“As a year-round bicycle commuter I have worked to develop alternative transportation routes in the region as well as recreational cycle paths.”
It has been suggested that our top regional transportation priority should be to build an interchange at Mckenzie and the Island Highway. I believe our money would be better spent on a rapid bus system. I outlined my thoughts on freeways in a newspaper article in 2005. It was published in shortened form. A couple of other pieces on transportation follow:
Massive Provincial government spending on highways around Victoria in the last few years is beginning to show its effects, and they are not effects to be happy about. In downtown Victoria, reduced to only one department store for the first time in a century, vacant storefronts are multiplying. Shoppers are taking their dollars to big box stores near freeway exits, where forests and hillsides have been flattened to make room for parking lots.
Victoria’s downtown resisted the effects of this flight to the suburbs for years, but now the signs of struggle are becoming apparent. Downtown problems do not have a single cause, but it is no coincidence that as freeway-exit retail has grown the downtown has suffered – shopping dollars are limited.
The decline in the downtown hurts the whole region. Tourism has been a good industry for Victoria, and turning what is still an attractive city with vibrancy and character into yet another cookie-cutter sprawl is foolish. Those few tourists interested in seeing a once-busy harbour city transformed into a charmless strip mall stretched along a superhighway can visit Nanaimo. Victoria should offer something different.
Worse, the freeways are threatening to destroy existing neighbourhoods. As it becomes easier to drive to new residential suburbs, and retailing leaves the downtown, close-in neighbourhoods become less desirable for those who can drive. As families leave, the inner city neighbourhoods come under pressure from downtown problems, increasing the incentive to flee to the suburbs.
It is not just Victoria city neighbourhoods that suffer. Esquimalt’s downtown is competing with (and losing to) malls in both the Western community and View Royal. Langford and Colwood never quite reached the point of developing pedestrian-oriented neighbourhood areas, and now they never will. Even Sooke will feel the vacuum-cleaner effect of the malls and big box stores as the Millstream connector and the Sooke road are “improved”. It is no coincidence that the strongest neighbourhood shopping areas, James Bay, Cook Street village and Oak Bay village, are farthest from the freeways.
Victoria still has a far more active core area than most cities, and the transportation/tourism hub in the inner harbour will always keep some activity in the downtown – but the time to address this issue is now, before we have irretrievably weakened the city.
The public input to the CRD’s new regional plan showed that many people are worried about the future of our neighborhoods and downtown, but regional planning is difficult when the councils that control suburban zoning are elected by voters who favor sprawl. The costs of new roads are enormous, but those who live in distant suburbs reap enormous benefits from faster trips to work, higher property values, and easier shopping in the suburban malls and big boxes. The urban-fringe development fostered by better highways has created new groups of voters who demand more road capacity. Thus the draft regional transportation plan now proposes additional freeway lanes and grade-separated intersections that will speed traffic and work against the downtown and the inner neighborhoods.
For years environmentalists have railed against the waste of land and energy and the noise, air, and water pollution that results from freeways and low-density suburbs. There is no end in sight, though. In a few years the region’s new freeways will again be clogged by the traffic. Turning green medians into more concrete will buy time (maybe not mowing the grass is meant to soften us up for seeing medians covered with pavement), but keeping ahead of the rising tide of cars will become ever more expensive and disruptive.
All this is inevitable if environmentalists cannot persuade more people with an interest in the health of the downtown and of their pedestrian neighborhoods to speak out against continual road expansion. People in Fairfield and Oak Bay will protest excitedly about a high-density condo proposal down the street, but say nothing about their tax dollars going to build a Millstream connector which will do far more damage to their neighborhood in the end. With typical Canadian politeness, citizens and politicians alike wash their hands of decisions made in neighboring municipalities (or by anonymous Ministry of Highways bureaucrats) that in the longer term will make or break, not just the quality of life in the region, but also the value of their own houses, the health of their downtown businesses, the future of their tourist-industry jobs.
What can be done to stop the region’s slide into freeway mediocrity? I once had high hopes for regional planning, but it is clearly not translating the expressed desire for lively streets and pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods into useful action.
