Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Salty Roads and Salty Air

Salty Charles River Trail Brompton
The past few days in Boston have been interesting. A snow storm was expected on Tuesday morning, and several towns pre-emptively salted the roads in anticipation. It did snow a bit, but a big storm never came. What did come was a stretch of severely cold, windy days. The resulting landscape has been one of the more bizarre sights I have ever seen along my commutes: white roads, white trails, white mist - all of it very much resembling snow, except that it's salt.

The overzealous road treatment has its benefits. Despite riding in sub-15°F temperatures in the suburbs after a mild snowfall, I never had to worry about sleek road surface conditions. It was wonderful actually: I had lots to do and my mobility was in no way impaired as it sometimes is on days like this. Even the trail along the Charles River was thoroughly ridable, which has been great for avoiding heavy traffic on the roads during rush hour.

Still, the drawbacks are impossible to ignore. The salting has been so extreme, that over the course of two days it's hurt my face, mouth and eyes. It isn't difficult to imagine what corrosive effects it must be having on vehicles, including bikes, and what damage it must be doing to the environment. Many locals have expressed concern over this, succinctly summarised on the Boston Streets website.

Boston Streets refers to the decision to salt roads as the “windshield perspective,” linking it to the assumption that "everyone gets around inside a glass-enclosed, climate-controlled vehicle" and believing that it shows "utter disregard for the pedestrians, bicyclists, dog-walkers, and water-drinkers among us." I am following this debate with interest, eager for an alternative yet effective solution. As a cyclist, I must admit that I have enjoyed the salted roads (and bike lanes and trails) for the increased mobility they have afforded me this winter, so it had not occurred to me to interpret the practice as car-centric. But I am concerned about the environmental and corrosive effects, as well as the possible harm to my health (what else do they mix with the salt, and is it good for me to be swallowing it every day?).

The real issue, as I see it, is that any city trying to make itself over as a "cycling city" - as Boston and other North American cities with harsh winter climates are doing - needs to have a plan not just for the warm months but also for the cold. Unfortunately, we do not. Boston removed the Hubway bike share stations in November, posting a "closed for the season" message on their website. The Charles River Trail is being plowed this winter not due to bike-friendly city policy, but to the sponsorship of New Balance (thanks guy), which is done mainly for the benefit of runners and joggers, not transportation cyclists.

I am conflicted about the salting of roads. I do not like to criticise unless I can offer an alternative solution, which in this case I cannot. Something to think about as I thaw my chapped, salt-burned face after this evening's travels. It's broodle out there.

38 comments:

  1. Here I am careful to limit sodium intake to 1500 mg daily and you guys are basically showering in it. Can't be healthy to you or the bikes. Jim Duncan

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  2. I'm interested in the environmental effects of salting roads too. In Seattle, a couple of years ago, we had an unusually good (my word for it) snow storm. The approach, at the time, of light sanding and minimal salting made for some really slick roads for several days. I made it to work just fine on my bike as usual but a lot of people were livid that their SUV wouldn't drive itself where they needed to go on those roads (instead of being thankful for a snow day). This basically cost the poor mayor his job. Keep in mind that Seattle usually has zero to one snow days a year so we don't have a lot of snowplows laying around for those rare days where we get more. Now we pre-emptively salt the hell out of the roads too. Nobody talks about the effect of the salt on the Puget Sound anymore. And its hell on your bicycle components.

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    1. I live in Seattle too and I wouldn't take this so lightly. This guy must not have had to go very far. It took me hours to get home (usually a 15-min bus ride) and a couple hours more for my husband, who does commute by car but both ends of his commute are within Seattle city limits (i.e. we are not suburban dwellers mindlessly driving SUVs around). It was scary and I'm glad the roads are salted now. But in Seattle when we only get snow and ice once or twice a year, the environmental effects are said to be minimal.

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  3. There are alternatives which airports use, since corrosive things like salt damage airplane equipment. The problem is that upfront they are much more expensive. In terms of environmental impact and corrosion damage they can be cheaper, but it's tough to sell that whole picture argument.

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    1. Airports use vast quantities of propylene glycol on the runways. Not environmentally benign.

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  4. Chemical analyses followed by known effects of said components.

    Filtered through actual number of cyclists in this kind of weather = a pragmatic solution for the majority.

    FDA approval does not factor in overall health of individuals. One can not expect government to.

