Wednesday, August 23, 2017

4-Laning MR 35 and the Multi-Million Dollar Costs of Convenience, Part 2

In Part I of this series, I questioned some of the reasons that Greater Sudburians are being told by elected officials and others that we must 4-lane MR 35 between Azilda and Chelmsford, at an estimated cost of $38 million. I identified that, despite being told that 4-laning is needed for safety, 4-laning MR 35 will make the road less safe.  I provided rationale in support of the notion that bigger, wider roads with faster moving traffic are less safe environments for all road users (unless physical barriers to divide traffic moving in opposite directions are present – and that's not contemplated for MR 35).

I also questioned the need for this road, in light of the data available from the City and the Ontario Ministry of Finance which shows only very modest population growth in Greater Sudbury over the next decade to decade-and-a-half. The Hemson Study of 2013, commissioned by the City, shows growth of just 10,500 people expected by 2031. Out to 2041, the Ontario Ministry of Finance projects just an additional 4,500 people. I indicated that, according to the City's own numbers from the Transportation Master Plan of 2015, used for the Orwellian-named “Sustainability Focused Alternative”, which will see major new roads (Maley Drive; the Montrose extension between Notre Dame and Lasalle through the Ponderosa wetland with a connection to Attlee) along with the widening of existing roads (4-laning MR 35; 6-laning MR 80 to the Valley), our massive road-building scheme is expected to lead to shifts in population between the former City of Sudbury and the outlying areas. I provided an analysis with regards to why this shift is not in the City's economic interests.

In Part 2 of this series, I'll be taking a very close look at what the City's Transportation Master Plan really has to say about 4-laning MR 35 and the 'Sustainability Focused' roads-building alternative, in support of my hypothesis that 4-laning is not needed, will not make the road safer, and will ultimately work against the sustainable, long-term economic interests of our City.

Greater Sudbury Transportation Master Plan

First, a few words about the Transportation Master Plan (TMP). Work began on this plan in 2012, and it was ultimately adopted by Council in 2016. It had been the subject of considerable public consultation – a lot of which was generally ignored by the City. Some of the bigger issues brought to the attention of the City by the public prior to adoption of the Plan included: the desire of residents to meander Montrose south of Maley Drive so as not to create a Southview Drive-like through street (partially addressed by the City prior to adoption); reliance on more up-to-date data (not addressed; the 2016 TMP continues to rely on data that informed the 2005 Transportation Study Report – the issue with stale data is that it may no longer be relevant, and should be used cautiously when projecting trends out to 2041); the need to include a Transportation Demand Management paradigm that would look at programs to offset peak-hour traffic flows (not addressed in the TMP, although there is a commitment in the plan to do a separate TDM plan); the incorporation of transit into the TMP (again, not addressed in the TMP, but there is a call for a separate transit plan); the need for a Complete Streets strategy (partially addressed through policy, however constructing truly 'complete streets' will remain difficult in an environment that is likely to be even more auto-focused than it is today, thanks to a massive street building initiative); and the need for cycling and pedestrian transportation routes to be identified and, in many cases, created (somewhat addressed in the TMP – although many of the routes identified are not the ones the public was advocating for; the timeframes for construction are lengthy; and there is no desire to create a 'minimum grid' – something that the City heard a lot about from cycling advocates).

The TMP is a vast and comprehensive document that looks at a number of different engineering standards for roads and intersections. It also includes baseline traffic data (presumably a 'snap shot' of the situation on the ground today – but really not quite that, as data from 2005 was used, massaged somewhat by updates). For the purpose of this discussion related to the widening of MR 35, I will take a look at the baseline assessment, followed by a look at data from the TMP regarding expected road use under various conditions.

TMP: Three Alternatives for Development

The TMP offers three different scenarios for road development. They are the “Do Nothing” alternative in which no investments at all are made in transportation routes of any sort, and traffic just continues along its merry way as today; the “Auto Focused” alternative, which envisions the implementation of a massive new road building and widening scheme; and the “Sustainability-Focused” alternative, which envisions a massive new road building and widening scheme only somewhat less in scale than the Auto-Focused alternative. Seeking to find an apparent middle-ground between doing nothing and all-roads all-the-time, the Sustainability Focused alternative was selected by the City as the one to pursue. The projects that it identifies are largely in keeping with those identified in the 2005 Transportation Study Report, with a few exceptions (notably, the Barrydowne Extension is not included in the 2016 TMP – although the TMP does call for the 6-laning of MR 80 from Lasalle to and through Val Caron).

MR 35 - Primary Arterial

The TMP identifies MR 35 as a primary arterial, and notes that it is 4-lanes from the Elm Street/Big Nickel Road junction heading northwest to Azilda. At Azilda, the TMP refers to a 'pinch point', where MR 35 drops down to 2-lanes. Between this point and Chelmsford, MR 35 is 2-lanes – almost until it runs into Provincial Highway 144 – a road that the City of Greater Sudbury has no jurisdiction over.