Maybe economic tools will work better. As long as road users continue to enjoy the benefits of roads they have not paid for, traffic will continue to grow. Let’s shift the costs of the new roads to those who use them, and away from other taxpayers.
Yes, of course drivers pay provincial fuel taxes – the problem is that the damaging trips, the rush-hour journeys on provincially-funded highways that trigger the demand for road improvements, pay the same fuel tax as Sunday morning trips on local streets to which not a dime of provincial money has been contributed.
Nor is the fuel tax we pay in the region tied to the highway spending here. To our local governments provincial money is “free”. If we refuse a highway project we see the money gone forever – there is no option to spend for parkland, recreation centers, bicycle routes, or rapid transit, or even to reduce fuel taxes. It is highways or nothing.
One step to a solution, then, is to follow the lower mainland in taking over financial responsibility for our own roads (in exchange for the Province assuming hospital costs). To pay for these roads, our municipalities and regional governments would tax drivers rather than the property owners and residents who now pay for local roads. My bet is that knowing the money is coming out of our own pockets would make for a lot more analysis of the need for highways projects. And in the future, when we have practical ways of charging the individual drivers who use the roads when they are congested (as London has just started to do, successfully), we will really know whether new roads are needed.
Change can only happen, though, if those of us who have a stake in pedestrian oriented neighborhoods – and that means not just the downtown, but Fairfield, Esquimalt, James Bay, South Oak Bay, Fernwood, Sidney – recognize that the health of our neighborhoods, and the value of our properties, depends on reining in the spread of asphalt by shifting the costs of roads to those who use them.
This was written in response to an opinion article in the Financial Post. As I recall it was published in shortened form.
Drivers Should Pay As They Go
Mark Milke of the Canadian taxpayers federation (Financial Post, July 23) insists that drivers’ fuel taxes and license fees pay for the roads they use, despite the “environmental activists and politicians” who say that drivers should pay more. But professional transportation economists have also been complaining about the mis-pricing of roads for decades.
Mr. Milke’s conclusion ignores the basic principles of business costing. A typical annual government road budget includes both construction of new roads (capital investment) and maintenance of old ones (operating costs). But businesses don’t set prices to cover operating costs and the new investment they happen to do in a given year, they set prices to cover operating costs and pay their shareholders a return on the value of the capital they have invested. Mr. Milke’s analysis forgets about the enormous past investments in roads and the land they occupy, bridges, tunnels, signs and traffic signals.
Of course, drivers like to say it is they who have “paid for” existing roads, and they shouldn’t be taxed again. This argument doesn’t bear much examination (does it mean immigrants and 16-year-old drivers should pay more? Do I get a refund when I get too old to drive?) but in any case arguments over who “owns” the roads are irrelevant when we are deciding how to use the roads. Canadian taxpayers have “paid for” our hydro dams with our electric bills, but we don’t expect free electricity. Instead our hydro companies price power (or should) to prevent it being wasted and to signal when additional generating capacity is needed – any surplus is paid as dividends or water use taxes to owner governments, to the benefit (we assume) of taxpayers.
The picture the Post ran beside Mr. Milke’s article, a rush-hour freeway choked with cars and trucks moving at a snail’s pace, sums up what’s wrong with his argument that fuel taxes are an adequate way to pay for roads. Any rational road authority would recognize that rush hour driving determines the need for road capacity and thus costs far more than off-peak travel. But instead of charging us more to drive at rush hour, governments choose to provide ever expanding roads to meet demand.
The result is predictable. The cost of a new freeway is enormous, but those who use it reap benefits from faster trips to work, higher property values, and easier shopping in suburban malls and big box stores. In a few years new freeways are again clogged by traffic, as the urban-fringe development fostered by better highways creates voters who demand yet more road capacity.
It is simplistic arguments like Mr. Milke’s that perpetuate this foolishness. For years economists have advocated road use charges that reflect actual costs, and nowadays there exist practical ways of implementing such charges.
The idea of the “road authority” collecting fees to pay land rent and dividends to the local and provincial governments seems silly to drivers, but it does not seem silly to the railroads, which are faced with earning a return on their investment in right-of-way and trackage. Our highways are choked with trucks partly because railroads have been driven from high-cost central city land and into niche long-haul markets.
