If you’ve bought into the idea that walkability is a good thing, it’s time to address HOW we can actually accomplish a more walkable municipality. We need to confront our suburban obsession with smooth traffic flow at the expense of walkable neighbourhoods. I often pick on the “controversy” over Willoughby’s 208th Street because, like many other “problematic” suburban streets, the demand for more lanes is more of a political problem than it is an actual transportation problem. This is a prime example of why our mindsets need to shift. If Langley keeps caving to the lazy answer of “more lanes”, we will continue to end up with more traffic and less pedestrian-friendly neighbourhoods.
Take “traffic studies” with a grain of asphalt…
In 2009, the Township of Langley adopted its last Master Transportation plan. The plan
was presented by Ward Consultation, a division of EBA Engineering – a company that obviously appreciates contracts for big highways, big lanes, and infrastructure that favours… more cars.
“As long as engineers are in charge of traffic studies, they will predict the need for engineering” – Jeff Speck, Walkable City
But aren’t traffic studies just science? Aren’t traffic studies conducted by smart people, with fancy degrees and powerful supercomputers?
I won’t answer those questions specifically, but as Jeff Speck points out, the computer modelling used by engineers and city planners throughout the continent are at the mercy of its inputs. If you want a different outcome, you just change the input!
“When we were in Oklahoma City, the local traffic engineer’s “Synchro” computer model said that our pro-pedestrian proposals would cause gridlock. So we borrowed the engineers computer model and handed it to our engineer, who tweaked the inputs, and voila: smooth sailing.” – Jeff Speck
Jeff Speck, one of the world’s most re-known city planning experts just comes out and says it: “traffic studies are bullshit”. Traffic studies have been shown to be focused merely on congestion & traffic flow – usually adding to traffic problems by recommending more infrastructure for more driving and more cars on the road. To get real on making a more walkable Langley, we need our Council to understand that these engineering companies have a self-interest in building more roads and more traffic, not walkable communities.
We really REALLY need to understand “induced demand”
I may sound a bit like a broken record, but this is so crucial to planning our newer communities moving forward. Yet, like many other Americanized suburban cities, Langley is still ignoring the facts and moving forward with 1950’s style road planning.
“Induced demand is the name for what happens when increasing the supply of roadways lowers the time cost of driving, causing more people to drive and obliterating any reductions in congestion.” – Jeff Speck
For full reading on the subject, check out “Suburban Nation” and “The Elephant in the Bedroom: Automobile Dependence and Denial“. You don’t need to get too academic to see how it works though. Take a drive down 200th Street if you want an example. Every once in awhile, we expand the former Carvolth Street to one more lane. No HOV lanes, no parking, some dodgy bicycle lanes (void of cyclists, who strangely enough value their lives over a quick 200th Street jaunt), and upwards of 9 lanes that require some auto-acrobatics to get from one side to the other. Every time 200th Street expands, it follows the expected trend found throughout North America:
“In 2004, a meta-analysis of dozens of previous studies found that ‘on average, a 10% increase in lane miles induces an immediate 4% increase in vehicle miles traveled, which climbs to 10% – the entire new capacity – in a few years.” – Jeff Speck
Added lanes don’t solve congestion or traffic flow – they simply buy more time until they can find more lane space, meanwhile making the neighbourhood less walkable. Instead of advocating for “an efficient interconnected street system” to “encourage a walking community” (Yorkson NCP, 2001), the local road network has become entirely focused on feeding subdivisions to the mini-freeways of 208th Street and 80th Avenue – the antithesis of the walkable community. Instead of fixing the suburban layout of future subdivisions, or making 208th Street a pedestrian-friendly boulevard, the Township of Langley is desperately trying to find money to construct a 200th Street-like “freeway” in the heart of Yorkson that suggests that walking is the lowest priority of transportation in Willoughby. The result, as indicated from around the continent, and our own backyard, will just mean more cars.
Stop subsidizing the car
Cars are a lot more expensive than the dealership tells you. We all see how gas, insurance and maintenance can add up. However, how many of us calculate the cost of the infrastructure we drive on? Whether or not we drive, unfortunately, the roads, bridges, stop lights, traffic police, and the like, are paid for by drivers and non-drivers. The infrastructure costs – those that are fixed – vastly outweigh the marginal costs of cheap leases, inexpensive insurance, fuel, and the rare toll. According to the AAA, the operating costs of a typical sedan in the United States account for only 20% of the true cost.
“This all adds up to a situation in which you are paying to drive whether you drive or not, in which the more you drive, the less each mile costs, and in which the greatest constraint to driving, then, is congestion.” – Jeff Speck
While some drivers might actually think about the cost of gas when they go for a drive, many more are going to be more concerned with getting stuck in traffic. Congestion, therefore, is one of the best promoters of walkability. It is no mistake that seven of the top ten cities with the worst traffic were also ranked in the top 10 for most walkable: Chicago, Washington, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Boston, Seattle and New York (Los Angeles was previously on both lists as well).
This isn’t to suggest that we should advocate for more congestion. What we do need to do, however, is to understand that our demand for short term relief is only making us pay higher taxes and forcing our cities to take on more infrastructure meanwhile hurting our downtowns and neighbourhoods in the long term.
