A One-Car Snow Day Adventure

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.


contemplating whether to leave

assessing the situation – hill behind him


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.


outside my building

the walkway outside my building


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.


snowy car

snow piling up on and around our car


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.


walk vs drive

most people suggested we walk


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!


bus blocking road

a bus completely blocking the road


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.


snowy road

powdery snow, easier to drive on


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.


hill with abandoned cars

a long, steeper hill with many abandoned cars


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.


finally home!

home after a 45 minute walk!


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?


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20 Responses to "A One-Car Snow Day Adventure"

  1. Alicia says:

    I’ve grown up in snow my entire life. I learned how to drive in snow, and have been doing so for over a decade. That being said, our winter this year has been the worst I think I have ever experienced. At first I thought it was because I was in a new area, but my old city is getting hit much harder as well.

    When I was a grad student I probably had three snow days in five years. That is because it was in a major (-ish) city that was used to snow, and most people lived pretty close. I now work at a university on the outskirts of a small town with horrible public transportation, so everyone commutes. They’re still used to snow, but there are very few people in walking distance to make it in without transportation. Since early December, at least once a week we have either had a delayed opening, an early closure, or the full day off. That is 8 weather disruptions in two months! I only have a 10 minute, 10 km commute (and flat except for one small hill) and am thankful I know how to drive well in snow.

    In your pictures, I don’t really see much hill – though I grew up in a city that may as well be Seattle from a hill point of view :), I am comfortable in snow though, so I would have driven. That being said it is much harder to account for the other drivers who might not know what they are doing. All that matters is that you are safe and sound, in the end.
    Alicia recently posted..Dining Out, Responsibly.

    1. Emily says:

      Yes, today is our third snow day this year and I think we’ve had maybe 1 in each of a couple years in the past. I actually went to work on those snow days in previous years because driving seemed quite reasonable, but we’re staying at home for these ones!

      Yes, the hill is hard to see in the pic, especially with all the snow – I realized after I took it. It isn’t very steep but it is rather long, and it is steeper than the hills we were assessing on campus and most around the city.

      The other drivers were really what were worrying us – the cars choking up the road. Our car isn’t exactly prepped for snow driving but I think it would have done okay.

  2. Mrs. PoP says:

    Love it! Not just the beautiful snow, but your reaction to it as well. We haven’t been impacted at all by the snow… unless you count most of the rest of the country hating us! =)

    My bike has become way more than a backup plan for getting to work – it’s primary transportation these days and I’m still absolutely loving it. Yesterday I was in the car with a colleague during the workday and because of traffic on the main road I led him down the back roads that I use to get to work on my bike (slower speed limit but no traffic) and with the views (canals, marshes, lakes, and golf courses) he just kept saying, “Now I get why you like riding so much every day.”
    Mrs. PoP recently posted..How We Cut Our Cell Phone Bill By Over $100/Month – Part 3

    1. Emily says:

      Yeah, seriously, we talked with Kyle’s mom after we got home on Wednesday and she was like “It’s 80 today…” Ugh, can’t wait to move back to CA!

      It’s cool that your backup plan morphed into your primary plan, especially because you are benefitting from that view as well! I actually wouldn’t mind walking to work for more than just emergency reasons, but Kyle is pretty opposed to it.

  3. Ashley says:

    I love this story! Well, not so much the almost getting stuck and stuff but the way you guys handled it! I would MUCH rather walk than drive. That would scare me so much to have seen that bus blocking traffic! Glad you made it home in a relatively short amount of time 🙂
    Ashley recently posted..Not Worth It

    1. Emily says:

      It was a bit of a scary decision to commit to an hour or so of being cold and getting wetter when we’d already been outside for a while. But we felt more in control as we knew we could walk on the grass on the side of the road if the roads were blocked. That bus was pretty crazy. People were out of their cars and walking around, and others were just waiting in their cars thinking they would be able to get by on the shoulder. I’m so glad we didn’t try to bring the car along with us.

