Government Transportation

Downtown View: The Scoop on Snow Plows

In a snowstorm, we’re lucky to live downtown. The electricity stays on. Many shops stay open. We don’t need to drive. Outside it is silent, at least until your neighbor starts to shovel. If you’ve got a fireplace, so much the better. If someone decides to make soup, even more comforting.

Now we have something new to entertain us during snowstorms, especially if you’re an urban nerd. (You know who you are if you are one.) We have www.snowstats.boston.gov.

While it is snowing, you can follow the Boston Public Works Department’s snow clearing efforts.

In the sunny morning after the February 2 snowstorm, the site showed that around 30 Commonwealth Avenue, 74 percent of the streets had been plowed. Six plows went over the same streets again and again, racking up a total of 160 miles over 159 hours of work.

On Cordis Street in Charlestown, five snowplows pushed snow down the blocks on 63 percent of the streets, going a combined 19 miles in 134 hours.

On Salem Street in the North End, 58 percent of the streets were cleared by eight plows covering 44 miles in 215 hours.

On Phillips Street on Beacon Hill only 43 percent of the streets had been tackled by eight plows covering 41 miles in 210 hours.

On the Waterfront at Rowes Wharf, a hefty 90 percent of the streets were cleared by eight plows covering 669 miles in 184 hours.

Every neighborhood’s percentage of streets cleared differs, as does the number of miles needed to clear the streets and the time needed to do it because Boston’s historic streets are different in size, terrain, complexity, and whether cars are parked or not, explained Susan Nguyen, project director in the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics, one of the agencies involved in collecting data and creating the web site.

Some streets, presumably those near Rowes Wharf, can handle large snowplows going faster. The plows don’t have to dodge parked cars since several streets in that neighborhood are major arteries on which parking is forbidden during a storm.

The narrower streets on Beacon Hill, parts of Charlestown, and the North End require smaller snowplows that have to go more slowly. It takes longer to do the job in such neighborhoods. There are 13 different kinds of snowplows in use throughout the city because not one size fits all.

But what is a neighborhood? You’ll notice that if you type in your address and a friend’s address several streets away but in the same neighborhood, you may get different results.

Nguyen had an answer for that. Public Works, she said, created snow maps 50 years or so ago that are still being used. The maps break down the city’s neighborhoods into 202 smaller sections. Snowplow drivers may be assigned to one or two sections. Mr. Teasdale and Mr. Doogan were two drivers assigned to at least two Beacon Hill sections. The small sections enable the drivers to concentrate on the routes they know best. It enables Public Works to supervise the operations better.

It looked as if the sections followed the precincts. Nguyen said that may be the case in some neighborhoods because of historic practices, but it is not the intention of the snow maps to follow the precinct lines.
Next to the drivers’ last names are the number of hours they have worked. This doesn’t mean they have worked 28 straight hours, Nguyen cautioned. The number of hours may have been over two or three shifts, so they are not falling asleep at the wheel.

The snowstats website went live on Monday, February 2 in the middle of that snowstorm. By Tuesday afternoon at 5 p.m., the site showed that 700 plows had cleared 150,857 miles in 84,472 hours. Even so, there was still a lot of snow in downtown Boston. So far the site works only during a storm, during which it is refreshed about every 15 to 20 minutes with data coming directly from the plows.

Nguyen said this site was unique among cities. She said she hopes that knowing the names of the drivers and the work they are doing will provide Bostonians with comfort and humanize the work that’s going on.

I’m just happy it’s there for me to look at, keeping me up to date with all things snow.

Downtown View is a regular column by Karen Cord Taylor who founded The Beacon Hill Times weekly newspaper in 1995 and served as its editor and publisher until late 2007. She also founded and served as editor and publisher of the Charlestown Patriot-Bridge and The Back Bay Sun weeklies. Her column appears in those newspapers as well as the Regional Review, which serves Boston’s North End. These weeklies are now owned by the Independent Newspaper Group. She is the author of “Blue Laws, Brahmins and Breakdown Lanes: An Alphabetic Guide to Boston and Bostonians” and the co-author of “The Lady Architects,” a book about three women who practiced architecture in New England and elsewhere in the early 20th century. She lives in downtown Boston and blogs at BostonColumn.com

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