Many cities and regions, especially in Europe, have already found one solution to our out of whack car subsidy program with congestion pricing:
…what if motorists were asked to pay something closer to the real cost of driving, so that they were once again allowed to make market-based choices about when to drive where? The result would be a solution to both excessive driving and excessive congestion.” – Jeff Speck
In almost every example around the world, from London to Shanghai to Sydney, an often initially divisive policy of “congestion pricing” was overcome with rational decision making and results that have kept the majority of the populace happy – drivers and non-drivers alike. While congestion pricing is unlikely to go before the Township of Langley council chambers… ever… due to our governmental structure and political geography, it is something that the region has flirted with. The problem is that they’ve looked at it through the lens of a new tax to pay for transit infrastructure rather than sound policy for sustainable development and transportation planning. We need our local leadership to stand up on the regional and provincial level and be demanding that we really tackle mobility in a sustainable way.
“Traffic Flow” is not your friend
I realize that trying to argue that the end goal of road planning should not be to get cars to move from A to B as fast as possible is a bit of an uphill battle. It’s easy to say “walkability” is a great ideal, but its another when it comes at the expense of “traffic flow”. Yet to increase traffic flow, governments on many levels all around North America have made virtual ghost towns, unfriendly streets, and painfully boring bedroom communities by eliminating parallel parking, removing trees, increasing speed limits, and widening/adding travel lanes. Oh, but we have sidewalks… empty sidewalks… sometimes.
“In most communities, there are… daily battles to be fought within city administration, where, in the absence of mayoral leadership, traffic trumps livability.” – Jeff Speck, Walkable City
So if traffic is the perennial concern (as it always is), doesn’t it make sense to address the problem by reducing congestion? Of course, Speck puts it better than I ever could:
“This would be acceptable if efforts to reduce traffic congestion didn’t wreck cities and perhaps also if they worked. But they don’t work, because of induced demand. Most city engineers don’t understand induced demand. They might say that they do, but, if so, they don’t act upon that understanding…
…Stop doing traffic studies. Stop trying to improve flow. Stop spending people’s tax dollars giving them false hope that you can cure congestion, while mutilating their cities in the process.” – Jeff Speck
The mayor and council have a duty to address the concerns of residents and often have ears to those who yell the loudest. The challenge, therefore, is to have garner enough support to offset those in our community who believe that more lanes will solve their traffic woes.
Fight induced remand with “reduced demand”
Just as more lanes and larger intra-community “freeways” tend to invite more cars and more traffic, the reversal of the procedure has been proven. From San Francisco to New York, the removal of “vital arteries” has shown that car trips have a tendency of dissipating. Drivers either find better ways or simply just don’t bother. You would be amazed at the number of times I personally hear someone say, “I don’t go there [usually somewhere in Willoughby] because of all the traffic.” So if there was the perception of less traffic (or smoother flow), doesn’t this mean that this person would be more likely to drive there? You might find this a ridiculous notion, but studies have shown that this has actually been the result. By taking away primarily car-based options, you actually reduce the demand of driving.
Does this mean removing 200th Street in Langley? No. But maybe it means taking away 3 lanes for HOV and a treed boulevard and true bike lanes. It might mean arteries such as 208th Street and 80th Avenue offering parallel parking and skinnier lanes instead of 6 highway-sized travel lanes. No matter what the details end up becoming, reducing demand must be a conscious effort by elected officials, staffers, and local activists to put pedestrians, cyclists, and public transit ahead of the single occupant vehicle.
“[Ivan] Illich discovered a hidden physical law: the faster a society moves, the more it spreads out and the more time it must spend moving… Since 1983, when the American sprawl machine really kicked in, the number of miles driven has grown 8 times the population rate.” – Jeff Speck, Walkable City
Is Langley ready for a “Car Free Zone”?
Even staunchly pro-walkable planners such as Jeff Speck question the wisdom of car free zones, except in special circumstances (such as Robson Street in Vancouver).
Unless you have similar residential and pedestrian density and stores that can thrive in the absence of car traffic – a rarity – to consign a commercial area to pedestrians only, in America, it to condemn it to death. – Jeff Speck
Those are pretty harsh words by someone who is one of the foremost advocates for pedestrian friendly downtown areas. But if we are to look to the future, I believe some more radical ideas could potentially be tested in some of our more walkable areas. Could, for example, Glover Road in Fort Langley have “car free Sundays” during the summer? Could Willoughby Town Centre Drive try a “car free weekend” between Mattu’s and the Royal Bank? It’s not as if there is a proper exit onto 80th Avenue at this time anyway. Benefiting from alternative routes, could downtown Aldergrove experiment with an annual street farmers market along a segment of Fraser Highway?These are not necessarily ideas merely for the sake of walkablity, but it is walkability that can add culture, healthy living and thriving business to commercial strips.
Once we admit the need for walkability, the first step to building walkable neighbourhoods is to stop building streets solely for cars. Building additional lanes may keep the engineers happy, but it isn’t alleviating our traffic problems, and they certainly aren’t creating safe streets that anyone wants to walk down. 200th Street north of Brookswood is one of the most unfriendly, detestable streetscapes in the region and right now the plan is to essentially clone it just 8 blocks over. This isn’t the answer to a better Langley. We must understand that our street network is the primary organ of public property and it’s time that they are accessible for humans, not just cars.