Down from the Summit

Yes, I attended the Mayor’s Summit. Nothing totally earth-shaking. Everyone — including developers — singing the same tune of vibrant street level facades. Even Diane Deans, of Gloucester Ward, emphasizing how much she opposes road widenings (in her ward) (beyond four lanes).

The afternoon speaker, Jeffrey Tumlin, was on transportation. He maintains that transportation planning is urban planning, since one shapes the other, twins locked in an embrace (to the death?).

He explained the futility of road widening to fix congestion. The widened road fixes the problem for a short time, then traffic volumes grow. Some of the growth is because of urban growth, and some of it is induced because it is now easier and most efficient to drive more (externalities aside). Ergo, it is futile to widen roads. So don’t even try.

None of that argument is new to anyone following planning issues. But I did start thinking more about the argument afterwards.

To some considerable degree, there is a lot of circularity in the argument. First, it depends on defining road widening as “solving” road congestion, which it doesn’t, after a period of time elapses. But it did, in fact, solve the congestion problem for the period of time the road supply exceeds the demand. AND, the new congestion level is at a higher volume than previously. So for a motorist, the road widening worked to address congestion for a time, and then continues onwards to handle more traffic than before. So from the motorist point of view, the road widening is definitely worthwhile.

Now recast the argument for transit. Our bus transitway is congested. We will spend $2 billion to convert a portion of it to LRT. And there is a lot more LRT to build after that. When the LRT first opens, there will be faster transit travel, which will attract induce more transit users. Our system opens in 2017-18, and may reach capacity as early as 2030, ie in just 12 years. At which point we are back to the same congestion we had before, but at a higher volume. So more transit spending is required.

From the motorist point of view, this is the same futility argument as transit proponents/smart growth advocates use to deride road widenings. Spend more >volume grows >congestion returns >need for more expansion. And of course, most motorists that do not use transit feel that everyone drives but a minority use transit, which has to be subsidized (to the extent there is insufficient fare box recovery). So should we even try expanding transit?

This little blog post isn’t designed to discuss all the factors and ramifications of smart growth vs [dumb?] growth, externalities, sustainability, etc etc so please don’t exercise your fingers pointing that out.

The summit was designed to bring people together, to network, and to think. And my little brain fart from the summit is that the futility of expanding road argument, which seems so logical to smart growth proponents, is remarkably similar to what I imagine many motorists think about the futility of expanding transit.

8 thoughts on “Down from the Summit

  1. At the summit was there any discussion of what rules changes could be done that might make it more attractive for developers to design in more walking friendly features? For instance, a rules change whereby a public car-share parking spot was considered equal to 4 private parking spots could be very attractive to developers as it would reduce the total number of parking spots they would have to provide. It seems like people always focus on the little extras that the city can provide (eg. more sidewalks, street funiture) when it is the construction rules that really force the form our city takes.

  2. Dan: that was a large part of the morning presentation on Perverse Cities, ie the disconnect between financial policies/incentives and what the grand “want to see” statements say. If the two can be more aligned, we will get more of what we want. Developers at my table complained that the rules are rigid and tight and to do anything different adds six months to the process so everything stays the same old.

  3. There’s been the same kind of “talk” in official planning documents going back to at least the 1980s.

    Hands up, everyone who thinks anything is actually going to change in this decade. Everyone? Anyone?

  4. I think the difference between Transit and Road widening is there is only so much space for cars. Look at the actual City of Vancouver which adopted a no road-widening policy in 1986 and has stuck to it (in fact, in many places, they have reduced capacity to introduce bus/transit/cycling facilities). Has this increased congestion for motorists? Marginally, despite the fact that the city has grown by 50% in that time, and the region has more than doubled. What it has done is increase modal share of all other means of getting around. So yes, we are trying to build our way out of transit congestion, but that is because we should, in theory, prioritize transit as a way to move and de-prioritize cars.

    What is lunacy is spending $180 million widening the Queensway AND billions on light rail. Suck and blow.

    1. The Queensway has to be expanded there is no choice people in masses are not going to bike from Kanata -Downtown to work its just not going to work on a large scale.

  5. Reidjr: the Queensway is being expanded right now. Surely you have noticed the construction, the widened overpasses?? The money being spent on the LRT gets the headlines, but much more is being spent on widening roads. The average commute in ottawa is less than 8km, which is also a pretty desirable cycling commute range. So the average person is within cycle commuting distance of work. I’m less sure that we need to widen Bronson or pave over more of the downtown because someone wants to live in the far edge of Kanata or in Almonte and drive to work.

    1. I live in Bells Corners and on my street half of the people work downtown i am not saying this is the case for every street but there are many who live in the west or east and work downtown.Also i work at a small store about a 5 minute walk but one worker lives in Carleton Place another in Smith Falls 2 others come from downtown i am not saying we should pave everything but we have to be smart and look out for all.

      1. If they are working downtown, that is why we are building a shiny LRT – to help them out. The question is priority – should we be spending money on widening the highway (which will enable more people to live further out) or transit.
        We do have to look out for all, but in “looking out” for the suburban dwellers, we have turned Centretown into (in the words of the planning summit) an on-ramp to the Queensway – how would you like to live on Bronson, O’Connor, or Lyon?

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