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.

But what about the displaced automobile traffic? Cohen’s assertion is that congestion, accompanied by beefed up alternatives, is precisely the thing required to move drivers toward sustainable alternatives. He figures people would think twice before hopping in the car when transit or bikes are moving faster.

Further support for road diets comes from a major British study published in the New Scientist, based on 60 cases worldwide where a road’s carrying capacity was reduced. As recounted by the late urban-issues writer Jane Jacobs:

“When a road is closed, an average of 20 per cent of the traffic it carried seems to vanish. In some cases they studied, as much as 60 per cent of the traffic vanished. Most of the cases involved urban areas … The report at hand is a logical extension to a 1994 finding that building new roads generates traffic.”

Cohen uses Hamilton’s Main Street as an example of a road whose only purpose is moving cars, a “traffic sewer” that displaces other modes of travel and opportunities for businesses to develop.

“Main Street between Dundurn and Queen should be busy with pedestrians and business but it just moves cars and trucks,” he laments. “Cars and trucks are zooming along a curb; it’s not only unnerving but it is completely wrong if you want street life, amenity and business. There’s a huge potential to redevelop along these arteries. Bike lanes could be part of that.”

Not far away, Ward 1 sports a nice example with recent work on King Street West just west of Longwood.

Adding an island pedestrian refuge, plus bicycle lanes on both sides of the street means a formerly four-lane road is now two lanes. It’s a safer crossing point for primary school kids and cyclists finally have some room of their own.

It costs about $700,000 to repave one kilometre of four-lane road. That’s almost the price needed to prevent a damaging fare increase from torpedoing the HSR. Yet all we hear is how fares should go up to cover the costs of transit, while roads drag their bloated bottom line under the radar of public outrage.

Another way to save money on roads is to close them to auto traffic. Closing a small road like Valley Inn Road to cars, (which is in the works), will have a positive effect on the natural integrity of the area at the mouth of Grindstone Creek. We should be looking for more opportunities to scale back roads in order to create islands of restored nature, neighbourhoods and business areas.

By following a path that downsizes roads, we can make room for other users, save money on roads that could be spent on transit or an alt-trans staff position, while ensuring we have more access to clean, quiet, safe areas to explore in the city. Road diets could help get the city in shape for the tough climate-change years ahead. And with more opportunities for active modes like cycling and walking, a trimmer population as a happy byproduct.

By Randy Kay

Experienced not-for-profit communications and citizen engagement professional

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