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  5. It looks like Boston uses good old salt, but most places are using magnesium chloride which is awful. Supposedly it is environmentally friendly and okay seeping into waterways and soil, but I swear it is worse than the usual salt. Pets are getting sick when they lick it off their paws, and as I have researched, it is corrosive to everything, even road surfaces, so in the winter for the last several years I have had a mysterious black goo on my bikes that is hard to get off. It's also obviously tough on cars so people should be monitoring their vehicles and cleaning the under carriage regularly. When it is raining, the stuff washes away or to the side of the road, but when it is dry, the stuff dries to a white salty powder, it swirls in the wind and from cars. It gets in my eyes, my mouth and is disgusting. I stress that here in the pacific northwest it is rarely below freezing, rarely icy, yet the roads in my area are plastered. Drivers should take some responsibility and use winter tires, learn how to drive in icy conditions, or take public transit if available.
    I do see how over zealous salting is biased towards vehicles. As a walker, you can generally get around ice, and once things melt, dry etc, it's okay for biking. Alternatively, where I grew up with brutal winters, sand was used instead of salt. Ah bless, my bikes were always in great shape come spring, unlike here.
    Conrad: interesting about Seattle over salting the roads because according to BQP, they mysteriously have a grand old time and ride their beautiful bikes and shun 'winter bikes'. When I lived in Vancouver salting the roads was almost never done, so I never had a problem with corrosion. There was a pickle the other week when we had some freezing rain and black ice. A very rare event, it melted and all was forgotten.

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  6. Hmmm... here in Denver they don't use either salt or sand on the roads. Instead they use two different products: Ice Slicer (which they say is an all-natural granular product) and MeltDown Apex (which is an enhanced liquid de-icer and anti-icer - whatever that means.)

    The city claims that both are better for the environment than salt or sand, but I can't speak to the veracity of that claim. Here's more info if you're curious:

    http://www.betterroads.com/a-benchmark-for-snow-and-ice-management-in-the-mile-high-city/

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  7. Generally, salt is salt. It would be unusual for a city spreading it around that liberally to be using any of the other chemicals that might be mixed in, just because it gets expensive fast. There's a nice summary of the issue from the Cary Institute for Ecosystem Studies here, with relative costs of options:
    http://www.caryinstitute.org/sites/default/files/public/reprints/report_road_salt_2010.pdf

    That said, salting below 20-22 degrees is utterly pointless; it simply won't provide any melting. And salt can be as much a cause of black ice as a solution, since it provides a level of melting that the temperature can't support; once the salt's effect is gone, the water re-freezes.

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  8. I've always been somewhat irked by municipalities over-salting the streets, having a vague understanding of its detrimental effects but never feeling too personally affected by it. But now that I'm a dog owner it's galvanized my perspective: salting is pure nasty.

    The thing is, I don't get the "pre-emptive" approach at all, and goes to show that public works departments are putting too much faith in weather forecasts. The plows still need to come by after it snows, whether the streets have been salted pre-emptively or not. Why not just wait until the plows come. It just makes for increased truck traffic-- once for the trucks to come spread the salt, and again to plow. Just roll it into one, the way it's been done for decades. The pre-emptive salting is a new thing.

    Sadly, public works officials are usually old-school and car-centric (especially Somerville- the DPW head has been quite vocal about this), and street plowing and salting campaigns are all about keeping traffic unimpeded. And the standard of measure for how well these officials are doing their jobs is--you guessed it-- how many tons of salt get laid each season. It's even a point of pride among them.

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    1. http://www.flickr.com/photos/7516215@N03/8384582991

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  9. A easy solution for you would be to move outside of Boston to a place where they salt the roads less. (I know, it's probably not an option)

    In Arlington-Lexington-Woburn-Burlington area roads are salted as well but not as much that it would "hurt my face, mouth and eyes".

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  10. Broodle is a fun word, but good old fashion asinine works just as well.

    Communities accept (heck significant portions demand) aggressive salting despite obvious negative impact on their vehicles, the roads and things under the roads such as sewer and power and communication lines, water, air, and the rest of the environment. All because they cannot slow down a bit on days of extraordinary weather.

    30 years from now when people are asking why no one did anything in the face of climate change, looking for answers will not take much effort.

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  11. I was in Boston (mostly Cambridge) last weekend, and was extremely bummed that the Hubway was closed. 40+ degrees, perfectly dry roads, no car. I would have been ecstatic to be using the bikeshare system. Alas.

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    1. For what it's worth, the Hubway folks have said that because usage exceeded expectations so much, they are going to consider keeping the system running all year (but not this year). So I'd say if Hubway users want to see it open all year, they should definitely voice that opinion to the system managers.

      And we're doing better than New York, which hasn't even managed to get their bikes out on the road yet.

      As for the salt, I have nothing to add except to agree with the other comments. The DPW really blew it on this one.

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  12. I agree with you that the central issue is that Boston (and environs) are having to adjust to the idea that there are actually cyclists year round, and that the infrastructure needs to be maintained all the time.

