Romantic Traffic

In today’s Edmonton Journal, Paula Simons wrote a story about the City of Edmonton’s proposed west LRT line (map here) in which Councillor Karen Leibovici is on the record suggesting that the stretch of the Stony Plain LRT route from 149th street to 142 street either have a tunnel for the line to go under, or be widened to six lanes to accommodate more traffic. Leibovici’s argument is that an LRT route through that area will create an unreasonable level of traffic congestion.

Like Councillor Leibovici, I am opposed to the proposed Stony Plain route. The primary purpose of public transport is moving a large number of people from one point to another in the quickest, easiest manner possible. I therefore think that going along 87th (or even 107th) avenue was the better choice (Councillor Don Iveson explores this issue here and here, ultimately coming to a different conclusion). I was and still am very skeptical of the idea that an LRT route along Stony Plain Road will automatically “revitalize” the area. I think that is a misguided, if not in fact dangerous, idea for the city to adopt (Alex Abboud addresses this issue quite well in a post of his own). That being said, Councillor Leibovici’s suggestion to either tunnel or add more road lanes to the area is foolhardy, as it is completely counter to the goals of increased density, sustainability and use of public transportation. I could detail why in my own words, but I think the following explanation by David Owen, in his book Green Metropolis, is going to be better than anything I could possibly write.

“In urban areas that are dense enough to support efficient public transit systems, officials often negate their own efforts to increase usage, by simultaneously spending huge sums to make it easier for people to get around in cars. When a city’s streets or highways become crowded, for example, the standard response is to create additional capacity by building new roads or widening existing ones. Projects like these almost always end up making the original problem worse—while also taking years to complete and costing many millions of dollars—because they generate what transportation planners call “induced traffic”: every mile of new, open roadway encourages existing users to make more car trips, lures drivers away from other routes, and tempts transit riders to return to their automobiles, with the eventual result that the new roads become at least as clogged as the old roads, though at higher traffic volumes, and the efficiency of transit declines. These negative outcomes are compounded by the fact that, in the short term, temporarily improved traffic flow reduces commute times for drivers on the expanded roadways, making it easier for people to justify building houses, shopping malls, and office buildings in formerly inaccessible outlying areas—and that, in turn, eventually makes all the original problems worse, as the places where commuters sleep and shop and work drift further and further apart, and new feeder roads are built to serve them.”

Or, as Jane Jacobs put it in The Death and Life of Great American Cities, “Increased city accessibility by cars is always accompanied by declines in the service of public transportation.” It’s that simple. If this city really wants to make progress, if it wants to become a better place to live, work, play and visit, we need people on City Council who understand that we can’t continue to do things the way we’ve been doing them. We are building our city out, and out of existence; it’s time to put that to an end, before our bad planning does the same to us.

***Instant Update***

I’m glad to see the news tonight that the majority of city council is opposed to Councilor Leibovici’s suggestions. Let’s hope they stay that way.

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Comments

  1. Christopher Spencer says:

    Hi Andy,

    As I live near Stony Plain Road, I’m not an objective reader, but I do think you’ve put together a smart piece here that not only addresses the local concern, but also the whole problem of investing in car-oriented infrastructure. Well done.

  2. David MacLean says:

    I get and accept all the points here except one. If increasing road infrastructure makes it easier for people to live in far-flung areas, doesn’t building a fancy train to far flung areas do the same thing?

    I don’t exactly get the train to St. Albert idea. I think it just creates an incentive for people to live in St. Albert. What am I missing here?

  3. I agree with you 100%, David. I am totally opposed to trains going to St. Albert, Leduc, Ellerslie, etc. And in an ideal world, we wouldn’t even be building lines to Mill Woods or West Ed until we had the proper density in both the core and those regions (I’m actually not certain we have the density anywhere outside of Whyte ave and the University to make light rail a smart decision). But that battle was lost 30 years ago. Now I’ll consider it a victory if we don’t build outside the Henday. Sad, but it’s where we are it.

    I highly recommend Green Metropolis to both of you guys, btw. I’m trying to convince everyone to read it. Absolute must read. I think you’d both dig it.

  4. David MacLean says:

    How do I make a concern about “density” jive with my rabid libertarianism? As I have said a million times, cities that are dense are dense because of properly functioning markets for labour, materials and real estate.

    I spend a lot of time thinking about this stuff (can’t help it, folks are obsessed with transit), and keep coming back to a similar concern – some elites are trying to make people live where they don’t want to live, live how they don’t want to live. That never works. I’m going to read this book, though so I can figure this piece out.

    Thanks.

  5. Hey David, it’s a really good batch of questions. Thanks for bringing them up, and my apologies in taking so long to respond. The weekend was craaaazyyyy.

    My response to your issue about density and libertarianism is twofold: one, dense cities are cheaper cities to run, which I think you’d be in favour of. Secondly, your libertarianism shouldn’t dictate the best approach to policy problems. The best approach to policy problems should dictate your libertarianism. That is to say, whatever works, works, and we should get behind that.

