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April 6, 2018updated 29 Jul 2021 1:12pm

Why can’t London cope with extreme weather?

When the BBC warned that another cold snap could hit London over Easter weekend, you could almost hear the population’s collective groan.

We were all thinking back to the bad old days of just a few weeks ago, when snow ground the city to a halt. Trains were cancelled and replacement buses crawled through the slush at a snail’s pace. Water pipes cracked, leaving thousands of Londoners without of water for several days.

In all, Transport for London estimates that one in five commuters stayed at home as the Storm Emma and the “Beast from the East” battered the country.

So – why weren’t we more prepared? Snow isn’t exactly unprecedented in the UK – so why can’t the government pull its finger out and weather proof the country?

Even if moaning voters can’t convince, you’d think the economic costs certainly could: the disruption of the recent winter weather is thought to have cost the UK economy up to £1bn a day.

And yet, this argument is far from a slam-dunk – because the costs of weatherproofing against snow are pretty enormous, too. The Canadian historian Judith Flanders explained the complexity of the whole de-icing procedure in a recent twitter thread. In it, she detailed the 11 step process needed to clear just one side of a street, involving at least seven different specialised vehicles. Not only is the actual snow clearing time consuming work: before you can even do that, the equipment has to be bought, maintained and stored for the other non-snowy days.

This was in Montreal, a city that experiences over 200cm of snow a year. In country like the UK where we might see 20cm of snow, is the cost of all this weather proofing really worth it?

After all, in icier countries, everyone switches over to winter tyres when the weather demands it. At £60 to £140 a tyre, it could cost upwards of £9.1bn just to fit out the 38m vehicles registered on UK roads. Suddenly that £1bn of lost activity on snow days doesn’t seem so bad,

Another issue with British snow is that is fairly unpredictable due to our island climate. It can sometimes hit hard early in the winter. Other years, though, it may hit towards spring – or never arrive at all. This all makes it far harder, and more expensive, to predict a cold snap and prepare accordingly.

So maybe if climate change throws us a curveball and South England ends up buried under three feet of snow for months a year, then we can go all in with the weather proofing: Swiss army snow plows, under pavement heating, winter tires on all the vehicles. But otherwise it’s just not worth it.  

Unless, that is, we got a really cool interactive live map of where the snow plows are, like they have in Montreal – but that would mostly just be a bonus for the CityMetric editorial team.

Much better to just to grit our teeth, rather than our roads, and get through the three days of misery a year. By all means moan with the other stranded commuters, but don’t start petitions for weather proofing. There are far better ways to spend our taxes.

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