Taking back the streets: the role of design in “bicycle urbanism”

Also published at Resilience.org.

“For 7000 years,” says Mikael Colville-Anderson, “streets were the most democratic space in the history of Homo sapiens.”

Nearly everything that could be done in public could be done safely in city streets. People walked and talked and argued, children played, markets and festivals were set up – and if a horse-drawn wagon needed a bit of extra room for passage, that could be negotiated too. Except in times of war, carelessly stepping out into a street did not bring the risk of a sudden violent death.

That all changed in western societies in just a few decades, Colville-Andersen said, when the rapidly growing automobile industry launched a successful public relations campaign. “Jay-walking” was painted as a dangerous, foolish and anti-social activity, while the new profession of traffic engineering focused on streamlining streets to facilitate the speedy and steady movement of cars.

Colville-Andersen was speaking in Toronto on February 27 at the Ontario Good Roads Association annual conference. Kudos to the OGRA for bringing him in as a featured speaker, along with panelists Jennifer Keesmaat, Chief Planner for the city of Toronto, and Taras Grescoe, author of Straphanger: Saving Our Cities and Ourselves from the Automobile. (in top photo, clockwise from left, Colville-Andersen, Keesmaat and Grescoe)

The discussion focused on the best urban transportation design practices in the world – while also raising difficult questions about why many cities have lacked the political will to implement rational design.

Canadian by birth, Colville-Andersen lives in Denmark and has established an international consulting practice, Copenhagenize Design Co. His firm helps cities around the world in implementing pro-pedestrian and pro-bicycling policies, when they are ready to move away from an overwhelming reliance on cars for everyday transportation.

Design played a big role in cementing the dominance of cars in our reshaped cities by specifying wider – and faster – turning radiuses; ring roads, multi-lane arterial roads and even expressways built right through old neighbourhoods.

The predictable result, Colville-Andersen says, is that most urban dwellers do not feel safe biking on city streets. Just as predictably, he says, biking rates go up rapidly as soon as a usable network of safe infrastructure is established.

It is useless, he said, to exhort people to bike for the sake of their own health or for the health of the environment. In Copenhagen, where more than half the people bike to work or education each day (compared to 14% who routinely travel in cars), neither personal health nor the environment rank high as a motivating factor.

Instead, repeated polls have found that most people choose to bike simply because that’s the quickest and most convenient way to get around Copenhagen.

And that’s no accident – it reflects a 40-year-old prioritizing of active transportation, with the goal of making walking and biking safe and convenient, while making driving less convenient.

Colville-Andersen summarized this process with “The Quickest Planning Guide You’ll Ever See”.

At left is traffic engineering as practiced in most wealthy cities for the past 60 years. Cartoonish in its simplicity, it nevertheless summarizes what many people experience daily. Bike networks are disjointed snippets of little use to commuters on bike. Sidewalks and other walking routes also include frequent jogs to accommodate motorways. Bus routes have continuous runs but often wind around cities wasting their occupants’ time – while car and truck routes are made as straight and fast as feasible.

At right is the prioritizing exhibited in Copenhagen. Bike routes and walking routes are made as convenient and efficient as possible, with public transit routes next in priority. Meanwhile many jogs, detours, narrow lanes and other traffic calming designs intentionally slow motor traffic. This not only makes biking and walking much safer in those inevitable intersections, but also gives drivers daily incentives to stop using their costly and slow cars.

A question of design, or a question of power?

The “best practice” biking infrastructure designs that have evolved in Copenhagen and other European cities result in high rates of cycling, more just societies and more convivial cities. But the political vision required to even consider the Copenhagen approach was a contentious topic in the panel discussion that followed Colville-Andersen’s speech.

In Toronto, far from being willing to intentionally impede car traffic, successive city councils have approved very modest extensions of bikeways only when they have been assured that the bike lanes will not significantly slow down car traffic.

For example, when council debated adding “protected bike lanes” to two busy one-way streets downtown, Mayor John Tory was cautiously supportive “as long as the cycle tracks don’t interfere with commuters”. It was Chief Planner Jennifer Keesmaat who recounted this anecdote, and who also drew out the implication that in the Mayor’s way of thinking only the car drivers counted as “commuters”.

A recently installed bike lane on Adelaide Street in downtown Toronto. The partially protected bike lane resulted in an immediate jump in bike traffic. But it is also the subject of frequent complaints about taxis and delivery vehicles which cut around the widely spaced bollards and park in the cycle lane – forcing cyclists to swerve out into the traffic.

Thus while Keesmaat enthusiastically backed the major thrust of Colville-Andersen’s design approach, she also emphasized the difficult task of building a political constituency for cycling, so that councils become willing to support transformative action.

The frustration with the glacially slow growth of Toronto’s bicycle routes became especially clear in the question period. One long-time cycling advocate angrily told the panelists they were all missing the point: “we have an automotive industry in this province that dictates how Toronto runs.”

Indeed, auto manufacturing has long been a dominant industry in the province of Ontario, a force to be reckoned with by all political parties. Even the nominally left-wing New Democrats are reluctant to back any measure that could cost jobs in auto manufacturing, as the auto workers union has been one of their most important constituencies.

