Monday, June 4, 2012

Greater Sudbury at a Crossroads, Part 3: Planning to Get Around in the City of Tomorrow

Here in Greater Sudbury, we know full well that there are a number of things which we must do in order to create a city which will meet our future needs. Our ability to do so, however, is limited by a number of factors, including a lack of leadership, and a lack of public demand for change which may deviate from the way in which things happened in the past. Physically, the shape of the City is impacted by the sunk costs of our existing built form, including our public service infrastructure and transportation routes. However, there’s no way around working within the existing built context, so what we must focus on now is how best to move forward based on the past decisions which have shaped our City.

One of the macro trends which we will need to address has to do with transportation. With fewer people driving less often, due to rising fuel prices and reduced purchasing power, we can expect the way that we get around the City to begin to change. Over the past 5 or 6 decades, it’s fair to say that the Car has been King in Greater Sudbury. That’s going to change, although there will continue to be a need to plan for vehicular traffic. Cars aren’t going to vanish off of our roads any time soon.

But more of us will be choosing alternative forms of transportation in the future, to get us to work and to school, to recreational opportunities and for shopping. Transit, cycling and walking will increasingly play more important roles for getting around the City, even for those who own personal vehicles. This change to the way we get around will certainly create some challenges for us, based on our past investments in transportation infrastructure which tended to favour cars over people.

Roads Roads Roads…and Traffic!

We know that there is a need for change, based on local, regional and global trends. With this knowledge, it’s time that we started taking a close look at investing in the sort of infrastructure which will best meet our needs. Right now, there are a number of significant road improvement and creation projects which, taken together, will likely cost several hundreds of millions of dollars to complete. Building the Maley Drive extension alone may cost upwards of $100 million. The widening of Howey Drive and building the Barrydowne Expressway linking New Sudbury and Hanmer aren’t even identified as being in the top 5 road priorities of our current Council. Who is going to pay for these upgrades and new roads?

A better question is, are all of these new projects really necessary given the future in which we are likely to find ourselves? This is certainly a difficult question to answer from all but a rational viewpoint. With only modest population growth projected over the next 20 years, and with an anticipated decline in personal vehicle use, Greater Sudbury’s traffic circumstance will not substantially change over the next 20 years. If anything, there’s an outside chance that vehicular traffic flow might actually improve, even with a modest increase in population.

Of course, it’s not politically expedient to tell Greater Sudburians not to worry too much about roads and traffic. You see, many residents suggest that traffic is already pretty bad in our community, and that we need to be doing a lot more to address existing issues. Generally, I don’t agree with that sentiment, although I have to acknowledge that my own opinion is influenced by having grown up in the suburban Greater Toronto Area, to which I can’t help but constantly draw a comparison. In that light, trust me, we’ve got things pretty good here.

But all perception is relative. What we can expect, though, is that certain areas of the City will continue to be more adversely impacted by traffic than others. Take, for example, the recent approval of three 17-storey residential towers located between Howey Drive and Brady Street. The influx of future residents into this area will almost certainly have impacts on local traffic circumstances, and indeed those impacts will likely be felt as far away as Bancroft Drive and the Kingsway.

Shifting Transportation Priorities to meet Changing Transport Needs

Building new roads, or expanding additional roads, however, is not always the answer, and indeed, it should not be the answer for Greater Sudbury. While we can not simply ignore problem areas like the Howey Drive/Bancroft corridor, or the Lasalle/Notre Dame intersection, there must be a shift in the sort of investments which we make in transportation infrastructure. If the future needs of the community are going to see a rise in the number of trips made by transit/cycling/walking, we need to up the investment ante for infrastructure which supports mobility which doesn’t rely on personal vehicle ownership.

There will be significant challenges. While we must start thinking about more and better bus routes as part of a comprehensive and sustainable transportation system, creating a robust public transit system will be difficult due to Greater Sudbury’s geography and the sprawling nature of our communities. Truly sustainable public transport relies on densities which are much higher than those currently present in our community. As a result, Greater Sudburians may need to subsidize transit at a higher level than our tax dollars have been doing, in order to create a system which serves a greater number of users.

Opportunities for Cycling Infrastructure

We must also invest in safe and accessible cycling infrastructure, primarily on existing public roads where expenses could be minimized. We often think about the need for the physical expansion of existing roadways to accommodate bike lanes, but the reality is that’s not always the best, or least expensive option. It’s always best to look for opportunities which make the most economic sense when it comes to creating/expanding infrastructure, and there are significant opportunities for increasing cycling capacity in Greater Sudbury which will not cost very much at all.

Interestingly, it was our past desire to make the car King in Greater Sudbury which created a low-cost opportunity to significantly enhance cycling infrastructure in the City today. In our desire to facilitate an ever-faster flow of vehicular traffic, many of Greater Sudbury’s major and minor arterial roads have centre-turning lanes. These lanes have allowed for the flow of traffic to continue unimpeded by left-turning vehicles. As a driver, I can attest that these lanes are a wonderful luxury, and that they probably save a couple of minutes off of any trip which I make in my car. I can also attest that the profligacy of these lanes is quite unusual. While many cities do have centre turning lanes on their busy thoroughfares (Kingsway-equivalent streets), it’s unusual to see find them on so many streets within a city. Here in Greater Sudbury, we’ve come to think of these centre-turning lanes as normal, but the fact is, they’re not. They are a unique luxury.

