Our Streets Have an Identity Crisis – Part 2

Last week, I bombarded you with nerd speak about Level Of Service, making the point that it’s a disastrous metric by which to judge the success of our streets.  For those of you who are not transportation nerds, I sincerely apologize.  This week’s post will be written in plain English, with little exploration of policy and other such nerdiness, and more of a focus on the real-world impacts of the choices that we’ve made.

At some point in the not-so-distant past, we decided that the needs of people moving through our communities was more important than the needs of the people that live there.  One of the examples I find the most egregious, and one that I’m most familiar with, is Cannon Street in Hamilton.

When you look at Cannon Street (circa 2012) on Google Streetview, you’ll notice that it’s a huge roadway – 4 lanes wide, one way traffic.  You’ll also notice that the vast majority of Cannon Street is lined with residential homes.  Those homes, many of which are relatively close to the street because the houses built along that corridor were constructed in the days before 18 wheelers would regularly drive by their front door at 60km/h or more, are ostensibly filled with people. People with families, jobs, wishes and dreams not so different from those of the people whizzing by their house.

Data about Cannon Street was alarming – a neighbourhood group used a radar gun to monitor speeds, and found that vehicles were averaging 72km/h along that corridor.  Coupled with the fact that only between 12 and 20,000 vehicles per day used that route (a healthy number is 8-10,000 vehicles per lane per day), it contributed to a street that was either 4 lanes of silent asphalt  or a thundering mass of speeding vehicles with very little in between. The installation of a protected bike lane in 2014 has helped make Cannon safer, but the number of streets with a similar problem is staggering.

Victoria Street in Belleville – where 40km/h is a suggestion, but highway-sized lane widths make traveling at 60-70km/h easy


Streets like that send a clear message – these aren’t for the people who live there.  They require the residents to sacrifice the livability, the sense of community and the safety of their children (a pedestrian struck at more than 60km/h has almost zero chance of survival) in order to facilitate the rapid movement of others.  In an urban environment, there will always be trade offs when it comes to mobility, but the pendulum has swung too far. We’re willing to sacrifice the safety and livability for people who live along a street 24 hours a day, 365 days a year for the needs of those who spend 3-5 minutes a day driving through them.  And that’s not a sacrifice I thin we should be willing to make anymore.

Slowing down traffic in urban areas is always a contentious issue. There’s cries of outrage when attempts are made to reduce speed limits from 50km/h to 30km/h, despite the substantial amount of evidence that shows that speeds of 30km/h an under have significant benefits for improving walking and cycling and making all road users safer. A pedestrian struck at 30km/h has an 95% chance of surviving – a pedestrian struck at 50km/h has about a 50/50 chance.

Simple math – as cars go faster, people die more. How much extra time on the roads is a preventable death worth?

It’s high time we stop treating every single street like a highway. It’s time we start prioritizing safety over speed and livability over mobility. Now that doesn’t have to start on arterial roads – I fully recognize that those will still be needed to keep goods and people moving, but residential streets – places where people live, where children play and where urban life plays out, those are the places where the potential for change is the highest.  Those streets can be streets where parents feel safe letting their kids walk or bike to school, where families can play in their front yards, and where the kinds of everyday interactions – a conversation with your neighbour, a wave to a dog-walker, a smile to a passing cyclist – are achievable without having to shout over the roar of speeding vehicles.

Our residential streets used to be as much an extension of our front yards as a part of the transportation network.  They served as a public space, helping to knit communities together.  This might sound idealistic or utopian, but why should it?  Why shouldn’t we expect better of our public space? In my next post I’ll turn my attention to what happens when people demand better, and what it can look like when communities stop treating every street as a highway.

Our Streets Have an Identity Crisis – Part 1

A century ago, our streets served many purposes.  They were gathering places, places for commerce, places for play, places for discussion. Where streets were lined with residences, they were places where children played, where people traveled, where neighbours met and where the complex interactions that make urban life worth living played out.  In short, our streets were messy places, where a myriad of uses competed for space, for attention and for visibility.  Just venturing out onto the street required you to interact with your community – you talked to your neighbours, saw other residents of your community, and purchased items at local retailers.

