Thursday, May 10, 2007

How far will you go to improve the city, yourself?

A rash of pedestrian fatalities should heighten the need for re balancing our transportation infrastructure - the physical space required for safe and enjoyable walking routes, for example – but without a forceful response from city hall, the fatalities instead reinforce a negative notion that walking is somehow not a safe option unless isolated on a treadmill.

It does seem that in today's adult world walking has become a specialized act more associated with pure exercise than an option for getting places. A glance at the local school reveals empty bike racks (if there are racks at all), and a generation who rarely walk or cycle to classes when a parent can drive them. Whatever the supposed advantages of a drive-through culture, healthy lifestyles is not one of them.

For successive generations utilitarian walking is fading from consciousness. Between 1969 and 2001 the percentage of students who would walk or cycle to school has dropped almost by 2/3 .

The move from active modes (cycling and walking) to driving have their impact. In her research “KidsWalk: Then and Now,” Christina Kober reports on some alarming trends: in a short 15 year span (1980 to 1995) childhood asthma rates risen from 45.1 per 1,000 to 82 per 1,000, while childhood obesity rates have quadrupled since 1963.

And for parents who drive their kids to school for “safety” reasons, take note: Kober's research reveals that half the kids hit by near schools are by cars driven by parents of students.

School Boards are not helping, the research suggests, as small neighbourhood schools are replaced by larger but more remote schools, increasing children's travel distance. This sort of decision is only thinkable in an automobile-saturated culture.

As the late cultural critic Ivan Illich noted “vehicles had created more distances than they helped to bridge; more time was used by the entire society for the sake of traffic than was 'saved'.”

Thursday, April 12, 2007

A road diet for the city to cut the traffic

A man from Hamilton's traffic department is poised at a flip chart, marker in hand. He's frozen, not moving.

David Cohen, a member of the audience at the public meeting, is waiting for his comment to be added to the list on the chart paper.

The man at the chart refuses to move, his Sharpie wilfully restrained from touching the page. He will not, indeed appears incapable of, writing the words on paper.

The words he won't write?

"Hamilton needs more traffic congestion."

Recalling this event, Cohen infuses it with meaning, a metaphor for institutional resistance, resistance frozen in time.

"Since the 1950s, we've created conditions for automobile travel at the expense of other ways of getting around. Congestion was the issue then and is still the issue; so, are we going to do something to make it more convenient to use cars?" he asks rhetorically.

"If history has any meaning, we will only crowd up those streets and expressways with more cars."

In other words, catering to cars hasn't paid off, unless you consider the payoffs to be air pollution, traffic-related deaths and injury (more than 800 fatalities a year in Ontario) and frequently clogged major highways due to "accidents" and traffic volume. Most wouldn't.
To shift the emphasis to other modes of transportation, Cohen advocates creating conditions "more conducive to transit and less conducive to cars."

The way to escape congestion is, counter-intuitively, to take space from automobile traffic and give it to other uses: transit lanes, roadside parking, wider sidewalks, bicycle lanes. Call it a road diet.

Hamilton has a disproportionately high amount of arterial roads and expressways compared to other Ontario cities. We weigh in at second highest with 7.1 "lane metres" per capita. Toronto has 3. So a diet seems in order.

Taking a Robin Hood approach to existing roads, i.e. stealing lanes from cars to give to other modes, would serve to calm traffic (making things slower, thereby safer) while creating the kind of infrastructure needed for intrepid cyclists and transit users to get ahead.

Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Service is key to boosting bus ridership

For people who have grown up in a culture that highly values cars, the bus remains something of a mystery.

Like someone encountering a strange and confusing religion, the bus novice finds there are many secrets to be revealed. When does the bus come? Where does it go? How do I get on? How do I get off?

The fare box on one bus happily consumed my friend's $10 bill before anyone could stop her. We all looked down, embarrassed to inform her that the driver cannot make change.

Fortunately the transit learning curve is short. Armed with schedules and tickets and with key bus-check numbers memorized, passengers can navigate the city with confidence. This is fortunate since transit is going to figure more prominently in the urban and inter-urban streetscapes of the near future.

Hamilton's transit director recently revealed what most crowded bus riders already know, that "valid service demands far outstrip our available funding and our available capacity."

Targets for Hamilton's transit ridership predict that the transit's share of the daily trips made on all forms of transportation will double to 12 per cent by 2030.

While no one is going to force cars off North American roads, the way we use vehicles is likely going to change.

Even if you're not up on the current discussion on peak oil or the latest climate change disaster, it's perhaps time for us all to rethink our over-reliance on cars. Influential voices such as author Howard Kunstler warn that we need to "start thinking beyond the car." He's not talking futuristic helicopters or personalized jetpacks. "Need something to do?" he asks his readers, "Get involved in restoring public transit."

That Hamilton could be doing more is a given: the Transportation Master Plan shows expenditures on transit have been in decline for years, with a corresponding decline in local transit's modal share: between 1986 and 2001, the share of trips handled by transit went from 12 per cent to 7 per cent. In the same time frame drivers increased their modal share from 63 per cent to 64 per cent.

Hamilton is locked in a car-culture embrace that can only be described as unhealthy. Compared to 10 years ago, the average Hamilton resident uses 15 per cent more fuel for transportation.

Hamilton fares badly compared to 10 other Canadian cities in terms of per capita transit use (fourth lowest) and per capita annual fuel use (second highest). We also have the second highest amount of arterial and expressway lane metres, second only to Oshawa.