In an economic system where anything other than steady growth is seen as failure, it is hard to imagine Ontario municipal leaders telling the auto industry “we’re going to intentionally slow down car traffic throughout our cities, so that large numbers of drivers stop driving and switch to walking or biking. Your car sales will go down a lot, but you’ll just have to deal with it.”

When Copenhagen embarked on its transportation transition 40 years ago, the local power dynamics were likely far different. Not only did the transition begin during the oil price spikes of the 1970s, but Denmark had no major automotive or petroleum industries at the time. Copenhagen may have been under the influence of car culture, but the car industry apparently did not have the same financial and political clout that it wields in many other cities or regions.

By the same token, the design approach to bicycle urbanism may turn out to be an important but passing phase. The current design approach, after all, generally amounts to gradually carving out small protected lanes alongside the much larger proportion of urban streets that remain the province of cars.

If fossil fuels don’t remain cheap in coming decades, and the car economy coughs and wheezes until it no longer dominates civic life, there may be no need to set aside small “safe spaces” on city streets. With only a few cars and trucks on city streets there may be no need for separate bike lanes, because the streets will once again become the democratic spaces they were for 6900 of the past 7000 years.

In the meantime, however, we welcome every step forward in providing safe infrastructure, and every additional rider who feels comfortable biking as a result.

The Richmond Street bikeway, on a busy one-way street through Toronto’s financial district, at evening rush hour.

Top photo, clockwise from left: Mikael Colville-Andersen, CEO of Copenhagenize Design Co; Jennifer Keesmaat, Chief Planner, City of Toronto; Taras Grescoe, author of Straphanger.

St Marys Underground Expansion: A whole lotta truckin goin on

Can the current Waverly Road/Highway 401 interchange handle a doubling of truck traffic to and from the St Marys Cement quarry?

Given that the Waterfront Trail shares the road in this section with the St Marys traffic plus the Highway 401 on/off traffic, can the Waterfront Trail be promoted as a safe and healthy recreational feature?

What mitigation measures will St Marys Cement propose to compensate for a large increase in heavy truck traffic which will affect commuters as well as recreational cyclists?

These are key questions raised by the Project Description for the Bowmanville Expansion Project.

A previous post (Special Delivery: Moving 4,000,000 Tonnes) provided rough estimates for the number of shiploads or truckloads of limestone aggregate the project would move each year.

The Project Description says that the aggregate will be moved “using existing road, rail and/or dock infrastructure”. But at the project’s Public Information Centre in Bowmanville on December 5, St Marys representative David Hanratty made clear that for the foreseeable future, the aggregate would go out by truck, not by ship or rail, primarily to customers on the east side of the Greater Toronto Area.

It is simply not cost-effective to load the aggregate onto ship, then load it again onto trucks enroute to construction projects, Hanratty said. Rail freight is now too expensive for a low-cost product like limestone aggregate, he added, in addition to the problem of needing to reload the material onto trucks for the “last mile” in any case.

So the 4,000,000 tonnes of limestone will all go out by truck. At 20 tonnes per truck, that would mean 200,000 truckloads per year, or 770 truckloads per day if the aggregate is hauled five days/week.

(Put another way, truck traffic in and out of St Marys is likely to more than double. While the current quarry extracts a similar amount of limestone as the underground expansion is projected to add, much of the current output is in the form of cement clinkers shipped out on the Capt. Henry Jackman. With a capacity of 30,000 tonnes, this ship can carry the equivalent of 1500 20-tonne truckloads each time it leaves port. But the aggregate shipments from the new underground mine will all go by truck.)

The timing of shipments to market will also affect traffic volume. If buyers are not prepared to stockpile aggregate through the winter, the hauling might be concentrated in the summer construction season – meaning the impact on the Waverly Road/Highway 401 interchange, and on the Waterfront Trail, could be especially heavy during summer.

The current Highway 401 on- and off-ramps in this location are far from ideal. On the south side, traffic coming off the eastbound 401 has to get past two stop signs before making it onto Waverly Road. The left turn onto Waverly Road will be more difficult when several hundred more trucks per day are heading north on Waverly.

Traffic getting off the eastbound 401 faces two stop signs before turning onto Waverly Road (red Xs), causing frequent back-ups along the off-ramp. Assuming most of the loads of aggregate from St Marys will go to the eastern GTA, the loaded trucks will travel north along Waverly Road (red arrow) to the 401 westbound ramp, making it more difficult for Bowmanville-bound traffic to turn onto Waverly Road from Energy Drive. The volume of traffic on the eastbound off-ramp will also be increased, due to empty aggregate trucks returning from GTA markets via the eastbound 401. (Image from Google Maps, December 13, 2016)

Perhaps this interchange can be re-engineered to handle the new traffic load. Is St Marys prepared to fund this reconstruction as part of its impact mitigation efforts?

As for the Waterfront Trail, the addition of several hundred more trucks per day to the section of shared Trail/roadway will make the Trail less attractive and less safe. Two changes might be made to mitigate this impact.

First, perhaps the Trail could be rerouted here to eliminate the sharing of congested roadway on Waverly Road and Energy Drive. Ironically, Google Maps currently shows an incorrect routing for the Waterfront Trail as shown below; could this route become reality in the future?