    I think that the salt was an honest mistake, but it is annoying and I think it should be a "learning opportunity" for the cities about the impacts of such a mistake on pedestrians and bicyclists.

    I've been washing my face a lot more, and am a bit concerned that my lips taste salty even when they've been mostly covered by my scarf. I worry what I'm breathing in.

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    1. Yeah, I basically taste salt all day long. Disconcerting!

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  13. I grew up in Cleveland, where presalting like that was standard; it's brutal on cars, too. Rimes of salt up their sides were standard, and rust endemic. It took me a while to get used to having sand on the roads -- drove me nuts as a cyclist up here and I missed the salt. Now I'm used to it and the smell of over salted road was oddly nostalgic. Sense memory: so odd.

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  14. Everywhere from Downtown Boston all the way out to West Roxbury has been oversalted, even the side-walks... it was certainly a case of putting too much faith in the forecast along with, as I am sure, the Boston DPW being concerned with having their budget cut if we wind up with another Winter without much snowfall... their solution? 1" Snow = 1" salt! seems to make sense!

    Now, as a cyclist, motorist, and pedestrian in our fair city, I would like to echo the sentiments made above in my concern for my bike(s) and components, my car (which I do not think of as a recyclable product like so many people do, I'd like to keep it for many many many years), and my own health.

    Like Cycler said, I have been tasting a lot of salt on the air the past few days... and with how dry it's been b/c of the extreme cold, it is more airborne.

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  15. The issue of salt is not a problem here in Edmonton, AB. It's too cold for it to work! Sand, sand, and more sand here.

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    1. Same with Saskatchewan, sand worked, I could bike and did not have corrosion on my bikes.

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  16. As a bridge engineer, it is worth noting that in addition to being corrosive to vehicles, salting can also be corrosive to bridges and other transportation infrastructure.

    Each local transportation agency must weigh the risks, costs, and benefits that are particular to their system, public, and climate.

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  17. Salt haters, be careful what you wish for. In Germany _much_ less salt is used on the roadways and even less on bike and ped facilities. Some municipalities are even completely salt free. Sand and grit is all that is used. The effect is that as a year-round cyclist you practically have to get studded tires and will often have a hard time getting around even with studded tires. A few winters ago it was particularly cold in Berlin (by Berlin standards) and friends told me that sidewalks and bike paths were completely unusable for months because of the ice build-up. And, of course, once winter is over you'll have to deal with bike facilities and roads covered in sand and grit before they finally get around to sweeping them properly after a couple weeks. I was very happy after moving to salty North America.

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  18. The Dutch apparently use a saltwater mix that they spread on the bikepaths but I am not sure what happens when the temperature gets down lower than the freezing point of that solution... They also have a combination of plows and sweepers that keep most paths bone dry even after a significant snow.
    http://bicycledutch.wordpress.com/2013/01/17/dashing-through-the-snow/ Also note that they had recent temps around -16C which is pretty close to what it is outside now (3 F)

    The Bike lanes coming in from Newton are pretty much all gone except for a 1 foot stripe where cars who cant keep in their lanes are driving. It's alllll salt, can't be good for anybody, though I have not noticed any breathing issues or salt build up on my face...

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  19. “SALT” is a serious water and soil contaminant. For an example not many plants grow in the
    Great Salt Lank basin. Las Vegas Nev. was required to install a multimillion dollar desalinization plant in Vegas Wash to treat water from water softeners before it entered Lake Mead/Colorado River.
    Many states allow road and street salting this seems like a double standard. Millions of tons of salt are washed into our soil, rivers and lakes annually; it has to stop.

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  20. Well, aside from being a dedicated cyclist, I earn my living as a civil engineer renovating structures, a number of which are the subjects of renovation works because of salt used to prevent icing. So at the risk of cutting of my nose to spite my face, I don't like the practice of distributing salt.

    Above all I find that in winter, it's very necessary to wash and lubricate the bicycle chain every couple of rides. Failure to do this results in rapid corrosion of chain and surrounding components.

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  21. Without defending the practice of oversalting, I've been at this long enough to remember when winters were colder, snows heavier and traffic much lighter. When traffic was lighter and citizens were sensible about not driving so much in bad weather it was not so urgent to have the streets plowed and salted instantly .I didn't own a car then so I was out there on the bike. Cars, if they were out there, slid. A lot. Buses slid. A lot. When visibility was poor I was out there with nothing but an incandescent light. Anyone remember those? A familiar sight was watching a bus slide downhill off the crown of the road toward the bike lane (which existed only as a notion in my head). So I'd be calculating trajectories for the bus and calculating possible trajectories for the bike through the ruts and figuring do I get smacked by the flat side side of the bus or could I get into the wheel well? I got smacked by the side of the bus a few times.
    You wanna go back to those days? I'll tell you, the part where there really was a whole lot less vehicular traffic was very nice.

