Urban Mobility

Economists, transportation experts measure the impact of severe winter weather on cities

By Bruce Sussman


How do you measure the impact of a major storm on the urban environment?


Like the impact it has on roads, transit and business.


And how can you turn those measurements into data that improves the lives of citizens you serve when the next storm hits?


Agencies and economists in Portland, Oregon have some insights to share on this topic because of what happened there last winter.


In January of 2017, the medium-sized U.S. metro area of more than 2 million, known for rain and roses, was essentially shut down by a series of record breaking snowstorms that were followed by freezing rain.



Measuring the Impact: City Costs

The city of Portland says the costs piled up along with the snow and ice. It spent nearly $500,000 to repair water main breaks; $570,000 to repair damaged road signs and remove debris from roads and sidewalks; and $1,600,000 to remove snow and ice from city streets. The list goes on with hundreds of thousands more spent on other storm related services.




Measuring the Impact: Transit Costs

The Portland area’s largest transit agency, TriMet, also tracked some very interesting metrics during the storm. Ridership exploded ahead of the storm and at its start, then dropped dramatically as riders stayed home for days. That had an impact on the entire month, where TriMet says passenger revenue decreased 2.3% while operations costs per boarding ride increased 1.8% for January 2017.


“It takes a team of dedicated employees to keep riders and operations moving safely during severe weather,” says TriMet’s Tia York. “Many of those employees work long hours to provide the highest level of service possible during extreme conditions, and there are often overtime costs associated with their work.”


And, she says, there are extra repair costs to equipment, as well.




Measuring the Impact: Business Lost

With so many people staying home, the impact from a major storm ripples through any local economy.


Says ECONorthwest Senior Economist Bob Whelan, “Basically, when there’s a bad storm, nearly all activity stops. A one-day stop equals the annual equivalent of about .25% of lost GDP,” he says. “The shelf-life of providing a room and restaurant meal for a given day is lost forever.”


However, he says most of the lost revenue can be recovered. For example, manufacturers may delay orders but eventually get them shipped and get paid. However, the recovery is less certain the longer a storm drags on.


In Portland, which is heavily reliant on visitors to its world renowned restaurants and craft brew pubs, he estimates a week-long snow or ice storm would result in a loss of about $130 million.


Putting the measured impacts into improving the future


So now that we know exactly what the impacts are – those in the City of Portland are trying to shrink them for any disruptive storms in the future. To reduce lost revenue to businesses, the city is adding streets in the central business district to its future de-icing efforts. Largely ignored in the past because the area is on mostly flat terrain, this move will help keep streets and parking open longer and keep businesses operating longer.


The city also analyzed where cars were most often sliding out, getting stuck and blocking roads. That situation stops commerce and transit, and in some cases, routes to a key trauma center have been blocked. Now, those routes will require either traction tires made for snow and ice, or chains latched onto regular tires.


And the city now has a fleet of snowplows tracked through GPS. “We’ve expanded public information,” says Dylan Rivera with the Portland Bureau of Transportation, or PBOT. “An online Winter Weather Center shows an interactive map of our plow routes and anti-icing routes. If we have a snow storm, the plan is to activate a feature that will show the location of snowplows and other equipment in real time.”


And TriMet, Portland’s transit agency, says it now partners more than ever before with city crews during a storm. The agency uses “snowbirds” – a team of experts — who check key routes before service starts and then notify the city if sanding, salting or plowing is needed to get busses through safely.
Clearing roads helps transit continue to operate and emergency responders to get around, and it increases the odds that Portlanders will go somewhere and spend money both before and after the storm hits.


And if a week of shutdown would cost city businesses $130 million, anything that shrinks that impact will improve the winter storm options for agencies, businesses and the people of Portland.


Or any city, for that matter.


Please note that this article expresses the opinions of the author and does not reflect the views of Move Forward.