Although the Waterfront Trail is currently routed on Waverly Road and then along Energy Drive (as shown by the red arrows), Google Maps incorrectly shows a routing along the north edge of the St Marys property (the solid blue line). Could this route become reality in the future? (Image from maps.google.ca, December 13, 2016) click for larger view

Second, there is no safe and attractive route between the Waterfront Trail and most of the populated areas of Bowmanville. Cyclists from the north side of the 401 have two choices, both poor, for routes across the 401 to the Waterfront Trail (see Getting across the 401). One of these routes is Waverly Road, which will be more dangerous for cyclists if there is a major increase in truck traffic without an appropriate “complete streets” redesign.

Perhaps St Marys can mitigate the expansion project’s negative impact on the Waterfront Trail by funding a separate walking/cycling overpass or underpass at the 401. Such a routing would be a significant improvement to Bowmanville’s recreational trails, which currently offer no safe connection to the Waterfront Trail.

Top photo: Bumper-to-bumper traffic on off-ramp to Waverly Road from eastbound 401, December 13, 2016

Special Delivery: Moving 4,000,000 Tonnes

The St Marys Cement Underground Expansion Project envisions extracting 4 million tonnes of limestone each year from a new mine beneath Lake Ontario on the south side of Bowmanville.

To understand the scope of the project and its possible environmental effects, it helps to look at the logistics: how much transport capacity does it take to move 4 million tonnes per year?

St Marys says that the limestone will be shipped out as aggregate “using existing road, rail and/or dock infrastructure.” These three shipment methods have very different environmental effects, and presumably there will be further detail on the likely mix of shipping modes in the Environmental Assessment.

In coming to terms with the quantities involved, however, marine shipping is the easiest to picture. The bulk carrier Capt. Henry Jackman is a frequent visitor to the St Marys dock. It carries up to 30,550 tons of cargo (source: boatnerd.com) or 27,715 tonnes. To haul away 4 million tonnes, the Capt. Henry Jackman (or similar-sized ship) would need to make 144 trips. This would equal about 4 trips per week during an eight-month shipping season.

Since outgoing shipments of aggregate would be in addition to all the current in- and out-going shipments at the St Marys dock, one key question is: how many boatloads of aggregate could be shipped out each year assuming there are no significant changes to the docking infrastructure?

While marine transport is by far the most efficient in terms of fuel consumed per tonne per kilometer, the market for aggregate may not favour bulk port-to-port shipment. If most of the limestone aggregate is destined for construction projects scattered all around the Greater Toronto Area, then trucking will be the most cost-effective shipping method.

Suppose all the aggregate were trucked to market. Using a round figure of 20 tonnes per truck load, the 4 million tonnes would be 200,000 truckloads per year – about 770 loads each day if the hauling is done five days/week, or about 550 loads per day if hauling continues every day of the week.

There is a wide variance in truck capacity, from tri-axle dump trucks, to dump trucks with secondary trailers, to full-length tractor-trailers. However, unless most of the aggregate is sent by some combination of marine transport and rail, there will be hundreds of truckloads per day of aggregate exiting the quarry, in addition to the current shipments of cement.

The connection between the St Marys quarry and the road network is shown on the Google Maps image below.

waterfront-trail-waverly-annotated2

Drivers who frequently use the Waverly Road/Highway 401 interchange just north of the quarry will attest that traffic frequently backs up at the on/off ramps for eastbound traffic (on the south side of the 401). What effect would a few hundred extra trucks/day have on this traffic?

A major recreational feature, the Waterfront Trail, would also be impacted by the additional traffic. The Waterfront Trail is routed along Waverly Road and Energy Drive just north of the quarry:

Looking west on Waterfront Trail, at junction with Waverly Road.

Looking west on Waterfront Trail, at junction with Waverly Road.

Users of the Waterfront Trail share the road with traffic entering and exiting the 401 in this interchange:

Looking west from Waverly Road along Energy Drive, with on/off ramps for 401 eastbound traffic.

Looking west from Waverly Road along Energy Drive, with on/off ramps for 401 eastbound traffic.

Truck traffic going north on Waverly Road and County Road 57, or going to the westbound 401, will use the narrow bridge over the 401:

Waverly Road bridge over Highway 401 to Bowmanville and to westbound 401 access ramp.

Waverly Road bridge over Highway 401 to Bowmanville and to westbound 401 access ramp.

This bridge is part of one of the two current cycling routes between Bowmanville and the Waterfront Trail (see Getting Across the 401). The combination of a narrow bridge with merging and turning traffic on either side of the bridge makes this a dangerous passage for cyclists, even without adding several hundred more heavy trucks each day.

The transport of 4,000,000 tonnes of limestone aggregate may have significant implications re traffic congestion and danger to vulnerable road users. When coupled with the wear and tear on roads and the emissions from diesel engines, the impact of transportation will be an important part of the Environmental Assessment of this project.

 

Top photo: the Capt. Henry Jackman approaching the St Marys dock, August 2016.

St Marys Cement environmental assessment: does climate policy matter?

