Reassessing our Snow Routes

In late January of 2014, a snow storm blew into Hampton Roads that forced most of the region to shut down.  Snow and ice covered the streets and the cities fought to clear it, but the magnitude of the snow event prevented HRT from delivering service safely, and we reluctantly closed for two days.

Questions arose about the structure of HRT’s snow plans, how the agency decided when it was appropriate to shut down service, and how we might deliver critical transit at reduced levels when snow and ice cover the ground.

HRT coordinated with the cities, identified key facilities and critical locations, and used HRT’s observations about driving in extreme conditions of inclement weather to ultimately develop the current snow route plan.  HRT and local public works departments provided confirmation that the routes developed would be given priority by snow plow crews, as the included key locations each city had identified as a priority.

The plan identified the conditions under which service would be suspended throughout the system and identified snow routes.  The Snow Routes are identified by a color-coded system and combine elements of existing HRT routes, instead of the customary route numbers, and they were shaped by city plans for snow removal to include lifeline services (ex. hospitals) and key businesses. Three Snow Routes were designated for the Peninsula: Brown, Teal and Gray and seven were identified on the Southside: Red, Gold, Purple, Blue, Green, Orange, Pink, and Silver.

The Snow Plan delivered critical but skeletal service among all modes of service, including, bus, light rail, and ferry.  The plan also established the method of and location of service for our transit operators and customers during a snow event. The goal was to provide access to transit service, while identifying potential hazards, delays and limited routes during extreme weather events.  Passengers were able to identify designated stops on the snow routes by the blue snowflake on the bus stop pole.

Unfortunately, these routes are not meeting the needs of our customers.  Customers are confused about the snow routes and it does not get them to their desired destination.  Our best intentions to deliver critical service during snow events – such as serving major activity centers – was undermined when those locations closed during storms.  Identifying the snow route stops is difficult for both Operators because of reduced visibility and customers have challenges locating the stops and finding the right bus stop to stand by. Ridership has been paltry during snow events, as major storms generally shut down most businesses and services throughout the region.

Interest in transit services – and snow routes during weather events – is clearly high. recorded 42,000 page views during the most recent storm.  Nearly 25% of those views were of the Snow Emergency page (10,395).  More people viewed the Snow Emergency page than the homepage, a fact likely due to HRT’s communication efforts with the public, its news releases, and the engagement on social media.  Time spent on that single page was 185% above the site average (4 minutes, 22 seconds vs. 1 minute 31 seconds).  As a comparison, on a typical day, the website has approximately 1,800 visitors starting 2,200 sessions.

But the understanding of the routes sill challenge customers. To address that, I have directed our planning department to reevaluate the Snow Routes.  Our number one goal is safety. Ensuring the safety of our customers, employees and assets should come before anything else.  The secondary goal is to develop a revised plan that would better meet the needs of our customers by providing service along core bus routes primarily servicing key arterials, major activity centers, hospitals and transit centers.  A schedule with approximate times will be develop for each route and all bus stops that are cleared of snow and ice along those routes will be serviced. The routes in the revised snow route plan will closely mimic the existing bus route structure.

I’ll keep you apprised of their progress.

William Harrell
President & CEO, Hampton Roads Transit