Seattle Ice Trek 2010 Illustrates Classic Environmental Tradeoffs

Photo c/o A.Monahan
Last night, Seattle was brought to its knees by what seemed to me to be a relatively minor snow event (I’m from Wisconsin, originally). I found myself mocking Seattle drivers all day for putting chains on their tires and being generally fearful about venturing outside with less than an inch on the ground. Then, while trying to get from Seattle’s Museum of Flight to Sea-Tac Airport, I felt the full brunt of the problem.

Traffic in all directions was completely and utterly gridlocked to such an extent that taxi companies were not answering the phone, the bus was nowhere in sight, and my brief attempt to hitchhike wouldn’t have helped anyway since cars were moving slower than pedestrians.

Watching wheels spin in all directions and feeling the ice under my feet, I realized the roads were far more slippery than I’d ever seen in an urban environment. The problem? Seattle’s environmental policy to ban spreading salt on roads – a solution that would have otherwise rendered the commute quite uneventful.

But there are good reasons Seattle banned salting some years ago:

1) Salt runs into local waterways, potentially killing aquatic life.
2) Salt damages plants and life along the sides of the road.
3) Salt wrecks the underside of people’s vehicles by provoking rust.
4) Salt may damage local aquifers and drinking water.
(more details on how it works, here)

But is it worth it?

Asking this is a recipe for the classic “trade off” argument of “save the environment” vs. something else. The kind of thing that could blow up completely if enough snowstorms happen and if enough inconvenience lands in people’s laps.

You also have the recipe for a political disaster – angry commuters fuming at the gridlock and fender-benders may be less sympathetic to the above issues in the moment. In fact, many mayoral elections have been decided because of a bad blizzard and the perceived lack of government response (see Denver 1983, Chicago 1979, and more…).

If you happen to be an ecologist, I’d love some more details on how harmful widespread salting is – in Seattle or elsewhere. Perhaps the threat is overblown? After all, crashing cars that cause 1000s more to idle for hours isn’t good either. Then again, it seems like common sense to think twice before dumping 100s of tons of foreign chemicals down the creek.

This metaphorical conversation is one that takes place daily among companies looking to improve their environmental (or social) performance. Though we love to talk about how achieving a balance between these things is ultimately more profitable, it’s not always obvious and many times we find ourselves mired in trade-offs before a more integrated plan surfaces.

Ultimately, I opted to trek by foot into the falling darkness to cover the 3 miles of snow covered ground to the nearest light-rail station. Once I warmed up, the adventure was actually rather fun, and certainly vastly faster than any other option. Walking on the shoulder of a freeway, weaving between cars, witnessing several accidents, I finally arrived at a station where the modern, warm and fast light-rail train zipped me to the airport in no time at all.

The train didn’t need any salt and took up comparatively minimal space on the landscape. At least for folks who didn’t have to drive beyond a station, perhaps the start of a very wise and integrated solution is dawning in Seattle… or maybe I’m just too metaphor happy today.

Nick Aster is a new media architect and the founder of TriplePundit.com

TriplePundit.com has since grown to become one of the web's leading sources of news and ideas on how business can be used to make the world a better place.

Prior to TriplePundit Nick worked for Mother Jones magazine, successfully re-launching the magazine's online presence. He was instrumental in the creation of TreeHugger.com, managing the technical side of the publication for 3 years as well as an active consultant for individuals and companies entering the world of micro-publishing. He earned his stripes working for Gawker Media and Moreover Technologies in the early days of blogging.

Nick holds an MBA in sustainable management from the Presidio School of Management and graduated with a BA in History from Washington University in St. Louis.