Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Prioritising Public Transit in Greater Sudbury, Part II

(….continued from Part I)

High Occupancy Vehicle Lanes

We also need to start giving priority to transit vehicles at peak travel hours through the creation of High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes. We should have been taking a close look at the benefit of HOV lanes for some time now, as many other municipalities have done. For example, think how better it would be for transit users in the Hanmer and the Valley if Municipal Road 80’s outside lanes were dedicated to high occupancy users only. Combine outside HOV lanes with a reversible centre lane (instead of a lane reserved for left-turning vehicles), and you can still maintain two lanes of traffic flowing into the city in the morning, along with a HOV lanes for buses.

You may be familiar with the concept of a reversible lane if you had driven on Jarvis Street in Toronto up until last year. The middle lane of the 5-lane street actually changed its direction at certain times of the day, in order to better meet rush hour demands. The lane was removed on Jarvis after it was identified that it was never really necessary to meet demand. Wider sidewalks and bike lanes were intended to take its place, but Toronto drivers liked the reversible lane so much, the new infrastructure is being ripped up on Jarvis and the reversible lanes will be back at a cost of about $400,000 to Toronto taxpayes.

But with or without a reversible centre lane, HOV lanes increasingly make sense in our City, from a sustainability stand point. Not only would HOV lanes give buses priority along congested streets, they would encourage car-pooling (how many cars do you see each morning carrying only one occupant?).

Transit Infrastructure

The A-G’s report also recommends upgrades to bus shelters and other bus stop infrastructure, such as the provision of route maps at all stops. Snowplowing should be prioritized where bus stops are located, and the installation of sidewalks leading to bus stops should become the norm (have you ever found it unusual that the sidewalk is located on one side of the street, but the bus stop is on the other side? These bizarre situations exist all too often in Greater Sudbury). Having sidewalks available for pedestrians is essential in order to provide the sorts of linkages we need, for when you step off of the bus, you’re a pedestrian, and you begin to make your own route to your destination.

Transit Routes

Linkages of a different sort are also important when it comes to transit in Greater Sudbury. Unlike some other Ontario cities which are laid out in a grid pattern, Greater Sudbury, due in large part to topography, has a more limited number of major streets. This means that there are fewer options for vehicular traffic to use in order to get around the City. Some say that this circumstance has led to increased congestion on our streets, although I think that it should be acknowledged that the City, over the past several decades, has done a decent job of forcing through new vehicular links where none had existed in the past (think here about Brady/Lloyd streets).

Yet cities based on grid patterns seem to have just as much congestion (or more) than does Greater Sudbury. Street pattern doesn’t have as much to do with congestion as we might think. The volume of vehicles on our roads certainly does.

And that’s why I find it remarkable that so many car drivers are hostile to the idea of investing in transit and cycling infrastructure. You want less congestion? Get more people out of their cars!

Yet, Greater Sudbury Transit isn’t having that effect. Part of the reason may be that the often circuitous routes which our buses travel. Unless you want to end up in the downtown core, taking the bus might not get you to where you want to go.

In other cities, buses run along the major streets, with more frequent service, in order to facilitate a higher volumes of riders. Less frequent service is extended into residential and industrial areas, which then feed into different parts of the mainstreet routes. If this kind of routing were applied in Sudbury, it may be that people in residential areas might have to walk a little further to catch a bus, but the buses would arrive along the major streets with greater frequency. Smaller transfer nodes where multiple routes converge could also be established in locations where they made sense (such as the New Sudbury Centre, the Lasalle/Notre Dame intersection, and Paris-Long Lake Road/Regent Street in the South End). Local bus service in the outlying communities might be internal, with transfers occurring at sensible locations for more frequent inbound traffic.

Creating a Culture of Transit Use – Target Youth

Whatever we can do to make riding the bus easier for residents will assist in raising ridership levels. Bear in mind that the buses are going to run on schedule with or without riders, up until routes are cancelled because of a lack of demand. Why not make it more economical for families to ride the bus? Fares may be prohibitive for a single user. Add a couple of children to the mix, and a round-trip on the bus becomes quite expensive, as children over 5 years pay $2 a ride. Why not let accompanied children ride the bus for free? Enjoy the adult fare collected, but let the kids on at no charge? Put limits on it if you want – absolute numbers, relationship status, whatever. The point is that we should be encouraging more families to take the bus, and a great way to do it is by lowering total costs.

And don’t force people with strollers to take their kids out of the stroller, fold it up and stow the stroller. Other transit systems allow children to remain in strollers. So should ours.

Another (to me) absurd issue with our transit system’s price structure: currently, those over the age of 55 pay $45 for a monthly pass, while students must pay $68 to ride the bus! Again, if the goal is encouraging the creation of a culture of conservation, we must get serious by reinforcing positive habits amongst young people. Riding the bus to school is a far more sustainable option than driving. Also, when it comes to college and university-aged students, with the high costs of tuition and the price of living, they also deserve a better break. Bring the student fare down so that it’s on par with the older adult fare, or even lower.

