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One would think that, in a municipal culture compulsively accommodating the automobile as if the future of humanity depended on it, they would know how to do so properly. Sadly, it doesn’t seem like any city hall across the nation knows how to do anything but implement the most easily comprehensible solutions to the detriment of cyclists, pedestrians, transit users and, most ironically, automobilists.

It comes down to the “street hierarchy”, or the one-basket approach to ferrying people from A to B.

This approach goes like this (and I’m certain you’ll all recognise this pattern): from your private driveway, you back out onto a cul-de-sac or a crescent. From there, you turn onto a slightly larger street called a ‘collector’. From the collector, you turn onto the ‘arterial’, a usually a four to six-lane road more commonly known as ‘Death” for cyclists, “Suicide” for pedestrians and ‘Unfortunately-Placed-Puddles’ for transit users. Often, your arterial will finally dump you onto a highway.

Post-war road classification. (StudyBlue.com)

This is extremely simple to understand and, at first blush, should be quite efficient. But reality is quite often more complicated than we’d like.

The problem is that there is usually only one (or at best two) way to get anywhere. And when that one way is blocked, closed, snowed-in, traffic-choked or under construction, it makes it almost impossible to get there. This is well-illustrated by the recently completed arterial Boulevard du Plateau in the development of the same name just north of Aylmer. Now that it’s completed, the distance between the D’Arcy McGee High School and the rest of the Plateau is just more than one kilometre, whereas it used to be more than five. And even then, the only reason it’s as little as five times the distance is because of the grid of country roads enclosing the development:. It would otherwise be about 10.

Now, all that is just poor connectivity (which is actually inherent to the system since streets can’t connect to anything but their collector), and the street has been built, so problem solved. But as soon as there’s a car accident (probable on a street designed for speeds upwards of 100 km/h), too much snow (probable in a region that sees two and a half metres of snow on a yearly basis) or congestion, it re-becomes a 5 km trip for those lucky enough to be able to turn off (I’ll get back to that later in the post).

The poor connectivity of arterials also means fewer stops which means faster vehicles which, in the imaginations of traffic engineers everywhere, means less traffic. That isn’t how traffic jams work, but I’m not going to get into that in this post. What I will say is that it it means is higher death rates for automobilists and much, much higher ones for cyclists and pedestrians.

Speed (km/h) and fatality. (Gov. of Australia)

The traditional layout for streets has been the grid. The grid isn’t necessarily the straight-angled, mathematical pattern we see in Washington or New York, but simply the interconnectedness of streets: local streets that spill onto boulevards, a total lack of cul-de-sacs or crescent streets and the ability to get anywhere in a thousand ways. To get from my house to my primary school in Old Aylmer, a trip of 1 km, I had just short of 50 options of direct ways (as in no meandering of backtracking) to get there. I can’t remember there ever being an accident on Principale (my preferred route), but I could change my route to avoid certain less-enjoyable intersections, see different things, play along the stream in Aydleu Park, stay in well-light areas, avoid the harsh winter winds or the pounding summer sun… or to just shake things up a bit. I could adapt my ‘commute’ to fit whatever I needed or wanted (which comes back to what I was saying in my previous post). In comparison, a trip from the end of the “du Golf’ development in the east of Aylmer to Principale (a similar distance) offers only two direct paths.

But I find that the worst aspect of the street hierarchy system is the non-directness. In newer suburbs such as the one north of Front street in Aylmer, nothing can ever be accessed directly: a sad example in the neighbourhood I just mentioned is that in some sections, for someone to get to their neighbours behind their house without jumping a fence, they would need to go half a kilometre. A grid, on the other hand, makes for an almost direct route, no matter where you’re going, as illustrated in Streetsblog:

Street hierarchy vs. The Grid’s connectivity (Streetsblog)

Now, the connectivity of the grid doesn’t only provide advantages to pedestrians and cyclists: motorists can also change their commute on a dime to adapt to the situation: in Montreal, to get from Côte-Visitation to downtown, including only major roads, there are about 270 paths to chose from. Including local streets, it’s closer to 2,000 options for an 8-km trip. So if there’s traffic on Pie-IX, people can easily take any number of combinations of other routes to bypass it. On a limited-access highway (the highway with interchanges we’ve come to live with) and the omniscient poorly-connected arterial inherited from the street hierarchy, there is very little possibility of re-routing because interchanges or intersections are several kilometres apart in most areas, so a delay traps people between exits with no possibility of escape (I once spent three hours in traffic because there was an accident 5-km away and no exits I could take to avoid it). And often, this re-routing isn’t even viable since there aren’t enough streets that go to the destination. So whereas the grid offers versatility and flexibility for getting around, our road-classification puts all our eggs in one very frail basket.

In fact, I think it would be reasonable to argue that highways have no real role in a grid other than to be magnets for traffic. If all of Autoroute 40’s maximum capacity of 8,300 cars/hour were dispersed onto Montreal’s about 25 east-west boulevards, it would result in an increase of about 400 extra cars per hour on each of them or, to put it in more concrete terms, one extra car every 10 seconds. In fact, combined and at capacity, they could carry more than 10 times the traffic of the Autoroute 40’s capacity per hour (assuming every boulevard has two lanes per direction and a median and using the British government’s traffic numbers available here). However, intercity trips are different in my eyes since the countryside can’t easily support a grid on which to disperse traffic, but it is just as vulnerable to disruption.

So the street hierarchy not only reduces the efficiency of trips and the choices available to people to get from one place to another, but through so doing, it causes traffic jams, fatalities and headaches for everyone who has the misfortune to have to get around in those conditions.

But surely there must be a reason for all this! And yes, there seems to be. The reason given is that it reduces through-traffic on local streets, thereby protecting children and the silent peacefulness of the residential  way. This is a valid concern and the hierarchy does eliminate through-traffic by making sure that streets aren’t connected to anything and don’t go anywhere (though woe unto you if you live on a collector or an artery), but this solution is comparable to rebuilding a house to change the curtains: there are many simple, better-working and dirt cheap ways to decrease though-traffic in the grid without sacrificing connectivity. So simple, that you could make it yourself.

Traffic Bulb in Vancouver (Ouruptown.com)

Traffic bulbs, planters, a canopy of trees, narrow lanes, parking, small front yards and even just a change in paving not only greatly reduces speed, but reduces through-traffic without reducing to-traffic such as residents, cyclists, pedestrians, service and emergency vehicles.

In light of these simple, efficient and cost-effective solutions, residents and municipal governments need to demand a stop to the hierarchy which causes a world of problems to solve one small issue. But that still leaves one very pressing question: what to do with the hierarchy we already have? I guess I’ll try to address that in another blog post, but for now I’ll just wish you a happy New Year!

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