A proposal to excavate hundreds of millions of tonnes of limestone from beneath Lake Ontario raises many questions, starting with a big one: should we be planning for the continued expansion of the concrete industry, given what we already know about climate change?

St Marys Cement, a Canadian branch of Brazilian multinational Votorantim Cimentos, operates a limestone quarry and cement factory on the shore of Lake Ontario at Bowmanville, Ontario. The company wants to expand by tunnelling under Lake Ontario from the existing quarry, and removing up to 4 million tonnes of limestone a year for the next 100 years. (The Project Description for the expansion is here.)

Graphic from St Marys project description at http://bowmanvilleexpansion.ca/wp-content/uploads/2016/Bowmanville_Expansion_Project_Description.pdf

Graphic from St Marys Project Description

(A note on terminology: in this article I use “cement” to refer to the white powder that is mixed with gravel and water, and “concrete” to refer to the construction material that results when the gravel-cement mixture reacts with water and solidifies.)

While concrete is one of the most important and ubiquitous materials in modern life, the cement industry is a major source of greenhouse gas emissions, accounting for 8% of global carbon emissions (Macleans, 7 March 2016). The emissions occur because when limestone is cooked to transform it into cement its natural carbon content is released, and because it takes prodigious amounts of heat to effect this chemical transformation. That is why the St Marys plant in Bowmanville burns both coal and bitcoke (the black powder left over from bitumen after refining) by the shipload.

Not only is cement production carbon-emissions intensive, but the way we use cement tends to encourage further carbon emissions. The biggest share of cement in Ontario goes into concrete pavement which is used to widen roads and add new parking lots – which in turn promotes greater use of cars and trucks.

Which brings us back to the St Marys expansion plan. The company is not saying it will expand its cement production in Bowmanville, but the additional limestone will most likely be used with cement. For further clarity, the limestone extracted from under Lake Ontario will be marketed in industry parlance as “aggregate” – what most people refer to as gravel. And that aggregate will mostly be mixed with cement, to form concrete, or used as a base layer underneath slabs of concrete. In other words, the quarrying of limestone for aggregate will complement St Marys core business of quarrying limestone for cement.

Is a major new source of aggregate needed in the Toronto area? St Marys says in their Project Description:

Over the past 20 years, Ontario has consumed over 3 billion tonnes of aggregate and limestone or about 164 million tonnes per year on average. Given expected levels of economic and population growth, Ontario’s consumption of aggregates and limestone for cement is projected to average about 186 million tonnes per year over the next 20 years.” (Project Description, page 8) [emphasis mine]

The key phrase here is “given expected levels of economic and population growth”. If the economic trends of the past 20 years continue on the same track for the next 20 years, aggregate use will go up by 13 per cent – from 164 million tonnes per year to 186 million. In other words, if we continue Business As Usual, we will need more aggregate.

How is this aggregate used?

Aggregate and limestone are used for a wide range of applications in Ontario; however, the primary use is in construction work, either directly on construction sites, or in the manufacturing of concrete and other building products. Roads (provincial highways, as well as municipal and private roads) account for the largest share of aggregate used in construction work.” (Project Description, page 8) [emphasis mine]

In recent decades the area of pavement has grown faster than the population has grown, because urban sprawl has been the dominant form of development. If we project that “Business As Usual” scenario into the next generation, we’ll need to build a lot more roadway, we’ll need a lot more aggregate, and we’ll need a lot more cement.

But the “Business As Usual” scenario collides head-on with Canada’s official climate policy commitments. Although no one thinks we can or should stop using cement (or fossil fuels) tomorrow, it is clear that we should be making every effort to reduce our carbon emissions immediately, and reduce those emissions at a faster rate with each passing year. That means we should be planning to reduce, not increase, the role of car-dependent sprawl in our urban developments; reduce, not increase, the amount of new pavement we place atop our land each year; and reduce, not increase, the amount of cement we need to cook up and mix with aggregate for concrete each year.

The Business As Usual scenario means we don’t take seriously the climate science consensus that continued growth in carbon emissions will be catastrophic for our grandchildren, and we don’t take seriously our government’s commitment to an economy-wide reduction of emissions.

St Marys Cement notice of Public Information Centre, Monday December 5, 2016

St Marys Cement notice of Public Information Centre, Monday December 5, 2016

Yet there is no evidence in the St Marys Project Description that anything other than a Business As Usual scenario is being considered. Regarding the carbon emissions of the project, the most substantive comment is that the quarry will have “reduced GHG [Green House Gas] emission intensity compared to other quarries that are located further from market.” The report does note, however, that “potential effects on climate change as a result of the Project will be characterized through the EA [Environmental Assessment] process.”

When this Environmental Assessment process gets underway, will St Marys be required to show that the expansion project is consistent with Ontario’s and Canada’s official climate policies? Stay tuned.

 

 

Top photo: The Peter Cresswell docked at the St Marys Cement port on Lake Ontario near Bowmanville.

A container train on the Canadian National rail line.

Door to Door – A selective look at our “system of systems”

Also published at Resilience.org.

Our transportation system is “magnificent, mysterious and maddening,” says the subtitle of Edward Humes’ new book. Open the cover and you’ll encounter more than a little “mayhem” too.

