motor vehicles

The Jarvis fifth lane: outdated traffic planning

On the day of the Complete Streets Forum in Toronto and just after the Toronto Cyclists Union said they would take their request for an Environmental Assessment on the Jarvis bike lane removal to the province, I was thinking about an outdated urban traffic planning - popular in the 1950s - that is favoured by some people on City Council. Contrary to our Mayor, Minnan-Wong sees an important place for cyclists and pedestrians, while still emphasising a central place for motorists. While Councillor Minnan-Wong seems to be seriously considering how to balance different needs, I don't believe he or anyone else can successfully balance the insatiable needs of of the car against the needs of the community. We only need to look at our current suburbs to see how giving over our neighbourhoods to "optimize" car travel has failed to reduce congestion. It would be hard to find people anywhere in Toronto that are willing to give over yet more space to automobiles in their own community.

Councillor Minnan-Wong is concerned that downtown Toronto is becoming too unfriendly for motorists, particularly in a time when public transit is so poor that many people are still "forced" to commute by car. Minnan-Wong stands by his stance on Jarvis, that it should primarily be seen as a route for motorists and not as a complete street that also takes into account the people who live on it or who travel by other means. Instead, other routes like Sherbourne should be optimized for means like bicycle.

Do we need more transit? Yes. Do we need more bike paths? Yes. Would it be better if more people could walk to work or take transit? Yes.

But in the real world, biking from Malvern or Rexdale to King and Bay works well in theory but a little worse in practice. And a lot worse in the months of November through to March. Given the city's lack of progress at installing bike lanes, it is no surprise that many suburban cyclists make different choices about how to get around.

A mobility plan includes measures to expand the use of transit and bicycles, and – critically – practical means to substitute public for private methods of transport over time. Until the supply of transit is adequate (and we're a long way from there) or until our downtown is bike-friendly, the city has a duty to enable its citizens to enjoy the benefits of mobility, including trips taken by car.

There is some nuance to this view and has some logic to it. We can't make driving more difficult while failing to make it easier to take transit or bike. This would only serve to anger motorists. But there are a few problems with Minnan-Wong's argument.

One, it doesn't help that the TTC commission voted to reduce bus service in the suburbs and that Minnan-Wong voted with the majority. It would be easier to take his argument if he was also working hard to improve transit.

Two, Torontonians are frustrated by congestion, though far from being a downtown problem, traffic congestion has been getting much worse in the suburbs while remaining stable into and out of downtown over the last two decades (from 1985 to 2006). The question we should be asking ourselves is, why is traffic in the suburbs - with its wide and plentiful roads - getting worse while downtown traffic is not? Instead of trying to fix downtown congestion, we should look at what the suburbs can learn from downtown?

Three, re-installing the fifth lane on Jarvis will provide next to no benefit for anyone. The street will be less safe for all people and frustrated drivers will still be frustrated even with up to 2 minutes saved in travel time. The staff had measured times post fifth lane removal of between 2 to 5 minutes longer during rush hour. However, this delay was likely reduced because of the installation of a dedicated left turn signal at Gerard and Jarvis. So it's not clear if motorists will save any time.

One would think that an extra lane would help more. But there are bottlenecks at the top and bottom of Jarvis, which means we can only squeeze as much capacity as there is at the bottleneck since that is where motorists are forced to merge again into fewer lanes.

And even if there weren't bottlenecks on Jarvis, it would not be able to escape the principle of "induced demand". Induced demand means that the more supply you provide the more people who will find more reasons to make trips. And then soon the supply is all taken up and we're back to similar congestion levels as before.

Four, shaving off 2 minutes of someone's commute time while making someone else's commute (or neighbourhood) more dangerous is a lousy trade-off. All over Toronto there exist neighbourhoods who have fought to install speed humps and lower speed limits on their streets. Jarvis may be a main arterial but people still live on it or travel on it by foot or bike. How do we weigh and prioritize what we value here? Don't we usually prioritize safety over convenience?

We can see models in Europe for how to create communities that better balance the competing needs of cars versus the rest of the community, but these communities relegate cars to a small part of their overall transportation mixture. By pushing for expanding the space dedicated to cars we soon run into problems. It is no longer the 1950s; there is no cheap land in much of Toronto on which to build more roads. Squeezing a couple minutes here or there is not going to solve congestion. It's probably not even a worthwhile goal for Toronto. Congestion is the price we pay for being a successful city. After all, as David Mirvish said, "If we get slowed down, that’s part of the price of living in a city. Plan ahead."

How the Motor Vehicle Industry Usurped Public Space

From the CommuteOrlando blog:

The street is an extremely important symbol because your whole enculturation experience is geared around keeping you out of the street. “Just remember: Look left, look right, look left again… No ball games… Don’t talk to strangers… Keep out of the road.” The idea is to keep everyone indoors. So, when you come to challenge the powers that be, inevitably you find yourself on the curbstone of indifference, wondering “should I play it safe and stay on the sidewalks, or should I go into the street?” And it is the ones who are taking the most risks that will ultimately effect the change in society.

The car system steals the street from under us and sells it back for the price of gasoline. It privileges time over space, corrupting and reducing both to an obsession with speed or, in economic lingo, “turnover.” It doesn’t matter who “drives” this system, for its movements are already pre-determined.

– from the website of the London advocacy group “Take Back the Streets”

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