People Are Non-Linear

When it snows in Seattle, people rediscover their legs. Out of necessity or just for fun, the walkers emerge. However wearily they may trudge, most appear to be enchanted.

And lo, the right-of-way no longer belongs to the cars. People saunter carelessly right down the middle of the street. Kids on sleds zip down hills past parked cars blanketed in snow.


Last spring when gasoline prices rose to $4/gallon, no one was surprised to see a jump in transit use. Less expected, however, are recent data showing further increases in ridership, even as gasoline dropped back to the $2/gallon range.

Some of the sustained demand for transit is probably related to people seeking new ways to save money as the economy has worsened. But another factor is almost certainly at play: habit. People needed a compelling reason to break their car commute habit, and once they tried transit, they were likely pleased in ways they hadn’t expected.

When snow breaks people’s routines and gets them walking, might we expect a similar persistent effect? It seems plausible that some would learn that it really doesn’t take that long, or that it’s nice to pass slowly through their neighborhood, or that they’re less stressed when they arrive, or that the exercise feels good, or that it’s satisfying to know that their travel mode has zero environmental impact.

And it can’t hurt when people get a taste of how nice it is to not live under the tyranny of cars.

UPDATE 12-23-08:  The Seattle Times reports on how the snow is helping neighborhood businesses.  Though mobility is generally viewed as a positive contribution to quality of life, ironically, we’ve gotten to the point where in some cases reducing mobility can be good medicine for strengthening local communities.  That idea as it pertains to peak oil was previously discussed in this post.

17 Responses to “People Are Non-Linear”

  1. Sabina Pade

    Perhaps some of those reborn bipeds are wearing faces of enchantment because they’re learning they live within walkable communities.

    When the weather is friendly, the traffic unencumbering, and the Lexus humming, that McMansion seems but the time of keying in a few text messages removed from the downtown office garage.

    But when the mechanical transport infrastructure bogs down, what a treat to discover that one’s own legs are potentially more than just a linkage to the gas and brake pedals.

  2. Matt the Engineer

    Ah, just wait until it rains later this week. That’ll drive people to drive and the’ll forget about the wonders of walking.

  3. Dan Staley

    It snows often here, of course, but the last time it snowed that much in Seattle I took the road bike out and enjoyed the looks on people’s faces.

    The key thing about snow in Seattle, in my view, is that people not only get out, but they are joyful and are more likely to interact with each other.

    BTW, went to a lacrosse game Saturday and the trains were full. Trains were full Friday too, and Thursday… I think many folks here enjoy the freedom from cars. It also helps that parking is expensive downtown.

  4. rbj

    Normally I walk to work anyhow. Honestly, I often drive to the store, same distance as work, because I don’t like having to lug my groceries home.

    That’s changed.

    The snow is a pain but for this little lesson I am grateful.

  5. thomas

    Sitting here at Voxx on Eastlake drinking coffee. A jam packed bus arrives and most of the people waiting are unable to board. Lots of frustrated folks standing around. It would likely be easier and quicker just to walk downtown.

  6. mike

    a lot of the stores in fremont saw an increase of local foot traffic, and we ended up doing all our last-minute gift-shopping locally.

    but the stores were definitely struggling.

  7. Spencer


    I agree. It’s been quite a sight to see so many people walking. Best of all what I’ve seen in the Columbia City area is people talking to each other.
    This snow is such a conversation starter. A group of ten neighbors went sledding on Thursday. It quickly turned into to 25 or more as more people joined us. Other people came out of their homes to say hi and gawk at our absolute craziness.

    Like everyone else, I’ve been walking everywhere. People are smiling, saying hello and using the snow to spark conversations with (me) total strangers.

    I hope you all are experiencing this same thing.

    Remember with all this snow comes the responsibility of helping our neighbors out. Please help out those people stuck in their cars (even though it would be good they weren’t in them to start). Some of them have to use them to get to jobs they have to go to. A few minutes of your time can make a huge difference in other’s livelihood.


  8. Matt the Engineer

    It’s a good time to reflect on life at/after peak oil. Do you have enough local resources to live a comfortable life? If you couldn’t use your car again (or if it was terribly expensive to do so) how would you get to work?

  9. crunchy

    Last Thursday (when the first real snow fell). The office was empty, the roads were empty, and the entire city was quiet and beautiful. I walked less than 5 minutes to work, but I wish it had been 5 hours.

    I was most blown away by the lack of cars. No noise, no speeding, no honking, no yelling, no near-misses with pedestrians, no waiting for pedestrians and then gunning engines, etc etc etc etc. I really wish the City would close a couple of useless car streets on Capitol Hill and make them useful for every other type of activity.

  10. Dan Staley

    Matt @8:

    I’m on the Colo Front Range, and I’m currently fine-tuning cheap technology transfer to extend the gardening season, as I’m convinced that soon more folk will be growing food at home (and I’m going to help them, for a small fee, grow veggies on their suburban lots).

    Anyway, I’m looking at a couple of different inexpensive ways to capture and store sunlight for heat in coldframes (I know, I know: no sunshine in WA after November, so it won’t work there).

    I’m trying to figure out the cheapest way to do inexpensive technology transfer with readily available material to heat the soil to get decent growth for cool-season greens throughout the winter. Average high past week: ~15ºF, I can get 60ºF air temps inside at those temps which makes soil temps ~40ºF overnight without assistance, with assistance I’m 4-7º higher soil temps. Right now, I’m at US$26.00 for 2 4×6 coldframes.

    So, trying to increase local resources with readily available tech. transfer. Folks are working on it!

  11. AJ

    Bus Stop opened up on Saturday night– it was plain amazing. A packed bar, people wrapped around the corner, sledding at one moment and drinking with new old friends the next.

  12. Andrew

    You’re wordpress theme doesn’t number the comments correctly. Send me an email ( and I’ll happily fix it for you.

  13. “That mature attitude seems to have largely vanished.” | hugeasscity

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  17. Snow Days and Social Capital | Sightline Institute

    […] once, is walkers (plus some sledders and skiers). (See Hugeasscity‘s take on how snow helps people rediscover their legs.) This makes for a situation where you have all kinds of casual interactions with community […]

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