Chauffeured black Audis, armored limousines and a fleet of shuttle vans crunched to a halt in the streets of Davos as a record number of financiers, corporate bosses and politicians struggled to navigate through five feet of Swiss Alpine snow last week, the second-most in 66 years.
More than 2,600 participants of the 42nd World Economic Forum, 1,000 journalists and 13,000 residents forged their way through narrow roads that resembled St. Moritz’s natural-ice bobsled run. The traffic looked more like that in the Lincoln Tunnel, which links New York and New Jersey.
Congestion was so heavy a taxi took almost 40 minutes the night of Jan. 26 to get from the conference’s Congress Centre to the Morosani Posthotel, where Coca-Cola Co. (KO) was holding a reception, a distance of 1.3 kilometers (0.8 miles) or about an 18-minute walk. A ride from the Sunstar Park Hotel to the Waldhotel, 2.3 kilometers away, which should have taken no more than 8 minutes, according to Google Maps, lasted 25 minutes and cost 41 Swiss francs ($45).
“Road conditions were pretty bad, and poor snow removal made tough conditions even worse,” said Nariman Behravesh, chief economist at Englewood, Colorado-based IHS Inc., who attended the forum for the third time. “There’s always a crush, but the snow made driving conditions even worse.”
Davos, known for its 307 kilometers of ski slopes, doesn’t have the infrastructure for the thousands of people invading the town during the annual conference, said Martin Stiffler, who works for Express Taxi, one of three local cab companies.
This year the firm had fewer cars on duty because of the snow. As participants tried to hail one of the company’s 12 cabs on the 4 kilometer-long Promenade, Davos’s main street, five drivers were dispatched to shovel snow, another service the company offers.
At about 8 p.m. on Jan. 25, a diner at Da Damiano restaurant, across from the Congress Centre, was told a taxi wouldn’t be available for at least 90 minutes.
“It gets worse every year,” said Tom Umiker, manager of Hotel Edelweiss, who offered to take guests to the train station. “You can call them and call them, and they don’t even pick up.”
The Steigenberger Grandhotel Belvedere, where four to six parties were held every evening, spent about 9,000 Swiss francs on snow removal during the conference, three times as much as last year, said Robert Attenberger, the resident manager.
“We like the snow, but this year it has been quite a challenge,” he said. “Every once in a while, people got stuck on our ramp because they didn’t have their snow chains on.”
Luck ran out for Express Taxi driver Bruno Kreienbuehl on Jan. 29, when he navigated down a winding slope on his way to the conference’s registration center. His white taxi made a hairpin turn and crashed into a military truck taking soldiers to their temporary base on the mountainside.
The conditions were “challenging,” said Markus Unterfinger, spokesman for the Davos tourist association. “Less for the participants than for the street cleaners.”
Thousands of tons of snow were dumped on frozen Lake Davos to clear roads for limousines transporting participants from hotels to the conference center, Unterfinger said.
Audi AG, exclusive partner for the forum since 1987, provided 86 A8L cars and 13 armored limousines this year, one more than in 2010. Meanwhile, 75 shuttle vans crawled along three designated loops to get attendees to their appointments.
“The huge amount of traffic was a real problem for us,” said Norbert Gruber, who oversees 40 vehicles and a staff of street cleaners dubbed “gnomes in orange” by the local newspaper, referring to their colored overalls. “We had to start plowing snow at 2 a.m. and work through the night and morning hours.”
Road conditions weren’t “that bad” given the heavy snowfall before the conference, Gruber said. Total accumulation as of Jan. 24, the day before the forum began, was a record for the winter and drifts reached almost as high as last year, according to the Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research in Davos, which began compiling data 66 years ago.
Conditions were hazardous for pedestrians as well. Norway’s Crown Princess Mette-Marit slipped in front of the Belvedere at about 8 p.m. on Jan. 26 and was caught by a bodyguard as she tried to make her way through the snow in four-inch heels. Other participants resorted to the shoe grips distributed to encourage walking between the different venues.
“In Boston, this would be illegal,” Peter Diamond, the Nobel laureate economist from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said as he walked along the Promenade, whose sidewalks were covered with as much as 6 inches of ice.
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