Front Street in Belleville, 1913.  Photo from Library and Archives Canada

Fast forward a hundred years or so, and the relationships on our streets have been dramatically simplified.  Gone are the streets as a market, as a playground, as a meeting space.  The complexity that made urban streets inherently interesting – the interactions with other people, with buildings around you, and with local shops, has been replaced with streets who serve one purpose – moving automobiles from one place to another as quickly as possible.

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A simplified street in Hamilton – one purpose, one type of user catered to.

In North America, where our communities are spread out and goods need to travel long distances, there is an important place for roads whose sole objective is to encourage rapid and efficient movement of automobiles.  Our network of highways have played a significant role in advancing our economy, of that there can be no doubt.  But the problem comes when we start treating every single piece of road in the same way that we treat a highway – applying the same engineering standards, quantifying its “success” by the same metrics and ignoring the vital role that our streets play in creating social cohesion in our cities – and that is exactly what we’ve done for the past 40 years, to disastrous effect.

To many readers that are NOT transportation nerds like myself, the term “Level Of Service” might be a new term.  It’s little known outside of the transportation and engineering realm, but its consequences shape the way we use our streets every single day.  Level of Service refers to a road’s capacity to move automobiles.  Level “A” means that the road experiences free-flowing traffic at all hours of the day.  Level “F” means stop and go traffic. Now neither one of these extremes are ideal for urban life, but problems arise when we dig into how the problem is described, because it has tremendous (negative) influence on the solutions put forward.

When it comes to Level of Service, the problem is often defined quite simply – there are too many vehicles for the capacity of the road.  The solutions are to either decrease the number of vehicles or expand the road’s capacity.  Since communities in North America have been loathe to introduce policies like road pricing or congestion charges that would have any impact on the number of vehicles, it leaves you with only one option: expand the road’s capacity.  Of course, this then plays into the iron-clad law of induced demand, where increasing road capacity results in a similar increase in the number of vehicles, leading to debacles like the Katy freeway in Houston, where after nearly $3B was spent to widen the freeway to a ludicrous 23 lanes, travel times actually increased by nearly 30%.

Click through to see stunning aerials of Houston's busiest highways.Traffic on the IH-10 Katy Freeway viewed facing west near Loop 610 on Thursday, April 11, 2013, in Houston. ( Smiley N. Pool / Houston Chronicle ) Photo: Smiley N. Pool, Houston Chronicle

Houston’s Katy Freeway – a multi-billion dollar exercise in futility.

All this to say that Level of Service is a disastrously flawed metric for measuring how well our streets work.  It starts with a flawed premise, and delivers doubly flawed results, especially when applied within an urban context.  When the only metric considered is the number of vehicles traveling at free flowing speeds, you ignore metrics like safety and comfort of people walking and cycling, accessibility for people with exceptionalities and impacts on social cohesion and placemaking. All of these measures, some of which are much less tangible than simply counting cars and recording their speeds, are much more important markers of what makes a great community, not a great highway, which Level of Service arguably quantifies.  And since we live in communities, not highways, I would argue that we should pay much more attention to Quality of Place rather than Level of Service – an idea I’ll turn my attention to in part 2 of this post next week.

Winter: An addendum

Yesterday, I wrote about riding through the winter, and I actually feel like I need to clarify a couple of things.

First, know when NOT to ride.  When the snow is piled higher than your front wheel, or there’s ice patches lurking under the snow, or the freezing rain has turned the streets into a curling rink, it’s maybe not the best idea to hop on your bike, especially if you don’t have specialized equipment like studded tires or a Fat Bike. Riding in the winter is a lot like everything else that’s good for you – it’s only good for you as long as you don’t overdo it.  Be flexible, be pragmatic, and try to continue enjoying it.

Second, riding in the winter means that you have to put more time and effort into choosing your route.  It’s a fine balance between roads that are busy enough to be clear, but not too busy to feel dangerous.  If you live somewhere where trails, bike lanes and protected bike lanes are cleared as a priority, then this is less important.  But for most of us, route planning becomes extremely important when the right-of-way gets narrowed by snow and the spaces closest to the curbs can be a gamble.