Primary Arterials are described in the TMP as roads that connect communities (like Chelmsford, Azilda and Sudbury), with right-of-way widths in rural areas (such as between Chelmsford and Azilda) being between 45 and 90 metres – quite a range. Daily traffic volumes also have a large range – between 10,000 and 50,000 vehicles a day are expected to use a primary arterial.

Figure 1 - From TMP Table 3 - Primary Arterials
Peak Flow

Table 4 from the TMP provides information about existing traffic volumes in the City during the peak PM period – the time of day that traffic engineers like to design all roads for, given that it's the time of day when maximum use usually occurs. Keep this in mind as the discussion continues – the assumption here is that it makes any sense at all to build roads to meet the needs of a peak travel period, which usually lasts about an hour – while leaving the roads 'underutilized' for the remaining 23 hours. Putting aside whether that's a sensible assumption on which to build – and pay for – roads, let's take a look at some of the other caveats the City builds into its numbers – numbers that it uses in the Alternatives to determine traffic flow out to 2031 (the assumptions do not change).

Baseline Data

First, as mentioned, the starting point is data from the existing 2005 Transportation Study Report. Already, what we're seeing emerge isn't a 'snap shot', but some sort of data-massaged amalgam. That's not necessarily a negative, but it does raise some flags – it's clearly not a count of traffic as it existed in 2011 – or in 2016 for that matter.

The TMP also assumes an auto-occupancy rate of just 1.178 people for vehicle. That means that for every 5 single-occupancy vehicles on the road, there is just one 2-occupant vehicle. Well, no – it doesn't mean that – as there will also be multi-occupant vehicles, but generally speaking, the ratio of single-occupancy vehicles to multi-occupancy vehicles will be no larger than 5:1.

Is this 5:1 starting point a realistic portrayal of vehicle occupants during peak PM times in 2016? Let's assume that it is. But let's ask ourselves whether assuming that the same rate of single-occupancy vehicles in 2031 based on today's rates makes any sense – especially when evidence points to an aging population in the City (seniors drive less – especially at peak periods) impacted by macro-level trends towards fewer vehicles in private ownership, higher gasoline prices and vehicle maintenance costs, along with shifts to other modes of transportation by current users. It also leaves out any incentives that the City might offer in terms of car-pooling and initiatives to encourage multi-modal transportation.

With these assumptions and others, the 2016 TMP projected that total trips increased by 20% of between 2005 and 2011 (see purple-underlined text in yellow box, Figure 2). What could have accounted for this (fairly substantial) increase? Certainly, an expanding population could. Did that happen between 2005 and 2011? 

Well, in 2006, the population of Greater Sudbury was 157,857. By 2011, population had climbed to 160,274 - or an increase of a about 1.5% (see: "City of Greater Sudbury," Wikipedia). So clearly this increase wasn't due to population growth. So what else could it be?

Perhaps the same number of people are driving more cars. I mean, it would have to be a lot more cars – but realistically, it might be happening, as our population continues to shift out of the former City of Sudbury (which is more walkable, cyclable and transit-supportive) to the outlying areas (which are less walkable, less cyclable and less transit friendly). Still, it seems a stretch – but we're going to have to go with it for now.

Figure 2 - From TMP, Table 4: Existing Traffic Volumes, Peak Period

A couple of things to keep in mind about Table 4 (Figure 2), which includes existing traffic volumes. Let's keep our eyes on a few numbers, going forward. First, the Sudbury to Sudbury trips – 14,551, outlined in green – represents the number of trips made just within the former City of Sudbury. Let's see what happens to that number as we run it through the TMP's Do-Nothing and Sustainability-Focused alternatives. Let's also keep an eye on the Rayside-Balfour (1,196) and Onaping Falls (315) trips (outlined in red – totaling 1,511).

Figure 3 - From TMP, Table 5, Levels of Service
Level of Service

Level of Service Designations – these colour-coded designations are used to draw attention to how well roads are operating with regards to their function and design capacity. Green roads are operating at a range well below capacity, and therefore there is no reason to worry about them; yellow roads are the ones our traffic engineers want us to keep an eye on, because they are starting to experience congestion issues at peak times. And those red roads? They're approaching capacity, or are above capacity at peak times. That means congestion - and now we're talking about additional time spent by motorists in traffic, due to high volumes on roads not designed to allow free-flowing traffic at those volumes.

Of course, there are a number of assumptions made here. Why are “green” roads best from a traffic engineering point of view? It's because they have a lower volume to capacity ratio, and are more likely to operate in a way that maximizes flow. Picture suburban roads with only a few houses on them. Alternatively, picture wide-open rural roads with few cars on them. Either way, you're picturing a lot of nothing except for roads that are over-designed to meet their needs. At the peak PM hour.

