Bridging the Opportunity Divide

5 Cutting-Edge Ways That Cities Are Digging Out After Record Snowfall

February 24, 2015
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5 Cutting-Edge Ways That Cities Are Digging Out After Record Snowfall
Workers clear snow around the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority's South Station, in Boston, Feb. 9, 2015. Kayana Szymczak/Getty Images
Forget your shovel and try one of these innovative ideas instead.

Snow removal hasn’t changed much since the introduction of the horse-drawn plow in 1862. But this winter’s blizzards, which have already shattered records for the sheer amount of snow (Boston’s been deluged in 78.5 inches of powder — three times its average — and Worcester, Mass., has received a hefty 92.1 inches), are prompting smart collaborations and innovations to get the white stuff out of thoroughfares.

Make it a group effort.
Local governments plow the streets so that school buses and emergency vehicles can pass through, but some fed-up pedestrians say the policy prioritizes drivers over those who walk, bike or take public transit. Instead of griping, neighbors in Ann Arbor, Mich., banded together to operate the Snowbuddy, a 32-horsepower tractor to clear 12 miles of sidewalk each storm. Paul Tinkerhess, a 30-year resident and the lead organizer, says a unified effort makes much more sense than individuals shoveling. “It’s like taking something that’s really a linear transportation corridor, it’s one line, and dividing its maintenance responsibility into hundreds and even thousands of little links,” he says, “and assigning that responsibility to people who have a widely varying ability and even interest in maintaining that walkway.”

Solicit others to shovel.
One of the downsides of plowing the roadways is that all that snow gets piled up in huge icy banks on the curbs and corners, impeding pedestrians and upping their risk of taking a hard fall. To remove the windrows, some public transit authorities, like Rhode Island’s, have negotiated deals with advertising companies, requiring them to clear the snow around bus shelters where their signs are posted.

D.I.Y.
Chicago residents invented an ingenious way to make every ordinary citizen into a street-clearing machine: By attaching plows to almost any kind of personal vehicle. You name it, SUVs, Priuses, lawn mowers, ATVs. The Nordic Plow is a lightweight, rounded snow blade that works on almost any surface, too, so you can clear your grassy lawn or your gravel driveway. “The idea for the Nordic Auto Plows came from watching people struggle with shovels and snow blowers in cold, wintry weather,” says Richard Behan, the founder and CEO. “I believed there must be a better way.”

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Move it out of town.
Conjuring odd images of the original Tea Party protest, hard-hit Boston has considered dumping the snow into the harbor. But concerned citizens have cried foul, worried that the snow will also carry salt, litter and residue of gasoline that could pollute the bay. The strategy in Minneapolis has always been to use payloaders and dump trucks to pick up snow and consolidate it into giant piles in vacant lots. The strategy is the same in Portland, Maine, where one of the collection sites has been filled with so much snow that the mound is now 40 feet tall, just below the FAA height regulation.

Melt it.
This one’s a no-brainer. In Boston, the city is using machines that can zap up to 400 tons of snow per hour. Some of the technology is so advanced that it filters debris out of the water before releasing the cleaned H20 down a storm drain, as the Snow Dragon does by heating snow over a tank of hot water. (Other melters work like giant hair dryers, blowing out hot air.) While effective, these machines are expensive and require lots of energy to operate. But until the city implements civil engineer Rajib Mallick’s idea — building a network of pipes that could be filled with rushing hot fluid near the surface of streets, warming the pavement and melting the snow — it’s Boston’s best bet to get rid of 6+ feet of the white stuff.
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