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  22. Dear V,

    Scrape and sand is effective, but doesn't have the same psychological impact as salt or mag Chloride. Salts (MgCl2 and NaCl) and sand both have negative environmental impacts, though sanding impacts can be mitigated more easily (BMPs in the storm drains and frequent street sweeping).

    Magnesium Chloride (adopted here on the Colorado Front Range) is pretty corrosive to aluminum. A bucket of hot water after a sloppy car-snot ride is called for, unless you've got a sacrificial "salt bike". Keep your pretty chrome-plated bits waxed too....

    Another note: MgCl2 is used as a gravel/dirt road stabilizer and dust-suppressant in many communities, so all those butter-smooth unpaved roads become salt baths for your bike in the rain....

    Cheers,

    Will
    William M. deRosset
    Fort Collins, CO

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    1. As a rider of an aluminum bike for winter, I'd be curious to know what's on the roads in the Boston area.

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    2. The thing that always kills me about FC in the winter is the way roads get plowed up to the bike lane, which turns into a lane of ice for days or weeks as the snow in the parked car lanes slowly melt and re-freeze daily. Although I'd think I could be fairly sure it's not only here.

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  23. For a while some places were experimenting with mixing beet juice in with the salt to decrease the amount of salt needed. Whatever happened to that idea?

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  24. I'm in Montana, no salt here, and in town they do a little plowing then just let cars pack down the snow. The road clearing philosophy seems to be that if you live here you should have snow tires and be able to deal with some snow.

    It's great to not have salt in the rivers, but biking is harder. I don't even try during snowstorms, I take the bus. A few days after a storm I will bike but the roads turn into this terrifying patchwork of bare pavement and packed down snow bumps and ruts and I can only manage it on a mountain bike.

    In truly cold, snowy climates I think the reality is that a few of us will bike through the winter, but others don't want to even if travel lanes are clear. If it's below zero, biking is just...cold. Biking isn't the only solution - walking and public transport are a lot warmer and planning that encourages these transit modes lets people keep getting around without cars in the winter. (But of course we should keep building bike infrastructure for spring, summer and fall!)

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  25. No one mentioned what happens when you fall on a well salted road, I hope I'm not the only one who knows what that's like.

    To find ones self on ones back, one foot skyward with a bicycle attached and the other coiled neatly around ones waist, your lower back marinading in a chilly sand/brine solution with your jacket inside out up around your shoulders, That's refreshing. Then you get to ride the half mile home grimacing like Joe Cocker with the salt/mag cloride/beetjuice stripping your Marco Pantani tattoo off along with half your hair and the remnants of last summers tan knowing, KNOWING, that the real fun starts at home.

    Cleaning that mess up is AGONY. You get home feeling like a well salted codfish and when you've scrubbed yourself into a whimpering shadow of your former self you crawl into bed exhausted, looking like bad sushi. I've had my share of raodrash but that little adventure stands out in stark detail. It doesn't help that I have the pain tolerance of a seven year old. When I finally healed it looked like part of someone else grew back in place of part of me.

    It's a damn shame I fall down so much.

    Spindizzy

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  26. When it's all over start the inspection. Biggest one on a steel frame is pull the bottom bracket and have a look. You do not know what you will find until you have a look. Rust is like cancer, it can be latent a very long time or it can grow very very fast. Total prevention is simply not possible, early detection is your best bet. Open the bracket. Drop the fenders and racks and bottle cages and see what's under those screws.

    Steel frames have vents. Make sure they are clear. Do not allow them to be plugged with salt and road snot. If you have a fancy frame with a drain hole tape it over when you ride and open it as soon as you get home.

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  27. I'm totally in agreement; excessive salt sucks and seems like a bad idea, but when compared to the alternatives, what're we to do? I'm tempted to say that maybe some snow days wouldn't hurt us as a society, but in my line of work, there is no such thing as a "snow day".. It's a 24/7/365 type of gig, and not for market-driven reasons. I live close enough to work, and have an arsenal of bikes that'll get me there, but what about my coworkers? Few of them are in a similar situation.

    All I really have to say is: "...I never had to worry about *sleek* road surface conditions..." Yeah, me neither. It's the slick ones that always give me the problem. =D

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  28. The overzealous salting of Boston's roads caused me to lowside my bike tonight on my way home from work...bastards! I went to make a quick turn, hit a patch of salt that was hard to see in the dark, and the rear wheel slid out from under me. Twisted my left ankle a bit, hopefully it's not too bad...I already sprained it over the summer!

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