Third, and related to the above points, some places just are not hospitable to riding in ANY weather conditions, much less when there is snow and ice to contend with.  I’ve been very fortunate to have winter commutes that were relatively well maintained (in Hamilton) or featured decently quiet residential streets with enough width to accommodate me comfortably, even when vehicles are passing me in either direction (in Belleville). For many people and in many places, there’s literally no safe route to get from point A to point B, even when weather is ideal. If you live somewhere where this is a reality, you’re not likely to ride in the winter.  So either move somewhere you can, or start asking, in as polite yet firm a tone as you can muster, for your community to move into the 21st century and start accommodating a wider range of transportation choices.

Biking in Oulu, Finland

A rider in Oulu, Finland on a well-maintained path doing something I could never attempt with my 2 squirrel-focused dogs. Photo by Pekka Tahkola, found here.

When confronted with the inevitable “Nobody rides their bikes in the winter” argument, my favourite retort is to ask them how many people they think would continue to drive compact cars through the winter if the roads were never plowed.  Would people put up with a transportation network that only accommodated those who owned Jeeps, Humvees or snowmobiles? Of course they wouldn’t.  People purchase and use compact cars through the winter because they know that their routes will, with the exception of massive winter storms, be passable.  If people riding their bikes had that same reassurance, you can bet that they will ride more.  Don’t believe me? Go visit Minneapolis, Minnesota.  Or Madison, Wisconsin.  Or Oulu, Finland.  They treat their cycling infrastructure like it should be treated – as a vital component of their transportation network, and, lo and behold, their residents treat it the same way. Wouldn’t it be nice if that were the case where you lived too?

Until next time, safe riding. And stay warm.

Winter: What’s the Big Deal?

Recently, an article in Maclean’s Magazine caught my eye.  It was titled “Canada: A Nation of Winter Wusses“, and it got me thinking.

2016 marks the fourth year in a row I’ve ridden my bike all through the winter. What stands out for me about this year is the number of times people have expressed “You’re still riding your bike?!?” as if it’s some magical yet scandalous action.  Truthfully, this winter has been fairly mild in my part of Ontario, with some significant snowfalls being interspersed with mild periods, most of which have resulted in significant melting. I’ve been able to see bare ground in my back yard for more days in February alone than I did all last winter, and the snow mountain I create with the snow cleared from my deck and bike storage pad (which I deem Mount Moron, in honour of my dogs, who love to climb it), has never risen to a peak higher than my eye level. Last year it was over 8 feet high.

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Mount Moron, nearing the pinnacle of its height last year.

All that to say that this winter hasn’t been that bad. The roads have been clear, the temperatures mild, and the amount of ice on the roads has been virtually non-existent.  Couple that with the fact the Belleville actually does a pretty good job of keeping their trails clear of snow, and you’ve got the ideal conditions to ride year round.

So with all that in place, what is it about riding in winter that makes people look at you like you’re either moderately insane, some sort of super-human or both?

At a family event over the holidays, an older relative, when he discovered what I do for a living, asked “well what about the winter?” – to which I responded “well what did you do in the winter when you were younger?”

Of course, he comes from a generation of children that walked to school, they walked to their neighbour’s house, they played outside – and those activities didn’t grind to a halt when the snow started flying. But somewhere along the line, the idea of moderate discomfort – of bundling up to go outside for a short walk, of arriving to your destination a bit out of breath, of traveling in any fashion that’s not heated, enclosed and motorized – got lost.

So I ride through the winter as a protest against the “Winter Wussy” trend Maclean’s identifies. I ride because I want to stay active, and that doesn’t stop just because it’s below zero. But mostly, I ride because it’s actually not that hard. It’s quicker than walking, usually just as quick as driving once you factor in parking and such, and the feeling that comes with Viking Biking just can’t be beat.

So I encourage all of you to take back winter – it’s incredible how much less I dislike winters now that I make a concerted effort to walk or bike more often. Get some decent winter gear, (more guides here and here) and buck the trend against winter wussiness.  We’re Canadian, after all.  We’re a people that were once described as “…a northern people, as the true out-crop of human nature, more manly, more real than the weak marrow-bones superstition of the effeminate south,” by lawyer and essayist William Alexander Foster in his 1871 address “Canada first or, our new nationality.”  Of course, watching my pregnant wife ride through all of last winter also proved that one doesn’t have to be manly to be a bad-ass winter cyclist.

So be the real, (wo)manly out-crop of human nature we’re meant to be.  Become a winter cyclist.

And don’t forget to laugh at yourself while you do it.