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

Archive for October 18th, 2019

Do we really need a “hackathon”?

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The City of Vancouver is holding an event to “Decode Congestion“.

They say

“We believe that the combination of data, technology, and talented Vancouver residents can create solutions that optimize street use for an efficient, safe, and reliable transportation network.”

I am not convinced that this is actually necessary. I think we know how to deal with congestion. The problem is that the straightforward, already well demonstrated, policy approach has been studiously avoided.

In part it is because we use the word “congestion” to suggest that this is somehow just a technical issue and that cities can be decongested by some formula or other. Cities work by concentrating people into a relatively compact space. Instantly, our planning process states that is somehow an evil – “overcrowding”. And that the real issue is that it just takes too long to get anywhere.

Look at the way cities have evolved over time and the pattern that emerges is remarkably consistent – and that things don’t really start to fall apart until the advent of the motor vehicle. Even then things get sorted out, until it becomes some kind of desirable objective that every household has at least one car and uses it for most trips. At that point things get really messed up. And the problem is not just that it takes 30 minutes to get 6.7 kilometres – but that anyone has the expectation that they can do that at the same time as everyone else, each in an SOV. It’s even worse when the SOV is an SUV.

Analysing our issues of urbanity – making a place that is worth living in – as though the only problem worth examining is where to park and how many lanes of freeway you need is why we have problems. Congestion is not a sensible way to summarize that. But the answers to that particular conundrum are simple geometry. Go read Human Transit to find out more. The tl:dr is that famous picture which has many versions now that all say the same thing

We can move many more people through the same width of roadway/right of way if we use space efficient modes. Walking is the most important but distance that can be travelled is limited – so bikes (and things like bikes) and public transit are essential. Cars aren’t. Very few vehicle trips really need a vehicle. And places that take this stuff seriously have been demonstrating how to do that for years. Copenhagen and Amsterdam come top of mind. And they did the math long before everybody had a computer in their pocket.

Getting rid of on street parking, giving buses priority over all other traffic, giving people on bicycles a safe, protected pathway – and allowing anyone on foot to move safely through the area – solves most of the people moving issues.

For cities that have been car dependent for fifty years or more the real problem isn’t congestion – it is sprawl. Low density development that demands automobility. To connect to those places you need higher speed trains – all day, every day not just weekday peak hour peak direction.

Then when you have done that (bought a lot more buses, given them exclusive bus lanes, completed your sidewalk and bikeway networks, built safe intersections and crosswalks) you will also need to deal with goods movement. By that time, the last mile vans will have been replaced by cargo bikes and things will already be a lot simpler. Most large scale freight movement in urban areas will have to be rescheduled to times when there is capacity available. Monopolising rail corridors for freight movement in daytime may be highly profitable but it is also sociopathic.

I do not see any of this as a data problem or requiring any new technology at all. Bicycles and electric trams were all over cities before the end of the nineteenth century. It was just the “success” of the automotive industry (“If it’s good for General Motors, it’s good for the USA” was a flat lie) at dominating the debate.

Then we can get on with placemaking, which generally translates as replacing soulless suburbs with interesting urbanity – AKA mixed land use. Which greatly reduces trip length – but can’t be done nearly as fast as reorganising urban streets.

Written by Stephen Rees

October 18, 2019 at 4:50 pm