And they truly are a luxury in more ways than just the experiential. Indeed, our tax dollars have long been supporting their maintenance and upkeep through line painting and snowplowing. In other cities, a Walford Road-equivalent street likely would not include centre-turning lanes, yet we here in Greater Sudbury have chosen to use our tax dollars to maintain a centre-turning lane on Walford, largely for the benefit of a small number of homeowners who may save 30 to 60 seconds of time exiting and entering their driveways. Are these left-turning lanes returning good value for our taxpayers dollars?

In some cases, such as on the Kingsway and maybe Lasalle, the answer is probably yes, or certainly it feels like it should be. However, as the needs of the public begin to shift, we must look for cost-effective opportunities to build transportation infrastructure to better address tomorrow’s needs. And many of these centre-turning lanes represent low-cost opportunities for the creation of cycling infrastructure.

It’s actually not a far-fetched idea at all, and indeed there is local precedent. What little cycling infrastructure we have in the City on the Howey/Bellvue/Bancroft corridor came about by removing centre turning-lanes (really, just stripping off paint and painting new lines elsewhere). There was no costly physical expansion made to these existing corridors to achieve the outcome of providing marked cycling infrastructure.

As our priorities shift, Walford Road, Falconbridge, Regent Street, Barrydowne and Lasalle are all prime locations for the installation of bike lanes.

Cycling infrastructure, however, must be connective and comprehensive, and attitudes towards on-street cycling must change (and here I am not just talking about the attitudes of those that drive cars; I also am referring to the attitudes of those who ride bikes). As more people choose to cycle in our community, I am confident that as a critical mass of cyclists on our roadways is achieved, attitudes will change.


Pedestrian infrastructure has long been ignored in our City. New subdivisions have often been constructed with sidewalks on only one side of the road, or none at all. There are many parts of the City where getting around on foot feels dangerous. Even where sidewalks exist, they are often in a state of bad repair, or they have been designed in such a way that they are difficult to walk on (especially by the elderly) because of slopes which favour vehicle ingress/egress over walking (I’m sure you’re familiar with these camel-humped sidewalks).

Walking is impeded throughout the City by the continued prioritization of vehicular flow over all other means of transport. Intersections are primarily signalized to favour cars over pedestrians. Indeed, there are many intersections which restrict where, exactly, pedestrians are able to cross. In some cases, pedestrians may be required to traverse an intersection up to three times, just to carry on their journey forward! Traffic engineers may argue that these restrictions have to do with safety, and that may even be true to a degree, but it’s only because we have prioritized the needs of fast-moving cars ahead of walking.

As our needs and priorities shift, we will assuredly slow down the flow of traffic in our City. Cyclists and pedestrians are able to get around more safely when traffic is moving at a slower rate. As much as it may gall those like me who drive a car, the fact is that we are going to have to get used to lower speeds in the future. We can at least take comfort in the knowledge that we are trading a few seconds of our time as vehicle drivers for what will likely amount to minutes worth of time for pedestrians and cyclists.
And since the vast majority of us are also pedestrians and cyclists at times, we may actually be saving ourselves time by slowing down.

The maintenance of existing and installation of new sidewalks should also become a priority, particularly in locations where pedestrians may be accessing transit. Far too often we see bus stops on the side of a road opposite a sidewalk, with those waiting to ride the bus forced to figure out the safest place to wait. Further, cross-walks which provide pedestrians with a safe means of accessing the opposite sides of busy streets between intersections are also needed. They will, however, have to be designed much more efficiently than the crosswalk on Lasalle Boulevard, opposite the Wal-Mart, at which pedestrians are often forced to wait for minutes to cross after pushing the button.

Looking Ahead

The decisions we make today will continue to impact us years into the future, as we sink investments into new projects. Once those costs are sunk, it’s very difficult to justify a change in course. In many respects, we are today still trying to come to terms with many of the less-than optimal development decisions which were made in the past, particularly those decisions which favoured personalized motor vehicle transport as a means of getting around. Looking ahead, as our priorities shift, we will need to start making different decisions which facilitate alternative means of transportation. We must start making those decisions today, or risk paying more in the future to correct the mistakes we’ll now make. Armed with the knowledge of what the future is likely to hold for us, there really is no longer any reason to think that pedestrian and cycling infrastructure can continue to be treated as an afterthought.

Starting today, the needs of pedestrians and cyclists must be taken into consideration at all times when transportation-related decisions are made. For too long, we’ve justified ignoring the needs of pedestrians and cyclists because there hasn’t been a particularly high number of either using transportation infrastructure, mainly because of the relative affordability of car ownership, and the development decisions which were made which lead to the creation of very low density subdivisions on the fringes of urban areas. We know now, however, that tomorrow is not going to be like yesterday, and we should planning for tomorrow’s needs.

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

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