Is the North American economy a consumer economy or a transportation economy? The answer, of course, is “both”. Exponential growth in consumerism has gone hand in hand with exponential growth in transport, and Edward Humes’ new book provides an enlightening, entertaining, and often sobering look at several key aspects of our transportation systems.

door to door cover 275Much of what we consume in North America is produced at least in part on other continents. Even as manufacturing jobs have been outsourced, transportation has been an area of continuing job growth – to the point where truck driving is the single most common job in a majority of US states.

Manufacturing jobs come and go, but the logistics field just keeps growing—32 percent growth even during the Great Recession, while all other fields grew by a collective average of 1 percent. Some say logistics is the new manufacturing. (Door to Door, Harper Collins 2016, Kindle Edition, locus 750)

With a focus on the operations of the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, Humes shows how the standardized shipping container – the “can” in shipping industry parlance – has enabled the transfer of running shoes, iPhones and toasters from low-wage manufacturing complexes in China to consumers around the world. Since 1980, Humes writes, the global container fleet’s capacity has gone from 11 millions tons to 169 million tons – a fifteen-fold increase.

While some links in the supply chain have been “rationalized” in ways that lower costs (and eliminate many jobs), other trends work in opposite directions. The growth of online shopping, for example, has resulted in mid-size delivery trucks driving into suburban cul-de-sacs to drop off single parcels.

The rise of online shopping is exacerbating the goods-movement overload, because shipping one product at a time to homes requires many more trips than delivering the same amount of goods en masse to stores. In yet another door-to-door paradox, the phenomenon of next-day and same-day delivery, while personally efficient and seductively convenient for consumers, is grossly inefficient for the transportation system at large. (Door to Door, locus 695)

Humes devotes almost no attention in this book to passenger rail, passenger airlines, or freight rail beyond the short-line rail that connects the port of Los Angeles to major trucking terminals. He does, however, provide a good snapshot of the trucking industry in general and UPS in particular.

Among the most difficult challenges faced by UPS administrators and drivers is the unpredictable snarl of traffic on roads and streets used by trucks and passenger cars alike. This traffic is not only maddening but terribly violent. “Motor killings”, to use the 1920s terminology, or “traffic accidents”, to use the contemporary euphemism, “are the leading cause of death for Americans between the ages of one and thirty-nine. They rank in the top five killers for Americans sixty-five and under ….” (locus 1514)

In the US there are 35,000 traffic fatalities a year, or one death every fifteen minutes. Humes notes that these deaths seldom feature on major newscasts – and in his own journalistic way he sets out to humanize the scale of the tragedy.

Delving into the records for one representative day during the writing of the book, Humes finds there were at least 62 fatal collisions in 27 states on Friday, February 13, 2015. He gives at least a brief description of dozens of these tragedies: who was driving, where, at what time, and who was killed or seriously injured.

Other than in collisions where alcohol is involved, Humes notes, there are seldom serious legal sanctions against drivers, even when they strike down and kill pedestrians who have the right of way. In this sense our legal system simply reflects the physical design of the motor vehicle-dominated transport system.

Drawing on the work of Strong Towns founder Charles Marohn, Humes explains that roads are typically designed for higher speeds than the posted speed limits. While theoretically this is supposed to provide a margin of safety for a driver who drifts out of line, in practice it encourages nearly all drivers to routinely exceed speed limits. The quite predictable result is that there are more collisions, and more serious injuries or death per collision, than there would be if speeding were not promoted-by-design.

In the design of cars, meanwhile, great attention has been devoted to saving drivers from the consequences of their own errors. Seat belts and air bags have saved the lives of many vehicle occupants. Yet during the same decades that such safety features have become standard, the auto industry has relentlessly promoted vehicles that are more dangerous simply because they are bigger and heavier.

A study by University of California economist Michelle J. White found that

for every crash death avoided inside an SUV or light truck, there were 4.3 additional collisions that took the lives of car occupants, pedestrians, bicyclists, or motorcyclists. The supposedly safer SUVs were, in fact, “extremely deadly,” White concluded. (Door to Door, locus 1878)

Another University of California study found that “for every additional 1,000 pounds in a vehicle’s weight, it raises the probability of a death in any other vehicle in a collision by 47 percent.” (locus 1887)

Is there a solution to the intertwined problems of gridlock, traffic deaths, respiratory-disease causing emissions and greenhouse gas emissions? Humes takes an enthusiastic leap of faith here to sing the praises of the driverless – or self-driving, if you prefer – car.

“The car that travels on its own can remedy each and every major problem facing the transportation system of systems,” Humes boldly forecasts. Deadly collisions, carbon dioxide and particulate emissions, parking lots that take so much urban real estate, the perceived need to keep adding lanes of roadway at tremendous expense, and soul-killing commutes on congested roads – Humes says these will all be in the rear-view mirror once our auto fleets have been replaced by autonomous electric vehicles.

We’ll need to wait a generation for definitive judgment on his predictions, but Humes’ description of our present transportation system is eminently readable and thought-provoking.

Top photo: container train on Canadian National line east of Toronto.

