Why Blizzards Shut Down Transportation Systems, Proving That, In The Northeast, You Really Can't Get There From Here

As the blizzard of 2015 bore down on the East Coast, basically all forms of Northeast transportation came to a complete halt. Approximately 7,000 flights were canceled, road travel bans were issued in several states, and even public transportation systems announced stoppages in service. If you weren't already at your final destination by Monday night in New York, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, or New Jersey, chances were good you wouldn't get there before the storm was over. And it's not clear when transportation might return to normal.

It's not until transportation is affected or limited that we realize how much we depend on it. But when roads, airlines, and public transportation are canceled, what are the dangers officials are trying to prevent? It varies, depending on the mode of transportation in question.

Road Travel

Governors in Pennsylvania, New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New Jersey all declared states of emergency and issued travel restrictions. A state of emergency triggered by a natural disaster such as a blizzard lets a governor suspend certain rules and regulations for the duration of the incident and impose restrictions on travel, to allow emergency workers better mobility.

Keeping roads clear for plows and salt trucks is one reason officials want you to stay home, but it's much harder to control a car on a snow-covered road. Drive too fast, you could spin out and hit something or someone; drive too slowly and you could get stuck.

Air Travel

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Flying in snow is particularly dangerous for a lot of the same reasons it's not safe to drive: bad visibility, wind, and icy runways that reduce a pilot's control of his or her vehicle. But Boston.com blog "Ask the Pilot" explained that airplanes can't take off with ice or snow on their wings, because of the way the frozen buildup can disrupt the airflow around the shape of the wing. Plus, airplane de-icing procedures, which use a chemical/water mix, are time-consuming and have to be carefully coordinated with pilots and air traffic controllers.

Airline tracking site FlightAware.com reported Monday night that more than 2,800 flights into and out of the U.S. were canceled Monday alone, and more than 4,100 flights had already been canceled for Tuesday. More than 700 of those cancellations were at LaGuardia International Airport, around 500 at Philadelphia International Airport, and close to 300 at Boston's Logan International Airport.

Public Transportation

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With roads closed, not only will you not be able to get around by car in the northeast, but public transportation doesn't look like it is going to be an option either. Even though subways are underground, they can be prone to flooding, especially in a rain or snow event where precipitation falls faster than pumps can clear subway tunnels. Electrical failures, such as the one that happened during the Brooklyn tornado of 2007, can pose other hazards, and strand passengers underground.

The New York Times reported both subway and bus service in the Big Apple were scheduled to be suspended at 11 p.m. Monday, the first time the New York City subways were shut down because of snow. New Jersey Transit shut down trains as of 10 p.m. Monday, and the MBTA in Massachusetts announced it would keep running through midnight Monday, but would shut down entirely on Tuesday.

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