Railways also pay property taxes on their right-of-way. Some of those taxes go to local governments to build roads for trucks travelling on roads that pay no property taxes. It is true that trucks, like automobiles, give rise to various other taxes, listed at length by Mr. Milke. But of course the bus, rapid transit, airline, railway and consumer goods industries (on which Canadians would spend their money if they spent less on their cars) also pay a long list of taxes.
I am not quite clear whether Mr. Milke wants governments to tax road users less or spend more on roads. What he should be advocating is that governments link the taxes a driver pays to the full cost of providing that driver with road space, so that drivers can signal to governments how much road investment they want to pay for.
These notes were written around March 2005 for presentation to the Advisory Traffic committee.
A Pedestrian-friendly City
After our discussion last time, John Luton and I agreed that it is inappropriate that property owners should control the development of sidewalks in front of their property. Sidewalks are primarily a transportation corridor rather than a property amenity, and the present system of simply waiting for property owners to be willing to pay for sidewalks does not recognize the importance of pedestrian travel.
We would suggest that in a case such as the apartment block backing on Montreal at Dallas (fronting on Dock street) if the City cannot afford to install sidewalks it should at least reclaim the sidewalk area for pedestrian travel by placing concrete wheel stops along the future sidewalk route. The sidewalk area is now being used (I assume in combination with some of the private space) for parking and vehicle storage. We agreed that the area is an unsightly entrance to the City for vessel passengers and presents a barrier to pedestrian travel. Delineating the side-walk area would force vehicles to parallel park on the street and would encourage landscaping on the private area.
I have a few other thoughts on ways that pedestrians could be given more consideration in our road planning:
Open up closed pedestrian passageways and create new ones
Examples of closed pathways are the path from the top of Vimy up to Masters (completely blocked by vegetation, it presents as private property), and at least one water access from Hollywood Crescent (which presents as a drive-way). The first of these would add an alternative route from Fairfield/Masters down to May Street, the second would be a pure recreation route making a walk along the Hollywood waterfront below the high water mark more attractive.
A useful new pedestrian way is the long-sought mid-block connector in the Burnside neighbourhood. I am well aware that the problem is that the City must simultaneously own two sets of back-to-back lots to complete this route. Only if staff stays alert can we hope to achieve this without an expropriation. For the large lots on Washington some development rights might be given in exchange for an easement.
Make streets narrower to slow traffic and encourage bikes and pedestrians
While I was on Council we were persuaded by the traffic department that “ideal” or “target” street widths should be increased to allow for bicycle lanes beside car lanes, as well as street parking. This philosophy was embodied in Songhees, and as a result the over-wide streets contribute to a sense of hostility to pedestrians, and of course the overall density of the project is reduced. Paul Kane place is grotesque – it looks like the abandoned approach to a never-built six-lane bridge to James Bay.
At the Selkirk development the owners resisted the traffic department recommendations, approached council directly, and council allowed narrower street widths that slow down traffic. Cars must wait for bicycles, and pedestrian use is easier. I think this approach was much more successful. Although most of the city is built up, over-wide streets may still be being implemented through dedications as land is rezoned. I think a general review of street widths is in order.
Eliminate excess paved street area
Throughout the city there are examples of excess street widths, corners rounded too much, and separated right turn accelerator lanes. Some of these result from surveying anomalies or historical accident, or more usually engineers taking advantage of land availability to over-engineer roads. These usually have the effect of destroying green space, speeding vehicle traffic and presenting barriers to pedestrians.
Just a few examples I have noticed are:
- St. Lawrence from Simcoe to Ontario
- Rithet street
- Thurlow street where it enters on Fairfield
- Fairfield and Memorial
- Memorial at Dallas – this has already been identified as an area to be redesigned in conjunction with the Cemetery
- Burdett into Vancouver, from the west
I recognize that correcting these immediately is not possible. Ideally street widths should be narrowed as a new development takes place, so the land can be sold to adjacent property owners or for new development or used as green space. Where this is not possible, sites should be flagged so that when curbs are eventually replaced the new alignment makes more sense.
