobiles. These are the rooms where snow accumulates. Unsurprisingly, and especially in Dallas, they show how much more space we have given cars than they actually use or need. The places where we see snow are places where sidewalks can be expanded, zebra crossings shortened, medians planted and bike paths installed.
You don’t have to search far on social media to find pictures of Dallas sneezes, from places, especially downtown, where it’s perfectly clear that the balance between pedestrians and cars is out of whack. This is why Dallas is one of the most dangerous places for pedestrians in the United States. However, safety is only one of the problems: the poor pedestrian environment affects the economic vitality and quality of life in the city.
As the load shedding and subsidence suggest, Dallas has a resilience problem that will worsen with our aging infrastructure, the increasingly drastic effects of climate change, and our over-reliance on cars. We could add one more factor: the innate intransigence in Texas, which denies these problems, exists and holds any plan to address them, either for transgression of personal freedom or for the product of liberal propaganda.
Indeed, Governor Greg Abbott has targeted the Green New Deal, suggesting that a loss of solar and wind power is responsible for the failure of the state’s electricity grid. It’s a red herring argument: According to ERCOT, fossil fuel production has been reduced even more than with renewable sources, and the main culprit was the frozen infrastructure in fossil fuels and nuclear power plants.
As we saw with the coronavirus, the real problem is terribly difficult to fix if you don’t acknowledge it. The cost of inactivity is high, and while we all suffer, those who are worst affected are the most vulnerable: the elderly, people with health problems and disabilities, and marginalized communities in general. Indeed, minority communities are hardest hit by storm-induced power outages.
For those who leave the house, conditions can be fatal.
There is no more vivid example of the dangers of our reliance on car transportation than the 133-vehicle buildup that killed six people in Fort Worth last week. In dangerous conditions, North Texans have no choice but to drive because there are so few options for public transportation. This is forcing more and more people onto a road network that is simply too extensive to maintain. This problem is exacerbated by winter weather, when ice and snow add to conditions that are already dangerous.
Some impetus for changing this situation could come from Washington, where the new administration has promised a less autocentric transportation policy. In addition to aviator goggles and grandpa isms, a dedication to Amtrak was a longtime signature of Joe Biden. That interest should extend to all types of train services, from urban and regional networks (like DART) to the high-speed intercity system currently being developed in Texas.
It is encouraging to see a mayor, albeit a small town mayor, setting the country’s transportation goals and funding priorities. Pete Buttigieg, formerly Mayor of South Bend, Indiana, was confirmed as Biden’s transportation secretary this month and has already expressed his willingness to reconsider urban mobility.
One of the measures of particular interest to Dallas is openness to the removal of urban highways, which have not only promoted an autocentric culture but have been built to the detriment of minority communities. “Black and brown parts of the city have been disproportionately divided by motorway projects or isolated by the lack of adequate transit and transport resources,” wrote Buttigieg on Twitter, acknowledging an often ignored truth.
Dallas has an ideal candidate for freeway removal at I-345, the elevated corridor that connects US 75 to I-45. It’s a prime example of a street that cuts a minority community – historically black Deep Ellum – from downtown. The road has long since exceeded its useful life. The demolition would open up a wide area of development within walking distance of the city’s business center, ideal for the kind of “missing middle” and low-income housing that Dallas desperately needs.
The problem with “Sneckdowns” is that they go away when the snow melts. They can either take their lessons and apply them, or they can ignore them and accept the status quo ante.
As last week’s storms demonstrated, that status is no longer acceptable and there is a word for ignoring reality and it’s one we all know: stupid.