Infrastructure Folly

6 07 2009
Rendering of the interchange under construction at 23 Avenue and Gateway Boulevard, Edmonton -

Rendering of the interchange under construction at 23 Avenue and Gateway Boulevard, Edmonton -

Coming back into Edmonton on the airport shuttle tonight I passed under or through several monumental interchanges along the Queen Elizabeth Highway. I took particular note of the progress being made on the interchange at 23 Avenue and Gateway Boulevard. The dehumanizing mess it is making of what was already a pretty dismal intersection turns my stomach.

The massively overbuilt interchange at Anthony Henday Drive and QEH amazes me with its scale, dwarfing even the massive trucks that trundle through it all day long. It amazes me that complaints about Anthony Henday Drive not being a true freeway along its entire length are now to be heard in every conversation about the road. “How could they have been so stupid not to build all the overpasses right up front?” so many people wonder. “Why are the planners so incompetent that they could allow traffic to be so bad?” they cry. As if we have always been entitled to this road, complete and unobstructed. Never mind that Anthony Henday did not even exist as a functional ring road a few short years ago. Never mind that when it is finally completed it will have cost us billions and billions of dollars. Never mind that the ring road does absolutely nothing to ease traffic problems because its raison d’etre is in fact to support and facilitate increased driving to increasingly far-flung and car-dependent suburban areas.

I was returning today from San Francisco. I’ve been awed by interchanges on the highway in from the airport in that city, impressed by them. I’ve had similar responses to even grander interchanges in other US cities such as Houston. But being impressed does not suggest it is something I would like to see repeated. When I see Spaghetti Monuments to the Almighty Car being constructed in my own hometown, I do indeed find my stomach turning. Why are we going down the same literal and figurative road that so many other cities have gone down? Why are we not seeing that other places are turning away from this model of building their way out of roadway congestion? Why aren’t we realizing that they are turning away from it because they have discovered that building new roads actually increases car-dependency and therefore ultimately adds to congestion? And why is it that the Province of Alberta is already planning for the next ring road around Edmonton? I suppose they think that this little game of chicken and rotten egg will just go on forever and ever.

Why did the chicken cross the ring road over and over again? Because he was an unevolved bird-brain who never learned how to fly and didn’t notice how his predecessors all got squished by 18 wheelers.

San Francisco's multi-level Embarcadero Freeway, a bittersweet casualty of the 1989 earthquake - unattributed on

San Francisco's multi-level Embarcadero Freeway, a bittersweet casualty of the 1989 earthquake - unattributed on

Oh all right. I’m ranting. Where’s my evidence? Who says Anthony Henday Drive and the new Gateway Boulevard interchange aren’t necessary, aren’t needed for trade and the movement of people? I can’t honestly say for sure. I don’t have the necessary empirical data to back up my assertions that the City of Edmonton would be better off without them. But other cities are tearing down freeways and interchanges at the same time we are building them. The Infrastructurist recently highlighted four freeway tear-downs that measurably improved life in the surrounding city (two of them in San Francisco) without traffic or the trade of the city grinding to a halt.

I think in these times of change, when the winds are increasingly blowing in the direction of less car-travel, less energy consumption overall and the need for an aggressive shift towards less environmentally disruptive ways of living, that these massive “investments” may soon be seen as a massive waste of taxpayer dollars. When you contrast the $250 million being spent on just one interchange with the $100 million Edmonton will be spending over the next 10 years on cycling improvements and the similar amount over the same period to be spent on pedestrian improvements, it seems clear to me that priorities are out of whack.

It’s not about ceasing all investments in road infrastructure. But it is about planning for a livable and equitable city, and looking forward to a future in which our current assumptions may no longer hold true. I’m not sure how many of my fellow citizens are thinking the same way, unfortunately.


What On Earth?

7 04 2009

Aha! I’ve finally figured out how to embed video. It’s not that hard, it turns out. Good thing, because I just rediscovered a great National Film Board animated short that’s well worth sharing: What On Earth?