Another possibility is adding a median – for example, lower Cook is wider than needed. Or a quarter acre could be added to Beacon Hill Park by cutting one unneeded lane off the west side of the street. In many places on Cook north of Fairfield the shared center left turn lane is not needed and could be replaced by a median.
The City also has a number of roads that are not just too wide but totally unneeded. Again these usually result from some past road realignment and should be flagged for closure at some future date. I am glad to see this done in front of the new arena. Other examples are
- Extension of Ross into Gonzales Park
- and across the street, the stub of a street at right angles to Richardson
- Entrance to Beacon Hill Park from Beacon
- Wharf Street extension to the Johnson Street Bridge, and the right turn accelerator lane leading past the parking lot the City rents to the CRD. These unneeded lanes could be redeveloped in conjunction with the City lot, and with the Harbour Authority, although the streets are encumbered with sewage and water lines, restricting building to some degree.
- The Wharf street accelerator (along with the general pedestrian-hostile traffic mess at the east side of the Johnson Street bridge) and the street stub being closed in front of the new arena are both leftovers from the 1960s -70s era of “mini-freeways” like Blanshard and Pandora/Begbie/Shelbourne. They all tend to be too wide (happily we were able to use some of this excess width on Blanshard for a bike lane), pedestrian-hostile, and surrounded by odd pieces of expensive greenspace, virtually useless for park use and hence invariably deserted.
These discussion notes were also written for the Traffic Advisory Committee
Suggestion to Study Possible Shorter Traffic Signal Times within the Downtown
An “encouraging pedestrian environment” [Travel Choices Strategy, July 2003, page 2] is one that offers rapid, as well as pleasant, journeys between downtown points. I consider that current traffic light timing is balanced too much to vehicle traffic and presents significant delays to pedestrian travel. The worst delays are in crossing Douglas Street. I believe the no-wait window for crossing Douglas East-West as a pedestrian is something like 6 seconds out of a 60 second cycle – in other words, the average wait is something like 25 seconds. I believe this has contributed to the decline of retail on the East Side of Douglas, most noticeable in the 700 block Yates.
Shortening the signal timing to reduce delays would also help to encourage pedestrian access to the downtown from the residential area to the East of the downtown and from Fernwood. Access from the northern part of Fairfield is already good because traffic flows are light and most intersections are unsignalled East of Blanshard.
I assume shortening signal timings will reduce vehicle capacity of intersections because of stop-start times and also because, as I understand, East-West pedestrian crossing times already are the limiting factor for signal timings for Douglas Street. However, I suggest that reducing North-South capacity on Douglas would not necessarily reduce trip times to/from destinations north of Mayfair much in peak evening times anyway, since capacity in the Mayfair to Helmcken road section of the Island highway is already strained at evening peak times. The Hillside- Douglas inter-section is also a barrier. In short, I think to some extent we are successfully moving cars through the downtown into traffic jams north of the downtown. I do not have experience of the morning rush hour and do not know if this holds then as well.
I expect with shorter signal timings we would see some diversion of East-West through traffic to Bay street or farther north, and some North-South traffic to Blanshard and east. I would hope we would have some diversion to pedestrian/bike trips to and within the downtown.
However, I would not mind seeing some increase in vehicle congestion in the downtown if it means slower vehicle speeds and shorter pedestrian intersection waits. I believe total waiting time, valuing pedestrian and vehicle driver times equally, would be reduced.
I am certain adjusting signal timings is far cheaper than most other traffic calming measures, and so is reversing it if it doesn’t work or we go too far. It would be nice to have bus priority signals of some kind to keep them moving. I do not know if pedestrian crossing buttons can be set up to provide longer crossing times if required by those with mobility problems.
The following is the draft of a letter I sent to the Greater Victoria Chamber of Commerce board, which opposed the Douglas Street busway. While (like many others) I hope we can achieve light rail on the Douglas Street corridor, I felt the busway was a good interim step.
