DC Snowpocalypse: Hell is Other People

dc-snow-carsThe world’s tallest female econoblogger, Megan McArdle, is experiencing her first major DC snowstorm and is, shall we say, not impressed.

You have never seen a city as completely incompetent at dealing with snow as Washington DC.

I mean, two feet of snow is inconvenient anywhere.  But in DC, only the main streets have been plowed.  And by “plowed”, I mean that one meager lane has been cleared, so that even major arteries like New York Avenue frequently narrow to one lane.  The side streets have been turned into defacto one-way streets–except that no one knows which way.  The result is a lot like driving on a country road in Ireland, where you are apt to come upon someone going the other way, and then spend precious moments staring at each other until one party reluctantly backs up to a wider spot.

The difference is that Irish drivers are somewhat familiar with the conditions.  DC today is the province of taxi drivers and SUV owners who seem simultaneously confused and overconfident.  As I eased down the street in our little Japanese sedan, I quickly surmised that none of the drivers in the bite-sized tanks surrounding me had ever seen snow before.  Three blocks later I revised that opinion:  I don’t think any of them had ever seen cars before.  Certainly not the ones they were operating.

And things got worse when she arrived at the local Safeway, to find that “Apparently, when DC gets snowed in, it wants to do so with diet soda, Ritz crackers, six pounds of shredded cheddar, and a lifetime supply of stew meat.”  Ultimately, she sighs, “If this is how we react to a snow storm, what are we going to do when the Russkis invade?”

I’ve been out as little as possible, including my own run to a different Safeway (I’m in the Virginia suburbs near Mount Vernon, while Megan’s in Northwest DC) and saw much the same thing.  People were driving in lanes that didn’t currently exist, cutting other drivers off, and otherwise making a bad situation unnecessarily worse.

Earlier in the week, WaPo’s Ian Shapira and Aaron C. Davis documented part of the problem: DC has not developed a sense of etiquette for dealing with massive snowfall:

It was fully 48 hours since the flakes of Snowmageddon had ceased falling, but by midday Monday, many residents and merchants in Adams Morgan still had not cleared their portions of public walkways, disregarding the District’s law mandating that property owners clear snow and ice from their sidewalks within eight hours after the snowfall’s completion.

Every snowstorm generates complaints about homeowners and business people who fail to do their part, as well as extensive debate about who’s supposed to clear sidewalks, who’s not doing the job and why freaking not? And for those who managed to liberate their cars from the Snowpocalypse of 2010, another tricky moral dilemma can lead to some volatile confrontations: If you dig your car out from its frozen tomb, do you then own that parking spot until the sun melts open the rest of the curbside space?

Washington’s long history of relatively mild winters has left residents without a common sense of snow etiquette to help answer that question.

Boston has codified its citizens’ right to benefit from their backbreaking snow-clearing labor; a city law says that if you dig out your car in a snow emergency, a lawn chair or trash can renders the spot yours for at least two days while you’re away at work. In Chicago, blocking a parking spot is illegal, but city officials acknowledge an informal rule of dibs if you’ve done the digging.

I’ve now been through two particularly bad DC-area winters (2002-2003 and this one) but had my own garage and driveway in both instances, so never contemplated whether public parking spots could somehow be transformed into private ones for the duration.  But the point is that, unlike Boston, Chicago, or Megan’s native New York, people in this area have never had reason to develop norms to deal with massive snowfall.   When it happens every seven or eight years, it’s a freakish occurrence rather than simply, well, winter.

Photo by Flickr user a4611production under Creative Commons license.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. JKB says:

    I think the story should be how a city filled with self-serving narcissists actually has come together to do what they’ve done. They are surprised that some of the self-entitled inhabitants seek to benefit from the work of others. This is the governing principle of those in power there now. And there is always a disproportionate number of those types in DC.

    In 2002-2003, after seeing a meticulously cleaned parking space taken by another resident who hadn’t even come out to help us dig the apartment complex out, I came upon a working solution. After digging my truck out, I left the 12 inch high hump from the snow plow in front of the space. Never had a problem of someone taking the space. I don’t know whether that is a comment for SUV drivers or against the enviro-car owners.

  2. sam says:

    after seeing a meticulously cleaned parking space taken by another resident who hadn’t even come out to help us dig the apartment complex out

    Dude, head to Boston and see how folks there handle this kind of thing. What you do is clear the space, put an old chair (armchair, if you have one) in the cleared space (or, to be really emphatic, a sofa), and about two hours before you’re due home, have your wife go out and sit in the chair until you arrive.

  3. An Interested Party says:
  4. An Interested Party says:

    My last post was caught in the anti-spam filter…can it be rescued?