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Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

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In order to keep up to date with what is going on elsewhere I have set up alerts on Google News, and every day I get links to stories about transit, transport and transportation.

This morning the first two stories come from the United States. It is of course common here for us to feel superior to them, since we did not build a freeway through downtown Vancouver and therefore like showing off how well we have done since. Meanwhile, of course, most of the rest of the region was becoming like the rest of suburbia all over North America. We became “Zurich surrounded by Phoenix”.

Today’s lessons come from Sheboygan Wisconsin (the butt of a joke in “Some Like it Hot“, but I bet it does have a great music conservatory) which has now decided to get with the Complete Streets program.

The primary premise for the movement is that many of our transportation corridors are designed only for cars. A fitting analogy is: “you build a road like a shotgun barrel, people are going to travel like a bullet.” Situations as these not only decrease safety for motorists, but pedestrians and bicyclists as well.

We all know parts of our communities like this and we all know how unpleasant they are. Why do we continue to let it be done?

Can you imagine King George Highway getting this treatment? Or the Langley Bypass? Or even (whisper this bit quietly) Granville Street from Broadway to Marine Drive?

And the second lesson is from New Jersey (pronounced “Joisey”) which Connecticut wants to emulate

“You can’t build your way out of congestion.” It is a common refrain heard from transportation experts and urban planners nationwide. But what does it mean?

Basically, it means that widening roads, highways and bridges will do absolutely nothing to solve congestion problems in the long term. The newly widened infrastructure will fill with cars in only a few years’ time, and the exorbitant sums of taxpayer dollars spent on widening projects will be for naught.

Why then does the Connecticut Department of Transportation insist upon allocating the plurality of its funding to doing just this? Currently, the DOT spends 61 percent of its budget on highway expansion and road-building. Only 36 percent is dedicated to maintaining existing highways and bridges. This trend, at the very least, needs to be reversed.

The sad thing, of course, is that our current administration in BC either does not or cannot read. Or rather, prefers not to be reminded that we have made some progress in transportation and land use planning since the 1950s

But we are not alone. Tel Aviv is also struggling with the same mind set

MK Dov Khenin (Hadash), chairman of the Knesset’s Social-Environmental lobby, criticized the Tel Aviv-Jaffa Municipality harshly, saying that the conference carried an important message to the Israeli public that was only part of a “greater, worldwide realization, which would eventually reach even Tel Aviv.

“In the 21st century, parking isn’t part of the solution, but rather part of the problem,” Khenin declared.

“Environmentally, [cars] are a hazard,” he continued. “They are the cause of excess death from health problems. The more vehicles there are, the harder it is to get anywhere and the city is becoming more and more congested. Not everyone can own a vehicle, but everyone ends up paying for it,” he argued.

Khenin noted that Tel Aviv lagged behind the other large cities worldwide that were shifting to a paradigm that marginalized the private vehicle. “[Tel Aviv] doesn’t create or promote a comprehensive public transportation system. In fact, it’s obstructing the creation of such a system. The Finance Ministry has suggested turning Ibn Gvirol Street into a major public transportation artery [see box]. The mayor [Ron Huldai] halted it because he wants a subway tunnel there, but building such a tunnel will take time,” Khenin said. “So what does the city do in the meantime? It encourages the construction of giant parking lots… against recommendations.”

Sounds to me like they want to make the same mistake that we are making with the Canada Line. Build a subway, to keep the transit out of the way of the cars. All that achieves is continued car dominance of the surface. I am also torn by the parking question. I think if you want a walkable city centre you need to have very few, but common lots – and they will certainly need to be in structures as a result. This ends the need to drive from lot to lot when they are dispersed around a city centre designed for car traffic – like Richmond – rather than ones that have grown from walkable centres to transit based centres – like Victoria or New Westminster. But most of all of course you need easily accessible transit. And as soon as you force passengers to use stairs, escalators or elevators to get to the transit platform, you have added inconvenience and access time, limiting transit’s attractiveness for short trips. “Hop on a bus” worked very well for Central London – though it took them a while to appreciate that.

“In the city, everything is connected to everything else.” That is why you need to plan in a “joined up” way. It actually speaks against the current mind set that all we need are a few large projects – until they are finished, when we will need a few more. What is missing is a strategy. Or rather, a commitment to a strategy – as opposed to lip service to a mirage that depends on spin doctoring. Just like Bali will not actually deal with climate change effectively (even though it is better than Kyoto but not much) so our current efforts are just made to look good enough – but leave the business community content that their current comfort level is not disturbed too much.

We have known for a very long time that the slogan “What is good for General Motors is good for the USA” was quite wrong. Why, I wonder, do we think that what is good for the Board of Trade is good for BC?

Written by Stephen Rees

December 16, 2007 at 11:24 am

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