Highway 401 overpass at Liberty Street, Bowmanville

Getting past the 401

Toronto’s infamous Gardiner Expressway is an unwelcome wall between the city and its Lake Ontario waterfront. But at the far edge of the Toronto metroplex, Highway 401 acts as a similar barrier separating local residents from the recreational facilities along the lake.

While the 401 runs along the north edge of historic Toronto, far from the lake, this is not true in the eastern reaches of the Greater Toronto Area. There the 401 runs close to the lake, and most residential development is north of the 401. This is particularly true at the east end of Durham Region in the Municipality of Clarington, the amalgamated governing region which includes Bowmanville.

A google satellite map of Toronto and its eastern suburbs.

A google satellite map of Toronto and its eastern suburbs.

Here the lakeshore and the 401 are in close proximity. Furthermore, from Oshawa east to Bowmanville most of the land between the 401 and the shoreline is marshland, farmland, or occupied by major industries, although there are recreational areas including a provincial park, several beaches, and the Waterfront Trail.

Google satellite map of shoreline from Oshawa in west to Bowmanville in east.

Google satellite map of shoreline from Oshawa in the west to Bowmanville in the east. (click map for larger version)

In Bowmanville there are well-used multi-purpose trails in the two valleys that run predominantly north-south through that town. These trails would be even more attractive if they linked up with the Waterfront Trail and the newly-developed East Beach Park. But the 401 is a daunting hurdle.

As shown on this Waterfront Trail map, there is no good linkage between the recreational trails in residential Bowmanville and the Waterfront Trail.

As shown on this Waterfront Trail map, there is no good linkage between the recreational trails in residential Bowmanville and the Waterfront Trail. (click map for larger version)

The Municipality’s Active Transportation Plan recognizes the importance of establishing better linkages:

The Clarington Active Transportation Plan includes among its goals to establish new linkages, for cyclists, walkers and runners, between the creek valley paths and the Waterfront Trail.

The Clarington Active Transportation Plan includes among its goals to establish new linkages, for cyclists, walkers and runners, between the creek valley paths and the Waterfront Trail. (Graphic adapted from map at www.clarington.net.)

Such linkages are a worthy goal, because the current 401 crossings discourage or intimidate many would-be recreational cyclists, and few parents would be happy seeing their children bike south to the beach given the current access options.

Biking past the 401

There are two ways to get from the major residential areas of Bowmanville to the 401: using the Liberty Street underpass or the Waverley Road overpass.

Waverley Rd and Liberty St crossings of the 401 in Bowmanville

Cyclists going from residential Bowmanville to the Waterfront Trail or East Beach Park need to cross the 401 at Waverley Rd or Liberty St.

Both options are busy roads which also serve as entrance/exit routes to/from the 401, so they carry heavy commuter and truck traffic.

Here’s what the Liberty Street underpass looks like to a cyclist traveling north:

Not only is the tunnel narrow and dark, but the noise of traffic bouncing off the walls makes it difficult to tell how close cars or trucks really are.

Below is a view of the same tunnel going southbound. If heading south to the Waterfront Trail, you need to turn left immediately after exiting the tunnel, so getting into left-turn position while inside the tunnel is part of the challenge.

One kilometer west of Liberty Street is the Waverley Road/Durham Rd 57 interchange with the 401. This route has a bridge instead of the dark claustrophia-inducing tunnel of Liberty Street. But because it is much more open, four lanes, and a regional road, traffic tends to be much faster.

For inexperienced cyclists, a key problem when going south is to get past the right-hand lane which becomes a turn-only entrance ramp to the 401. Should you move from the right-hand lane into the left lane early? Or do you stay in the right-hand lane as long as possible, and then turn through traffic which may have accelerated to near-highway-speed at this point?

Once past this obstacle you come up to the shoulder-less bridge over the 401. This carries traffic heading for the 401-east entrance ramp, as well as heavy truck traffic bound for St. Mary’s Cement. Just over the bridge, the 401-eastbound turn-off results in lots of turning vehicles, and drivers who often appear surprised to see a cyclist continuing straight south past this point.

Going north on Waverley Rd from the Waterfront Trail, you must share the narrow bridge with the same commuter and truck traffic:

By the time you’ve ridden north past another 401-westbound entrance ramp, Waverley Road morphs into an multi-lane arterial road at its intersection with Baseline Road, with two northbound through lanes plus a left-turn lane.

After the peace and quiet of a family-friendly ride on the Waterfront Trail, coping with this burst of big-city traffic may come as quite a shock – which is perhaps why so few cyclists are seen making this crossing.

Although I’ve ridden these routes about 50 times each over the past 18 months, I’ve yet to meet another cyclist on the Waverley Road crossing, and only a few times have I seen other cyclists making the Liberty Street crossing.

Clearly the Municipality’s goal of linking the in-town bike paths to the Waterfront Trail will meet an important need. But the 401 is an imposing physical barrier, and we must hope the Municipality will find the resources for this project in the near future.

A neighbourhood expressway

Bicycle lane on newly reconstructed Green Road in Bowmanville

For the past two months I’ve been a very appreciative user of the bicycle lanes on Green Road – while marveling at the grandiosity of the roadway itself.

The lanes provide a convenient and comfortable route from new residential areas in south-west Bowmanville, to the sprawling shopping district along County Road 2.