  4. Tarynkay says:

    You were smart to walk. My husband ended up parking his car on a side street off Roxboro walking the rest of the way home. He said that driving in the snow wasn’t bad, it was all of the other people who had no idea how to drive in it and were sliding all over the place.

    The snow has been fun, though! This is what I love about snow here. We don’t have the ability to deal with as a city, so everything just shuts down and everyone stays home and goes out and plays in the snow and drinks hot chocolate. Then all of the snow melts within a couple of days, so it’s not like we have to deal with shoveling driveways or anything. It is just the right amount of winter, in my opinion.

    1. Emily says:

      It has bee nice to have a really good reason not to be at work (yesterday, anyway). 🙂 I second you on appreciating not having to shovel anything – not that we even own a snow shovel!

  5. Money Beagle says:

    Glad to see that you made it home okay. Sounds like a story you’ll have to tell for a long time 🙂
    Money Beagle recently posted..5 Ways to Save Money on POS Equipment Purchase

    1. Emily says:

      It seems less dramatic in retrospect, now that everything’s melting. 🙂

  6. Sounds like you made a good decision to walk! I grew up in North Dakota, so driving in snow was just a way of life, so initially I found it kind of funny about the situation in Atlanta, and how people couldn’t drive in it and created traffic problems. But I realized having that infrastructure in place can make the difference between people being able to get home, and being stuck in traffic for hours!
    Jon @ Our Fine Adventure recently posted..Book Review: Blue Zones

    1. Emily says:

      Part of it is people not knowing how to drive, part of it is that our cars are not equipped with proper tires and so forth and no one carries kitty litter or whatever to generate traction, but I think the big contributor was just the volume. Atlanta already has the worst traffic in the nation so even if the conditions were perfect and everyone got on the roads all at once and were driving slow there would be big issues!

  7. SarahN says:

    I’ve gotta ask – why don’t you walk every day? I suppose I try to get as much incidental exercise as possible, and I bet without snow, it’s a little less than 45mins.

    I commute to work by car as I am proved it at absolutely no cost. IN the next month or two, this will change, and I plan to walk to the train, then walk from the train station near work to work. Interestingly, we live in inner Sydney, so close to the city, that my BF walks (and I would too, if I worked in the city). Yes we pay more rent than if we lived in the suburbs, but I think it’s worthwhile spending to not spend time in cars, in traffic etc.
    SarahN recently posted..Weight loss plans

    1. Emily says:

      We don’t walk daily for a few reasons. Honestly, I am open to walking occasionally but Kyle is adamantly opposed to it.

      1) Our commute now is 15 minutes each way (5 mins driving, 10 mins walking) and, well, that’s a lot shorter than 45 minutes each way. On some days I’ll electively take a 45 minute walk, but not many. I try to keep my workouts short.

      2) Kyle sweats very easily here on the humid East Coast. He sweated through his shirt walking home on Wednesday and back on Saturday. Not a great way to start your day (though he could change upon getting to work, I guess).

      3) The road we would walk on is poor for pedestrians and cyclists. (I wrote in the post that it is better than the one on the way to where we use to live, which it is, but that’s only to emphasize how terrible the other one was.) The vast majority of the walk has no sidewalk and at stretches there is no shoulder. Several blind curves.

      4) We commute home after dark basically every day in the winter (and there is poor lighting on the road we would walk on). We’d have to get up pretty early in the morning to get all our normal working hours in and still get home before dark.

      Excuses, excuses, right? But you asked. 🙂 I actually have suggested to Kyle that we take 1 day per week to commute by non-car but he wasn’t having it, and it’s difficult for me to choose the non-convenient commute for myself when he’s going to drive anyway. I think the most realistic baby step to take is to walk to work (for the exercise, when it’s light) and bus home. There is a bus stop right across from our townhouse complex and it’s a straight shot to campus, and we have free passes from our university.

      1. SarahN says:

        I appreciate your honestly! Thank you!

        My BF also sweats profusely, which means a vast amount of my walking is alone, for my own pursuits. I do agree though, when you’re both headed to the same place, it’s hard to stay strong to walking!
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