The Yellow and Red roads are having some difficulty keeping traffic flowing freely at the peak PM hour. At other times of day, the volume to capacity ratio isn't as bad, and sometimes you'll find these roads largely empty as well. But since traffic engineers are designing for the peak PM period, the size of road needed to accommodate free-flowing traffic for that hour is what engineers are striving to create.

And does that even make any sense? From one point of view, it sure does: Convenience for motorists. I mean, I drive a car – you probably do too. We all know it's lovely to drive as quickly as we would like at any time of day. But there is a cost to pay for this convenience – a literal cost, because bigger, faster roads come with higher price tags (to build them and to maintain them) and they come with higher social costs that take on many forms.

But it's clear what the traffic engineers want the public to think when they see those coloured roads on the map that show levels of service. Take a look at the TMP's existing conditions map – oh boy, all of those red roads – red is bad, right? And green is good. I think that the traffic engineers have their minds made up about this – and they want to make your minds up about this too.

Figure 4 - From TMP, Existing Conditions

MR 35 - Looking at Alternative Futures

Anyway, putting aside whether Levels of Service actually make any sense from any point of view other than to promote convenience for motorists, let's take a close look at MR 35 (circled in pink – the road actually has different colours, depending on the section). The section between Big Nickel Road and the Lasalle Extension is a red road, while the segment between the Lasalle Extension and the 2-lane pinch-point in Azilda is a yellow road. Between Azilda and Highway 144 in Chelmsford, MR 35 is a red road. The story that we're being told is that the entirety of this road is either already at or close to its volume to capacity ratio.

That's where things are at today. What can we expect to happen when we 4-lane MR 35?

Well, before we go there, let's take a look at what we could expect to happen to a few things related to MR 35 if we 'Do Nothing' between now and 2031.

Figure 5 - From TMP, Table 31, 'Do Nothing' Traffic Volumes

Let's start by taking a look at traffic volumes. Looks like if we do nothing for the next 15 years, peak PM traffic trips within the former City of Sudbury will increase – up from 14,551 to 16,279. That suggests that if we do nothing, there will be more trips made just within the former City – a part of the City that is more walkable, cyclable and transit-supportive than any other part. It also seems to suggest that the trend identified earlier of people moving to the more expensive-to-service outlying areas might be reversed if we 'do nothing'. If this is the case, we should expect to see a corresponding reduction in trips from the outlying areas into Sudbury – even taking into consideration modest population growth. And what do we see? Well, take a look at Rayside Balfour PM outflow for the 'Do Nothing' in comparison to the baseline. In the Do Nothing scenario, the number of trips have fallen to 1,017. That's quite a few less than the 1,196 fewer trips that are taking place today, or a reduction of over 17% (see Figure 2, above).

Figure 6 - From TMP, Rayside Balfour PM Outflow, Do Nothing Alternative

What do the traffic engineers have to say about this? Well, the TMP includes this interesting little tidbit, which does not appear to be supported by the data. The TMP suggests that in the Do Nothing alternative, the volume change of northwestbound (peak PM) traffic between the Lasalle Extension and Chelmsford will be 'negligible'. And that's an interesting choice of words to describe an anticipated 17% reduction of trips between Sudbury and Rayside Balfour.  When you throw Onaping Falls into the mix, it's a reduction of 450 combined trips – or about 30% of all northwestbound trips. I'm sorry, but I don't think that 30% is a 'negligible' amount. It's actually quite considerable. And we can see that by comparing travel to other outlying areas in the Do-Nothing alternative vs. the existing baseline, that there is a similar curtailment in the actual anticipated number of trips.

Do Nothing = Less Spending, Fewer Cars

So what's going on here? Could it be that the engineers are using terminology that suggests one thing, while providing data that suggests something else? Is a 17-30% reduction in trips really 'negligible', or do we have to pretend that it doesn't mean anything much as compared to today, because the Do Nothing scenario isn't the one in the TMP that the traffic engineers wanted the City to support? I mean if we can reduce the number of inflowing and outflowing trips to and from outlying areas by doing nothing – and spending no money at all – while simultaneously increasing intra-Sudbury trips in an area of the City that is the least costly to service – also by spending no money at all – why on this Green Earth would we want to do that?

Figure 7 - From TMP, Volume to Capacity 'Do Nothing'

I'm not trying to be suspicious here, but it's hard not to wonder why the traffic engineers might not want to confirm the non-negligibility of the trip-reducing data in their Volume to Capacity plot for the Do Nothing scenario. Take a look at MR 35. It's operating in the red still between Chelmsford and Azilda – but now it's in the yellow all the way from Big Nickel Road to Azilda – and that includes a segment between Big Nickel and Lasalle that is currently operating in the red. Clearly, something is going on here in the Do Nothing. And that something is less traffic from the outlying areas is traveling to and from the former City of Sudbury.

