On Wednesday, it snowed – kind of a lot, for the piedmont of North Carolina. We got about four inches of accumulation within a few hours. It’s thickest snowfall I’ve seen in the six years I’ve lived here. The Triangle was caught unprepared in a way that was reminiscent of Atlanta two weeks ago (though, from my understanding, not as extreme).
I’ll tell you about the adventure we had getting home on Wednesday and then connect it to the frugal choices we’ve made in the past couple years.
At 10 AM on Wednesday, we received an email that our university would be shutting down after 1 PM. We didn’t take it super seriously and figured we would head home around 4 or 5 PM after I had finished my labwork for the day. It started snowing around noon and accumulating right away, and by about 2:00 PM Kyle was getting nervous about driving home. We were watching cars struggle to get up a gentle slope near our buildings, and the ones that did were in a long line to turn onto the main road that borders that part of campus.
It seems incredible that a few inches of snow can debilitate a city. I grew up in the DC area, which doesn’t have terribly different weather than the Triangle, but there is far more infrastructure to deal with snow. Like the story that played out in Atlanta a couple weeks ago, the core issues were that the roads were unprepared with sand/salt and that the snow hit midday, meaning that everyone was leaving work and school at the same time. I hardly believed how the situation in Atlanta played out the way it did but I’m glad I read the news stories about it because it informed how we responded to our snow this week. It wasn’t until I saw the cars backing up on campus, unable to get onto the main road because of the slowly moving high volume of cars, and how many of them were spinning out and getting stuck even on small hills, that I understood how a city can be gridlocked by a small amount of beautiful, powdery snow.
Kyle and I don’t have much experience driving in snow, so we weren’t confident that we/our car could handle leaving later as the conditions worsened. We didn’t want to spend hours in a line of cars, not knowing if the roads would ultimately be blocked ahead of us, yet we didn’t want to try to wait out the volume and possibly get stuck at work. So I cut my labwork short for the day, stopping my assays midway (I’ve never done that before and I doubt they’re recoverable ), and we headed to our car around 2:30 PM.
We decided to walk around campus to assess which route we should take out. Along the way, we stopped to push two people’s cars on small hills, but were unsuccessful in getting any traction for them. There was such high volume on the campus roads that the snow was getting packed down and quite slippery. Just on the couple roads we walked on campus, we saw several cars and delivery trucks stuck or abandoned.
After walking around campus for about an hour, we had to decide whether to stay longer, try to drive home, or walk home. Kyle was for driving but I was concerned about the two-lane, no-shoulder road that had a steeper and longer hill than the ones on campus just before our house. I thought that walking would give us more control – not being stuck in traffic for hours on end – and I would prefer to leave our car on campus than have to ditch it on the side of a road and risk it getting hit. Kyle was concerned about getting cold and wet during the walk, which we’d never done before and is about 3 miles. We were just wearing sneakers so our feet were already wet but had hats and gloves. We ultimately decided to leave our car on campus and walk home so as not to contribute to the traffic volume problem.
As soon as we reached the edge of campus we could see that the on-campus roads were far worse than the off-campus roads in terms of the snow getting packed down. The main roads were mostly slushy with some new powdery snow. And the volume of cars wasn’t quite as bad as we had expected – they were slowly moving. But just past the edge of campus, we saw that a public bus had fishtailed across the road, blocking all traffic in both directions. Cars were being asked to turn around. If we had driven, we would have had to find an alternative route home, which would have involved a freeway – yikes!
Once we got beyond the bus, traffic was very light and the roads were quite passable with the powdery snow. One person stopped to ask us if we needed a ride but we were fairly close to home by then.
The hill that I had been worried about was a mixed bag – we watched several cars get up it successfully, but there were also a bunch of cars and trucks that had been abandoned on the side of the road.
I was Facebooking status updates and pictures along our walk, which Kyle thought was dumb but I wanted others to know about the conditions in case they hadn’t left campus yet.
It took us only 45 minutes to walk home, so the snow didn’t slow us up much. Kyle had his umbrella up basically the whole time to keep the snow off his face. My hair froze. We were wet but fairly warm from the exertion of walking and happy that we got home in a reasonable amount of time. Many of my friends were updating Facebook with tales of their multi-hour commutes and abandoning their cars.
So what does this have to do with personal finance and frugality? Days like these only infrequently come about, so we don’t really plan our lives around them. But there are implications of the decisions we’ve made in these small emergencies.
A year and a half ago, our apartment complex increased our rent so we moved – closer to work. Our commute time has reduced dramatically, and we also now have the option of easily busing or walking to work if necessary. That move helped solidify our decision to move down to using only one car. Our former apartment wasn’t prohibitively far from work for walking, but the shortest routes were along freeways or dangerous roads. The path from we live now to work is a bit friendlier to pedestrians. These two decisions work in concert with one another to save us a bunch of money each year.
Since we got rid of one built-in backup plan of the second car, we had to consider how we might get around if our primary car was out of commission. We figured out how to use the public bus system and knew that walking was always an option. And on Wednesday, we exercised it! I’m really glad we live close enough to work to use human power to get to and from there. Of course, since we don’t have the second car we now have to walk back to school whenever they decide to reopen – downside.
This whole day has just made me appreciate that we live in a small city and our commute is so short – short enough to walk if we want to. That’s so different from the car-dependent suburbs that Kyle and I each grew up in, with parents who had long commutes. We want to move to a much larger city in the future so we likely won’t have the option of both working so close to home, which is a bummer. We’re enjoying it while we can!
Were you affected by the snow in the past few weeks? What is your backup plan if you can’t use your car for your commute? Would you have walked in the snow or risked driving your car?