    If your stance is that urban planning has been horrible for a large number of cities, I would absolutely agree. It’s certainly been horrible for this city. One of the reasons we have so much sprawl in the first place is because post-war urban planning was so focused on the creation of suburbs and the dominance of the automobile. That school of thought, or ideology, became entrenched, and lots of cities are now suffering because of it. It wasn’t really until a woman outside of those circles came along and ripped apart all those assumptions that we began to see real changes in how we think about, and plan our cities. And yes, a big part of what Jacobs said was that you can’t really plan cities. But she didn’t say it was impossible. She even gave suggestions on how to build proper, thriving neighbourhoods. Things like short blocks, population density, and multi-use streets and districts. Those are all well established principles now (unless you’re the Katz Group, of course). So while I don’t approve of full-on meddling in urban planning is necessarily the best way to go–megaprojects like the arena district and the Expo that are intended to “revitalize” areas come to mind–I think there is a place for thoughtful planning and tinkering. I think of it as judicious pruning.

    As for the elites thing, that doesn’t make much sense to me. The people living in the suburbs and the exurbs aren’t low-income, uneducated Edmontonians. Who am I, for example, trying to repress in advocating more density? The lawyer and the doctor in Riverbend? The guy who drives in to downtown from Westridge for his monthly board meeting? The two BComms starting a family in Summerside? The reality is, I want a denser city because I think it’s in the best, long-term interest of all of us. And I’m happy to argue whether or not density is the solution. If I’m wrong, I’m wrong. I just don’t think it’s an accurate statement to say that I’m unfairly dictating the lives of the poor commoners in their 3,000 square foot homes. 🙂

    Here’s a question for you. You say that cities are dense because of properly functioning markets. I say that other factors are involved, such as simple geography. Vancouver, Toronto and New York all come to mind. How do you limit sprawl, which will continue to drain the public coffer, be bad for the environment, and limit our capacity to provide other important public services, in a city that has no boundaries? Myself, I’d happily vote for someone who campaigned on a platform of a virtual mountain range along the Henday. Or at least the putting up of toll booths on all those roads coming in from St. Albert, Sherwood Park, Ellerslie, etc.

  6. David MacLean says:

    I think this is the nugget right here — you claim sprawl will “will continue to drain the public coffer, be bad for the environment, and limit our capacity to provide other important public service.”

    I understand the argument that a low density expansion of the City results in increasing marginal costs for utilities. But I don’t think by much, to be honest. And I hate taxes. Because the increased cost of infrastructure to support cars, which makes you sneer, is largely if not completely offset by the property tax base growth in the outlying areas.

    As a proud sprawler, I my property tax bill testifies.

    I think Don Iveson’s make-work projects are a much bigger threat to the wallets of Edmonton taxpayers.

    The second part of the statement — “be bad for the environment” — I spose so. But it’s only bad for the environment if people don’t live where near where they work. Me for example, I never leave the west end. I work out here and I live just a short drive away. Why do you assume everyone will work in the core? I think we should have many small cores, and high density areas. The “hub and spoke” is medieval.

    And then there is “provide other important public services” — what other services? I think we could probably do without 60 per cent of them. I just want the parks mowed and watered and roads and sidewalks maintained. Other people have other ideas though.

    I want to be clear. I care about the City — I chose to move here. I have one child and another one on the way who will be born here. I want it to get better. But this obsession with density and public transit is an ideology, with a whole bunch of assumptions wrapped up inside it. I reject it.

    Your question, then, is not one I am particularly interested in answering. I live outside the Henday. I live near I work. I have an efficient furnace and I harvest rain water for my garden.

    I think if sprawl is one of Edmonton’s major problems, I can live with that. The alternative is higher land values and increased poverty/lower standards of living. I’ll take the sprawl, the traffic, and food on the table.

  7. That’s too bad. Hopefully others aren’t as ideologically entrenched as you are. Again, I recommend reading Green Metropolis. It was a real eye-opener for me, and that’s from someone who’s been labeled as being “to the right of Ghengis Khan.”

  8. David MacLean says:

    To write off the hundreds of words I just wrote as ideological entrenchment is kind of unfair. Who’s being ideological?

  9. David MacLean says:

    PS, anyone who would artifically inflate home prices by creating imaginary boundaries isn’t anywhere near the “right” of the political spectrum.

  10. Who’s being ideological?

    PS, anyone who would artifically inflate home prices by creating imaginary boundaries isn’t anywhere near the “right” of the political spectrum.

    That made me laugh. Thanks.

  11. Michael Janz says:

    Great Post, Andy. I will take advantage of my favorite municipal service and put a hold on Green Metropolis immediately.

    Well thought out post. I think the problem you didn’t touch on is our single-use neighbourhoods and our lack of completeness in our community. We need all kinds of zoning and my kind of city has apartments and commercial all mixed together.

    Did you ever pick up “The New City” by John Lorinc? I loved that one.

    Also how much in your opinion is sprawl enabled by the province and the feds? Or is this just a #yegcc problem?

  12. I think the problem you didn’t touch on is our single-use neighbourhoods and our lack of completeness in our community.

    For sure. But that would have been a much longer post. 🙂

    Or is this just a #yegcc problem?

    I don’t think so. Calgary is just as bad, if not worse.

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