It is the story of the Martian discovery of Earth, and their mistaken impressions about what exactly constitutes intelligent life on this planet. If you have about 10 minutes to spare, it’s worth a view. It’s quite funny, as well as a bit thought-provoking.

It would seem that not that much has changed since it was produced in 1967.

Wheels Turning : Times Changing

9 02 2009

As a 2008 wrap-up, GOOD Magazine did a survey of the state of our planet. An impossible task, but it resulted in some interesting articles, one of which suggested some big changes in transportation trends continuing into 2009: increased cycling, increased transit use, higher gas prices (though prices have dropped for the time being), infrastructure spending to fight the recession and the rise of electric vehicles.

It also offered another short article on some great examples around the world of places which are taking innovative approaches to cycling, and getting around in general.

Paris’ new Velib bike rental system is the most exciting concept, for my money, with an average of 130,000 bike rentals per day since it was launched in July of 2007. There’s a great overview by the Bikes Belong Coalition on vimeo, complete with cool-hipster narration. I can’t embed the video for some reason, but click on the image below to see it:

Bikes Belong Coalition - Paris' Velib bike system

Paris' Velib bike system - Bikes Belong Coalition

Cycling May Be Bad for the (Automobile) Environment

7 12 2008
Powell Street, San Francisco

Powell Street, San Francisco

When you look at its incredibly steep hills, you wouldn’t think that San Francisco would be a cycling city. And when you consider that only about 2% of work trips in San Francisco are made by bike, you might be tempted to conclude that it really isn’t. But that isn’t to say, however, that with the city’s predictably pleasant climate, mostly-gridded street system and history of vigorous cycling advocacy (Critical Mass started in SF 10 years ago), it doesn’t have tremendous potential.

Mayor Gavin Newsom, a man with quite an incredibly slick coiff, has declared his commitment to make San Francisco the best cycling city in North America, targeting 10% of commuter trips by 2010. That’s been his intention for some time now, but achieving it has been stymied by the application of a court injunction that has kept the City from implementing its cycling plan, or indeed from making any improvements to cycling infrastructure whatsoever, since June of 2006. (Watch The Gav call out the bike haters in his State of the City address; skip to 20:45).

SF Mayor Gavin Newsom and his hair

SF Mayor Gavin Newsom - photo by Thomas Hawk

How could this be? Apparently, the City did not go through an adequate environmental analysis of its bike plan. All infrastructure or development projects in California are required to go through CEQA review, a process that is meant to “identify ways that environmental damage can be avoided or significantly reduced, requiring changes in projects through the use of alternatives or mitigation measures when feasible, and disclosing to the public the reasons why a project was approved if significant environmental effects are involved” (SF Bike Coalition).

A local commuter group decided to go to court over fears that the proposed changes to streets across the city would negatively effect automobile travel, arguing that the increased congestion would be detrimental to the environment, and that the Bike Plan did not take these effects into account. The argument worked. Rob Anderson, the spokesperson of the commuter group, also seems to think that the Bike Plan is an example of pie-in-the-sky planning for “smug, self-righteous progressives“, but never mind that now, because…

The counter-argument has finally arrived in the form of a 1,353 page, $1,000,000 draft Environmental Impact Report! Released just before US Thanksgiving, it is now in the public comment phase, which should take several more months to complete. Adoption of the updated Bike Plan is now scheduled for summer of 2009, barring any further legal injunctions. I tried a quick analysis of the EIR myself, but it’s honestly too big of an undertaking: the Executive Summary alone is nearly 200 pages! I’ll update this post when some other brave and diligent souls attempt an assessment.

Read more about the Bike Plan saga at the SF Bike Coalition website and Streetsblog. If you’re feeling really adventurous, the full EIR document can be found here.

