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.
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.
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.