Sneckdowns and the City: Snow Patterns Show How to Make New York Streets Safer

Columbus Circle sneckdown

The bad news is it’s never going to stop snowing. Sure, Friday’s flurries tapered off by 6:30 a.m., but the snow will be back on Saturday to deliver another one to three inches; on Monday another inch at least is expected.

This latest storm was enough to throw us into ❄️ historic ❄️ snowfall territory: Central Park, in an average year, sees just over 25 inches of snow for the entire season. So far this season 53 inches have fallen, making it one of the 10 snowiest winters New York has ever seen, and it’s not even close to over yet.

There is a silver lining though. This snow can show us how to design safer streets, and that’s something that Mayor Bill de Blasio will looking to do as his administration moves to implement Vision Zero, their plan to end traffic fatalities and injuries. (De Blasio’s deputies are scheduled to present the mayor with proposals to start working toward the goal by Saturday, February 15.)

The residual snow illustrates precisely how much pavement cars actually need to maneuver. A neckdown — extended curbs that narrow a street — is a technique urban planners use to calm traffic and reduce high-speed turns. A neckdown created by snow is a sneckdown, and a phenomenon that urban planners geek out about.

It’s easy to see why: sneckdowns are essentially Mother Nature confirming that cars don’t need as much street space as city engineers give them. Streets are actually safer when cars have less space. Narrowing roads slows cars and reduces the chance of deadly collisions. (If a car is traveling 20 mph, a person struck by that car has a 95 percent chance of survival; at 30 mph the survival rate drops to 55 percent.)

Here’s a sneckdown on Columbus Avenue:

Besides slowing traffic, extending curbs makes pedestrians more visible to drivers and gives them more time to cross roads. It’s not just neckdowns though — the snow shows where a pedestrian plaza could be installed, and where there might be space for a bike lane. This snowy intersection, annotated by Transportation Alternatives, has all kinds of possibilities.

Transportation advocates have been preaching the sneckdown gospel for years. Here’s a video produced by Clarence Eckerson Jr. in Jackson Heights, Queens after a snowfall in 2011. Queens has the highest rate of traffic fatalities of all five boroughs. In 2013, 52 pedestrians were killed by cars in Queens.

Snowy Neckdowns Redux: Winter Traffic Calming (#sneckdown) from Streetfilms on Vimeo.

I know what you’re thinking, “Wow, I wish it would snow some more so we could have sneckdowns all year.”

Ha. Ha. Ha.