Transportation (Not Just Automobile) Planning

16 11 2008

Since the cold weather has finally started to settle in around here I’ve started giving in, getting off my bike and switching to transit for most trips. A recent experience I had with transit underscored for me the problems we create when we plan for cars first and everything else a (distant) second.

Waiting for a bus after getting off the LRT, I became convinced that it had gone by shortly before I got to the stop. I get a little impatient in cool weather, so I decided to walk to the next bus stop for something to do and to keep myself warm. This turned out to be a bad idea.

114 Street is now a pedestrian head-ache as a result of LRT construction.

114 Street is now a pedestrian head-ache as a result of LRT construction. There is no sidewalk on the west side and the signal at 78 Ave makes you wait 2 minutes before it changes.

Extension of the LRT has necessitated some rejigging of the transportation functions along 114 Street. The casualty, however, has been pedestrian movement. Although bus stops remain on the west side of 114 Street, sandwiched between the LRT line and the roadway, the sidewalk has been stripped out. North-south pedestrian crossing at University Ave has also been restricted. This means that in order to reach this southbound bus stop from the north, a pedestrian must cross twice at University Ave then again at 78 Ave. Factor in a 2-minute change cycle for the pedestrian-activated signal at 78 Ave and you have a recipe for pedestrian frustration.

It turned out I hadn’t missed my bus at the previous stop. I discovered this when it sailed by me while I was waiting interminably for the 78 Ave signal to change.

Okay, so not all bus riders will be coming to this bus stop from the direction I was coming from, and you might argue that I created the problem myself with my impatience. But it is troubling to me nonetheless, because it seems to me that the imperative of automobile convenience is at work here. LRT extension has complicated left-turning at University Ave, and pedestrians also complicate automobile movements. Since LRT cannot be removed from the scenario and cars are sacrosanct, unimpeded pedestrian access bites the bullet. Considering that every transit trip begins and ends on foot, this seems like a poor choice.

People complain about traffic all the time, but rarely identify their own complicity in the problem. If you are a driver, traffic is not an external problem: you help to create it. Transit, cyclists and pedestrians take up a lot less space, thereby reducing congestion and, ironically, making it more pleasant to drive. So maybe if we make it a little bit less convenient for people to drive by planning for walking, cycling and transit first, it will actually improve things for drivers in the long run.

Well, that may be too much to hope for…


12 09 2008

There’s a lot of debate about expansion of light rail transit here in Edmonton. A lot of money is being invested (or it’s being considered, anyway). And the mayor wants to make sure LRT goes where the people are (or where the potential for the most redevelopment is, anyway). The Transportation Department seems to be focused on putting LRT where it will offer the fastest commute times for people out in the far suburbs to downtown. This, unfortunately, is not the same place as where the people are.

So the mayor sent them back. He wants to see the feasibility of his idea. Costs, benefits, etc.

I’m with the mayor. But, I worry that if you try to put a big, fast, wide suburban-style LRT through areas with narrow roads, you’re going to end up having to destroy big chunks of those areas in order to offer them the service.

I don’t see why we can’t think a little more creatively and choose a technology that suits the context. European tram service works pretty well, offers higher capacity service than buses, can offer relatively fast service if you provide it with its own (narrow) right of way. And it’s low-impact. It can run on existing roads. It doesn’t require the demolition of blocks and blocks of housing and businesses.

I prefer not to think that there is only one solution and that it will be rammed through regardless of the cost (by which I don’t just mean dollars and cents).

On Automobilia

14 08 2008

There have been a few days lately when I’ve ended up driving to work, having had the office car overnight for a public meeting, or a site visit first thing in the morning.

I had forgotten how much I hate driving in rush hour. Or just generally when traffic is bad. It results in nothing but stress, boredom and anxiety for me. And when there is road construction to contend with, I think it actually takes longer than it does to bike to work.

And then there are the landscapes that all this driving results in. I can’t say I’m a big fan of scenes like Gateway Boulevard.

Bike or bus for me. I’m committed.