For my errands, the newly reconstructed Green Road provides a much superior alternative to biking on nearby County Road 57.

Annotated google map of southwestern Bowmanville

Marked bicycle lanes on Green Road and Baseline Road (marked in red), with new big-box shopping area outlined in orange.

The high speeds of traffic on County Road 57 seem a natural consequence of its design – even though those speeds are typically well in excess of the posted speed limits.

Green Road, by contrast, is a curious mix of design features that facilitate pedal-to-the-metal speeding, on the one hand, and other features that not only encourage but require drivers to slow down to speeds appropriate for a residential area.

Green Road, looking south from new CP Rail overpass

Green Road, looking south from new CP Rail overpass

The photo above shows one of two roundabouts on Green Road, with a busy elementary school at left, playground in left background, and new housing on both sides.

Clearly, that’s a good place to be driving slowly.

Yet the road is arrow-straight, with no driveways or access lanes beyond the roundabout – and the road allowance is wide enough to serve as the landing strip for the space shuttle, on a windy day.

Satellite view of subdivision along Green Road.

Satellite view of subdivision along Green Road.

In addition to the two wide traffic lanes and bicycle lanes on Green Road, there are wide grassy areas between the road and sidewalk. Moreover, the maze-form street network within the subdivision provides only very controlled traffic access to Green Road, requiring additional “service roads” adjacent to Green on some blocks.

From the outside of one service road, across Green, to the outside of the next service road, is approximately 45 meters, with no visual complexities such as parked cars, encroaching trees, curves, or other traffic-calming features.

Coming out of a roundabout onto that wide-open straightaway, drivers might be forgiven for thinking they have suddenly jumped to a prairie highway. Not surprisingly, they speed.

Driving south on Green Road.

Driving south on Green Road.

So does it still feel safe to bike this road? Yes, at least so far. While there are short stretches where all the design cues tell drivers that 100 km per hour would be perfectly safe, the speedway is broken up by two roundabouts which slow drivers right down again.

The net effect is to keep speed differentials between cars and cyclists to a generally reasonable level.

God only knows, there are more frugal ways to build a residential street that’s efficient for local car traffic as well as safe and convenient for bicycles. But Green Road gets me to the grocery store, and I’ll take a smooth-paved bike lane where I can get it, so I’m not complaining.

A book to read while you’re stalled in traffic

What’s the cause of traffic congestion? Many people have a quick answer.

Traffic congestion? Obviously, there are too many cars.

Traffic congestion? That just means there isn’t enough road space.

Traffic congestion? It’s all those cyclists and streetcars getting in the way

With 45 years experience as a driver, 35 years as an everyday cyclist and seven years working in road construction, I’d like to think I’ve learned something about coping with – not to mention causing – congestion. But I’ve never had a day of formal education in traffic engineering or town planning.

Road Traffic Congestion, published by Springer in April 2015, 401 pages, $99 ebook, $129 hardcover

Road Traffic Congestion, published by Springer in April 2015, 401 pages, $99 ebook, $129 hardcover

So I opened Road Traffic Congestion: A Concise Guide with the hopes that it would offer methodical, realistic ways to look at both the causes of traffic congestion and its relief.

With its 400 pages of conciseness, this manual discusses the relationship between transportation technologies, the causes, characteristics and consequences of congestion, and the pros and cons of a wide range of relief strategies.

So is the problem too many cars, or not enough road? The experts open the book with a diplomatic dodge of this loaded question: “Congestion in transportation facilities – walkways, stairways, roads, busways, railways, etc. – happens when demand for their use exceeds their capacity.” (The mention of walkways and stairways notwithstanding, there is little attention given to foot-powered transportation, and with some notable exceptions in the closing chapters, the traffic discussed is car and truck traffic.)

Still in the opening chapters, Falcocchio and Levinson hint at another direction for investigation: “When growth in economic activities significantly outpaces the growth in transportation infrastructure investments, cities experience congestion to levels that make mobility difficult.” Would they make an evidence-backed argument, I wondered, that all the post-World War II investments in freeways, suburban arterials and parking lots have been disproportionately small?

But the book provides no real economic analysis, either of the comparative economics of different modes of transportation, nor the relationship of transportation infrastructure to the economy as a whole.

What the authors do provide is a systematic cataloguing of the ways in which traffic gets backed up on our roads, with examples from across the continent. To an outsider, their discussion illustrates both the strengths and the limitations of current traffic engineering practice.

Whether discussing backups associated with closely spaced traffic lights on a main arterial, or backups around a non-standard intersection with five spokes, the focus remains on finding ways to reduce the delay for cars and trucks. This is not to suggest that the authors are unaware of safety issues for cyclists and pedestrians; they are careful to note possible hazards for non-motorists and the need to minimize pedestrian/automobile conflict points.

But in most of the data they marshall from cities across North America, the factors which are measured and worked into formulas are data about vehicles: cars per lane per mile, total vehicle throughput, vehicle minutes of delay, average vehicle speed etc.

