How Snowstorms Reveal the Wasted Space on Our RoadsS

During any of the several recent catastrophic blizzards that have draped the country with snow, you might have seen people tagging their photos #sneckdown. No, it's not a protective garment you wear to keep your neck snow-free (although that could also come in handy!). It's a word coined by transportation geeks.

"Neckdown" is a somewhat wonky term used by traffic engineers for the extended pedestrian areas you'll see at crosswalks, says Clarence Eckerson of Streetsfilm. "The more common term is curb extensions or bulb-outs," he tells Gizmodo. "These are a proven form of traffic calming that narrows the roadway so pedestrians have a shorter distance to cross at intersections. They also cause turning cars to slow down and be more careful making their turns."

How Snowstorms Reveal the Wasted Space on Our Roads

When it snows (a lot), it essentially turns the entire city into a data-tracking system—which can record the way people move through it. Slowly, paths are carved through the snow by cars, plows and pedestrians, with the most heavily traveled paths eventually revealing the pavement below.

What you start to notice is that cars drive in a very narrow area compared to the width of the roadway, revealing untouched mounds of snow around the corners of the streets and intersections. The snow temporarily shows where neckdowns might be possible, by illustrating the space that's rarely used by cars.

Three years ago, Eckerson made this video of the phenomenon, calling the temporary curb extensions "Snowy Neckdowns." Earlier this year, the #sneckdown hashtag caught on, and the latest wave of storms spawned articles at Streetsblog NYC and BBC News.

While it's fun to imagine the possibility of a large pedestrian plaza or traffic island in the middle of a wide street, the great thing about sneckdowns is that they cost absolutely nothing. Transportation planners spend lots of money funding traffic studies to understand how people and vehicles use streets, and this is essentially a free way to test out their theories. If you look at some of the changes implemented in New York City to improve the pedestrian experience, they look an awful lot like a sneckdown.

How Snowstorms Reveal the Wasted Space on Our RoadsS

Since 42 states currently have snow on the ground, you'll likely be able to spot sneckdowns in action right now in a city near you. It's a nice activity to pass the time as you wait for the snow to melt sometime in May.

Top image by Doug Gordon/Brooklyn Spoke; sneckdown collage by Instagram user @UrbanCincy; New York street by NYC Streets