Increasing ridership by lowering fares in this way, while building new infrastructure to make transit ridership more accessible may seem like an expensive undertaking. Certainly, there is going to be a cost involved. How can we pay for a better, more accessible transit service?

Decision Making Choices: Focus on Priorities

Again, it comes back to choices, and what we, as a community, want to prioritize. It makes sense to me that we incent improvements to our community by making it easier for these improvements to occur. On the other side of the spectrum, we offer disincentives for behaviour and activity which is economically and environmentally problematic. Oddly, that’s not the way in which decisions are usually made.

Alternative Transportation Solutions – The Barrydowne Highway

Let me focus briefly on one area where long-term cost savings can be found, and a better, more sustainable solution can be implemented to address the same issue. For some time now, as growth in the Valley has increased, people travelling from the Valley into Sudbury have been concerned about traffic. Especially at the Notre Dame/Lasalle intersection. It can take quite some time to get through this intersection on a busy weekday morning.

The solution which has been proposed for some time now has been to build a new road between New Sudbury and Hanmer. Construction of the Barrydowne extension would see a new four-lane divided highway heading north from the intersection of Barrydowne and Maley Drive, connecting ultimately to Notre Dame south of Hanmer. It’s thought that by spending tens of millions of dollars on this new road, that traffic congestion would be eased, and there are studies which support that conclusion. It would also reduce travel time.

However, if the “Barrydowne Highway” is ever built, the traffic it will generate in New Sudbury is going to be extremely problematic for residents living along Barrydowne. Remember, in this part of New Sudbury, Barrydowne isn’t a major arterial; there are homes with driveways along the street, between Lasalle and Maley. Building this high-volume highway, terminating at Maley, will dump a significant number of cars into an established residential community, even if the Maley Drive extension is constructed first.

Again, it may seem counterintuitive, but providing cars with alternative routes isn’t a long-term solution for congestion. Getting people out of cars in the first place is a solution. The Barrydowne Highway won’t accomplish that outcome. Instead, it will simply encourage additional car use by users who might otherwise have opted to take the bus. Not simply because it will be easier and faster to hop in the car than wait for the bus, but because we as a community will have made a choice to invest in building highways rather than improving transit connections to the Valley.

Making Choices – Spending Wisely

Those are the sorts of transportation choices that we’re going to have to make. Could we do both? Provide the Valley with better transit AND build the Barrydowne Highway? We could…but fiscal prudence suggests that we likely wouldn’t do both. What we should be doing is planning for the community we need tomorrow, not the one we thought we needed 20 years ago.

And that means favouring investing in transit and alternative transportation infrastructure over building new roads. If we want to provide people from the Valley with more streamlined access into Sudbury, let’s look at HOV lanes on MR 80, and increased transit service. That would be a fraction of the cost of building the Barrydowne Highway, and it would be a more sustainable long-term solution, especially if we remove price barriers to transit use. The fact is that in the future, everything is likely going to get more expensive, and those impacts will be felt amongst residents of the Valley as well. Why build a whole new highway when there will be proportionally fewer cars on the road? It doesn’t make sense.

(Of course, another partial solution would be to encourage significantly greater density in the Valley, along with mixed-use development and industry which creates jobs, allowing more people who live in the Valley to work closer to home – but I’ll save that for another blog).

In these difficult economic times, it’s clear that we’re going to have to make some difficult choices about how we spend our resources. We can’t continue to mortgage our children’s future for much longer. As the cost of living continues to rise, and the gap between the rich and the middle class continues to widen, there is going to be a lot less personal wealth around. That means more of us are going to have fewer choices, especially when it comes to transportation. Our governments, which exist to best address the needs of the people, have to start planning proactively for the future. Investing in sustainable transportation, especially public transit, must become a priority. It’s time to shelve expensive highway building, and focus on using our existing infrastructure more efficiently.

The Auditor-General is concerned about finding efficiencies and saving money. When it comes to transit, his report delivered earlier this week is simply the tip of the iceberg. If we create a sustainable, high-capacity transit system in our City, the benefits to Greater Sudburians will be significant indeed, along with long-term cost savings. Let’s make the choices to spend our tax dollars wisely on the sorts of investments which our community needs for the future we’ll get (as opposed to the one we might wish to have).

(opinions expressed in this blog are my own and should not be interpreted as being consistent with those of the Green Party of Canada)

1 comment:

Sudbury Steve said...

Because I'm all about self-promotion (if ya want something done, ya gotta do it yerself, y'no), here's a comment made by my Facebook Friend, Jeff MacIntyre, posted to my Facebook Wall. Jeff always has something insightful to say, and his comment here, while brief, is no exception:

Jeff wrote: "Good blog, one note on efficiency. What is the point of having a Downtown terminal period. For the cost of operating that thing for a year we could have sinage on every stop. For the cost of one security guard we could have 30 interactive kiosks with maps and the ability to sell tickets."