Figure 8 - From TMP, Table 38, 'Sustainability Focused' Traffic Volumes

OK, so now let's see what happens when we decide that we're going to build a lot of new roads and expand existing roads in the so-called “Sustainability Focused” alternative. Trips within the former City of Sudbury are up a little bit – now at 15,108. Trips to Rayside-Balfour and Onaping Falls have gone down by a small amount, from a baseline of 1,511 to 1,442 in total. This is still 20% more trips than in the 'Do Nothing' scenario, according to the City (see red underlined text, in Figure 9, below).

Figure 9 - From TMP, Rayside Balfour PM Movement, Expected Results

What's truly weird about all of this is what happens next. By 4-laning MR 35, traffic engineers indicate that the road will still be operating at a red level of service for most of its length – all but a small section between Azilda and Chelmsford is now red between Big Nickel Road and Highway 144 in Chelmsford (see Figure 10). So we're 4-laning a road to provide for a higher volume of traffic that will put the road back to right where we started?

Figure 10 - From TMP, Volume to Capacity, 'Sustainability Focused'
Well, actually no, because there's one unintended consequence that no one is talking about: we've now shifted the approach to the section proposed to be widened (MR 35 east of Azilda) over capacity (see Figure 10 and the orange-underlined text in Figure 9, above). Remember? That section of road was operating at a yellow level of service. In this alternative, with a 4-laned segment between Azilda and Chelmsford, we're now going to have to look at traffic relief for another section of road – and for a slightly smaller number of trips overall (see pink-underlined text in Figure 9, above). Stop the insanity, right?

MR 35 - Induced Demand Leads to Higher Costs

No, actually it's not insane at all. It's part of that documented phenomenon that I wrote about in Part 1 of this series known as 'induced demand'. It's something we actually know a lot about. I understand that it may seem counter-intuitive, but the numbers in the City's TMP are pretty clear: if we don't do anything, we'll have less traffic traveling along MR 35 than if we build and expand all of the roads called for in the 'Sustainability Focused' alternative of the TMP. At significant cost, mind you (again - $38 million just to 4-lane the section of road between Azilda and Chelmsford – and doing work to expand the capacity of the existing portion of MR 35 between Azilda and the Lasalle Extension, something the data suggests we're going to need to do because of the expansion between Azilda and Chelmsford – that's an unknown and uncosted cost).

So what are we really getting with a 4-laned MR 35? It seems to me that we are simply digging ourselves into a deeper hole – spending $38 million of borrowed money to build a road that a) will be less safe than the existing road; b) operate at the same level of service of the existing segment of road; c) cause that segment of road between the Lasalle Extension and Azilda to actually operate at a reduced level of service; d) help perpetuate a built form that is reliant on the automobile, with all of the attendant costs of perpetuating that form of development. All so that motorists traveling between Chelmsford and Sudbury can shave a few minutes of driving time from their daily commute.

Can We Afford the Costs of Convenience?

Greater Sudburians, friends and neighbours – this is the cost of convenience. And let's be clear – we are talking about convenience for a small number of motorists. Not everyone in this City has access to a vehicle, and even for those that do, not everyone chooses to drive their vehicles during the peak PM period, adding to rush-hour (rush-40 minute?) congestion. Even putting all of that aside, the data is very clear: we are going to be 4-laning this road for just 1,442 trips. At 1.2 people per vehicle, that's for 1,730.4 people – a little less, in fact, because I rounded 1.178 up.

$38 million for 1,730 people to save a few minutes of travel time. Versus doing nothing, spending nothing, and adding a couple of extra minutes (maybe) to the travel time of 1,272 people (1,060 trips in the Do Nothing alternative, multiplied by 1.2 people per vehicle).

Are we getting value for 4-laning MR 35? If you, like me, agree that we are not, than you must be wondering why the City is moving ahead with this project. Could it be that the City has a lot of extra money lying around, just looking for something to spend it on? I suspect that's not the case. Given the other numerous fiscal constraints that the City is finding itself in (upwards of $100 million for a new community events centre on presently unserviced industrial land on the Kingsway – a project that is sure to impact peak traffic patterns in and around that location, by the way – and which has never been modeled by traffic engineers or included in the Transportation Master Plan), I think we all need to ask ourselves the next logical question:

Is 4-laning MR 35, along with the massive road-building ponzi scheme called for in the Transportation Master Plan's 'Sustainability-Focused' alternative, something that we can afford at a time when only modest growth is projected, and our population is aging?

I think we all know the answer to that question.  

Now, what are you and I going to do about it?

(opinions expressed in this blog are my own and should not be interpreted as being consistent with the views and/or policies of the Green Parties of Ontario and Canada)

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