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.