Just as significantly, the methods and formulas are applied to traffic moving on a single given street, as opposed to the sum of the traffic moving along a street and the traffic crossing it. For example, there are formulas for calculating how the addition of a signal light will impact traffic throughput on an arterial road – but how will this impact the travelers trying to cross that street? Clearly these are complex relationships, but if we focus only the rate of traffic flow on a given street, how can we know whether our traffic-enhancement strategies on that street are helpful or harmful to the circulation in the whole neighborhood or district?

It’s clear that lots of professional effort has gone into measuring and defining levels of congestion. So I was surprised to see the subjectivity at the heart of so much of the discussion. At what level of crowding does congestion begin? A National Cooperative Highway Research Program Report pegs congestion to “the travel time or delay in excess of that incurred under light or free-flow travel conditions.” Likewise, a 2011 Urban Mobility Report from the Texas Transportation Institute concludes that Chicago and Washington, DC drivers spend 70 hours extra hours each year in congested traffic, using as their baseline the time these same trips would take in “free-flow” conditions.

Falcocchio and Levinson, however, write that

in a large city it is not realistic to travel at free flow speed (or at the posted speed limit) in the peak hour. It is not logical, therefore to compare actual peak hour travel times to free-flow peak hour travel times when free-flow in the peak hour is a practical impossibility in a large city. (emphasis theirs)

While this strikes me intuitively as correct, I hoped they would offer a compelling argument to back up their position. That argument is missing from the book. A clue emerges, however, in their discussion of the flow and lack of flow on inner-city freeways.

By design, a freeway is one of the least complex traffic systems. Many variables that are present on city streets are absent on freeways; there are no traffic lights, no parking spaces, no direct access from driveways, traffic is divided into one-way streams, and only vehicles moving at roughly the same speed are allowed. It’s true that (for the time being) all drivers are human, and thus their reaction times vary and chaos can happen. But there are neat graphs for the typical relationships between density of traffic (in vehicles per lane per mile), vehicle speeds, and traffic throughput (in vehicles per lane per hour).

Traffic throughput on a freeway drops rapidly after density increases and speeds drop below the “critical speed” of 53 mph. This typically happens when density has increased to about 45 cars per lane per mile, with just under 100 feet between cars. Road Traffic Congestion, page 153.

Traffic throughput on a freeway drops rapidly after density increases and speeds drop below the “critical speed” of 53 mph. This typically happens when density has increased to about 45 cars per lane per mile, with just under 100 feet between cars. Road Traffic Congestion, page 153.

These graphs show that up to a point, vehicle speeds slow modestly as traffic gets more dense, while total throughput still increases. When speeds drop below that point – the “critical speed” – the total throughput drops as well. On a typical freeway with design speed of 70 mph, this critical speed is 53 mph, and traffic tends to drop below this speed when density reaches 45 cars per lane per mile.

As the authors note, at this density there is an average of 97 ft between vehicles in each lane. So in pure spatial terms, the freeway is still closer to empty than to full. Yet it has already reached peak efficiency and any additional traffic will cause a drop in throughput – a drop that gets steeper with each increment of additional density.

In other words, a freeway needs to remain mostly empty to stay anywhere close to free-flow, if by free-flow we mean moving at close to its design speed. Not only must most of the space in each lane be unoccupied, but there are extra lanes required for emergency access; interchanges require lots of additional space; and because the freeway provides no direct access to the main city grid or to driveways, even more space is needed for service roads.

This, perhaps, is why it is practically impossible to achieve free-flow traffic at peak hour in a large American city: there simply isn’t the space to allow each and every commuter to drive simultaneously on almost-empty roadways.
And so we return to the question posed at the beginning: is congestion caused by too many cars, or not enough road? Cars will only move freely, Falcocchio and Levinson make clear, if there are fewer of them:

where added capacity is provided, its lasting effect on congestion relief (especially in metropolitan areas exceeding 2 million people) can only be realized by combining it with strategies that reduce the need to travel by car …

And so the last third of the book outlines strategies for reducing vehicle traffic volume: road tolls, market-priced parking, high-occupancy vehicle lanes, flex-time work schedules, provision of park-and-ride facilities, public transit service improvements, and suburban land-use planning geared to maintaining a grid rather than devolving into winding crescents and cul-de-sacs. The brief discussions of walking and cycling are insightful, even though they arise here in the context of improving motor vehicle flow.

Historical spread of congestion out from Central Business Districts. Road Traffic Congestion, page 20.

Historical spread of congestion out from Central Business Districts. Road Traffic Congestion, page 20.

For someone living at the far edge of greater Toronto, Road Traffic Congestion reads as a warning sign. The book illustrates how traffic congestion has spread inexorably beyond center cities to the inner suburbs, suburbs and exurbs. In the strip malls, big-box shopping centers, and curly-maze residential monocultures that are marching out from the city, we see tomorrow’s congestion in the making.

As Falcocchio and Levinson explain, adding turn lanes or a new freeway, fixes that take a few months or a few years, often just push the congestion farther down the road, while land-use policies that favour non-car travel can take a generation to be fully effective:

Although … “smart growth” land use/transportation strategies are effective (in the near term) at the neighborhood scale, significant reductions in regional VMT [vehicle mile traffic] impacts resulting from a change in land use patterns, however, takes a long time …