The Douglas Street busway
Dear [board member] ,
At the March 14 meeting of the Douglas Street Busway advisory committee the Chamber representatives indicated the Chamber’s opposition to the project and outlined some of the Chamber’s concerns. During the course of the discussion it became apparent that since the Chamber Board formulated its position new information about some aspects of the project has become available and some concerns have been addressed by further design changes. Staff of the Victoria and Saanich transportation departments were able to provide some information at the meeting, and I believe our staff has provided further information to Chamber staff. I understand our staff have also indicated they would be happy to meet with you or your staff, and I am sure the Saanich staff would be prepared to do the same.
I understand that one of the Chamber’s major concerns was that the planned 3 meter wide travel lanes are too narrow for safety. Our staff has told us that the City has a dozen years of experience with the 3 meter travel lanes on a number of other major arterials. On Blanshard Street it was clear that when the narrower lanes were installed average vehicle speeds were reduced. Our staff will be able to provide further details on our experience. At the meeting it was noted that the Transportation Association of Canada guidelines that may have been considered by the Chamber are primarily focussed on highway travel, not traffic within urban areas. We were told that Saanich also uses 3 meter lanes in some locations, though its standard width is greater.
Your representatives had concerns that 2 meter sidewalks adjacent to buildings would result in accidents with building doors opening into pedestrians. I was not aware that this was a concern, and indeed I am told that doorways are generally recessed to prevent this.
Further design refinements since the earlier versions have addressed some other potential safety concerns. I understand that many of the design elements that have been criticized as potentially unsafe have in fact been successfully used elsewhere, and I would hope that some of the staff and consultants involved in the design can provide you with some if this background.
I should also stress that some of the admittedly minimal lane and sidewalk widths that the Chamber has found of concern, and much of the cost of the busway, result from the decision to make the busway lane widths and platform lengths totally compatible with Light Rail Transit standards, in the hope that funding availability will make LRT possible in the future. While obviously considerable work would be required to install track and overhead wiring, by doing much of the curb/gutter and landscaping work now we are making LRT materially more attractive and faster to implement in the future. The compromise alternatives suggested by the Chamber, while preserving more of the status quo, would not achieve the long-term benefits of the proposal.
I believe that being ready to move forward on LRT will give our region a great advantage in attracting future federal and provincial funding assistance. I am encouraging the City of Victoria to plan future locations for LRT south of the busway and to plan linkages between the busway and the proposed Island Corridor commuter rail system on the E&N right of way. I understand that planning for the extension of the busway to the Westshore is already underway, and in the future we can hope to see links to the University and the Peninsula.
The Chamber has expressed general concerns about the long-term impact on local businesses of the busway and also about the short term upheaval resulting from construction.
There is no doubt that some impact on businesses located along Douglas Street in both Saanich and Victoria will result from the busway. Indeed, one of the reasons for the project is to encourage more intensive land use along the Douglas street spine that joins the two town centers. Transition in land use from the current low intensity, automobile-oriented development to higher densities and a pedestrian/transit orientation will necessarily involve some change for the current businesses. It is also true that construction will have negative impacts.
In this regard, though, I would contrast the slow and gradual economic changes that will result from the busway, and the minor impact of work on Douglas Street, to the changes resulting from new highway construction in the West shore. There, mountainsides have been blasted away and forests cut down to make way for vast new malls and big box stores, retail space that has profoundly, and negatively, affected every retail outlet in the core area. Freeway access to this new retail space has been provided by the expenditure of hundreds of millions of dollars of public money, expenditure that will have to be repeated as new development (including new automobile-serviced retail space) quickly exhausts road capacity.
Although the Chamber is asking us to prevent any change on Douglas street, we do not have the power to stop all change – we simply have to choose what form that change will take. The busway, and what I hope will be a successor LRT system, has the potential to shape the development of the region in a way that is environmentally friendly and that will be accessible to the old, the young, and those who do not wish to drive individual vehicles. It is a way to break out of a cycle of ever-increasing dependence on the automobile and the never-ending demand for more road capacity. In the past the Chamber of Commerce has often had the vision to support new transportation and development choices that have benefited the region. I would welcome the Chamber’s public support for this endeavour, and I am disappointed that you have chosen to oppose what I believe is the best opportunity we now have to move forward in an environmentally sustainable way. I hope that as a Board you will discuss the new information made available by our staff and others and reconsider the position you have taken.