Motordom
May 10, 2016

Shocking News from Seattle: No Viadoom from Viaduct Closure

Something really bad didn’t happen when Seattle closed the Alaskan Way Viaduct to traffic, reported to carry 110,000 vehicles a day.  From Crosscut:

 

In news coverage leading up to “Viadeath 2016”, Inrix provide the official data forecasts for Seattle’s traffic snarls. The company predicted commute times would increase by 50 percent …

But in an e-mail exchange with Crosscut, a representative speaking on behalf of Inrix backpedaled on their initial predictions, saying that, “According to INRIX’s analysis, commute times have not dramatically increased and several of the major routes into the City have been only moderately affected.” …

On I-5 travel time has increased by about five minutes, and rush hour has shifted toward 6 AM as people allow themselves more time to get into work. The same goes for the West Seattle bridge, on which travel times have jumped about five minutes. On I-90 Westbound, commutes have only increased by between three and five minutes. And on 520, traffic’s about normal.

Obvious question: Why is Washington spending over $4 billion to build a bored tunnel when demand management, a new surface street and better transit could have done the job?

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OMG traffic cones are all the rage. The revolution has begun and it has bounced off Twitter onto our streets.
First, I recommend following AwarenessCone on Twitter. A silly Philadelphia-based account, it mocks the traffic cone’s responsibility to protect us from danger with overqualified cones placed in menial, dead end positions. Their bio sums it up well:

AwarenessCone: a cone placed at the site of damaged infrastructure; a cone marking construction; a cone forgotten. Be aware.

Two examples are better than one.

Secondly, The Man systemic car culture wants everyone outside who’s not in a car to be dressed in clothing with high visibility (hi-viz). We all know black is the most slimming colour. Drivers are jealous of our active lifestyles. They want us to look chubbier than those in vehicles. They also want to take no responsibility for hitting and killing us with their cars. Activist people on foot and on bike and on board refuse to wear reflectors or bright clothing day or night in protest. Active transportation moderates get mocked as sell outs for having reflective trim on any clothing.
Moschino, always known for its tongue-in-cheek, society mocking designs, has a new line out for Spring/Summer 2016 called Dangerous Couture featuring ridiculous, high fashion, hi-viz clothing and their version of street signs (including little Do Not Enter signs as earrings).

Which all leads me to the third trend for cones. People are using them to control their streets. Call them safety heroes or vigilantes, drivers don’t know if they are City-issued or not and are slowing down. These movements are cropping up in various cities. PDXTransformations in Portland, OR was separating cars from bike lanes with traffic cones recently. Now its members have put up (illegal) 20mph speed limit signs and are getting local media coverage for their antics. (The Portland Bureau of Transportation has said publicly removing the signs is not a high priority with limited resources.)

 

We are not a “bike advocacy group.” We are a Transformation Action Group. We want our streets to serve everybody.
Our dream is that the people of Portland stand up to unsafe drivers and say ENOUGH. You can’t do that here anymore.

They are inspiring others.

If these rogue antics were organized in your town, would you be tempted to make a request? Is there a dangerous spot near you? Have you reported it to the City?
Clearly cones are trending and improved safety for all on our streets can’t be far behind.

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“Every time we go through this, it seems to be the same pattern. There’s predictions there’s going to be ‘Carmageddon,’” Price said. “Every time it doesn’t happen. And then we go on to the next one, and have to go through the whole cycle again.”

– Gordon Price, SFU City Program, in The Province

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Today in Metro:

A year and half after the city raised an uproar by shutting a stretch of Point Grey Road to vehicles to make way for a bike lane, travel time for buses and cars is almost identical to what it was before the closure, according to data released Monday.

The city monitored how re-routing extra cars to Macdonald Street would affect the 22 bus re-route using “extremely detailed” GPS data and found travel times to be “so similar it’s hard to say whether there’s a change,” said Lon LaClaire, Vancouver’s acting director of transportation. “

“It’s pretty much the same,” LaClaire said. “There’s no real interesting story there.”

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But of course the interesting story here is that there’s no interesting story.  Imagine if the delay had been even 5 minutes.  Carmageddon!

It’s so frustrating when confident predictions of bad things don’t happen, but it’s important to acknowledge for the next proposal of a greenway or bike lane.  Let’s see if we get any.

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Bringing an Agustin comment to the foreground:

The absolute number of cars registered in the City of Vancouver is indeed growing. In absolute numbers, “peak car” has not yet arrived in Vancouver.

There’s an interesting pattern to the vehicle registrations added each year, though:

 

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So how does one explain the pattern above – and the data which indicate a drop in traffic coming into the city and, even more, to downtown?

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From NewGeography, via Ron Richings:

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Urbanists Need to Face the Full Implications of Peak Car

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As traffic levels decline nationally in defiance of the usual state DOT forecasts projecting major increases, a number of commentators have claimed that we’ve reached “peak car” – the point at which the seemingly inexorable rise in vehicle miles traveled in America finally comes to an end.   But while this has been celebrated, with some justification in the urbanist world as vitiating plans for more roads, the implications for public policy haven’t been fully faced up to.

Indeed, the “peak car” is antithetical to the reigning urbanist paradigm of highways known as “induced demand.”  Induced demand is Say’s Law for roads: supply of lanes creates its own demand by drivers to fill them. Hence building more roads to reduce congestion is pointless. But if we’ve really reached peak car, maybe we really can build our way out of congestion after all.

Traffic levels have stabilized or even fallen in recent years. According to analysis by economist Doug Short featured in Streetsblog, aggregate auto travel peaked on a per capita basis in 2005 and has fallen since. Per capita traffic levels are now back to 1994 levels, a two decade rollback in traffic increases. …

This data is complemented by a slew of recent stories about the poor financial performance of toll roads, resulting in part from traffic falling far below projections.  For example, the concessionaire operating the Indiana Toll Road recently went bankrupt. Streetsblog reported that while projections forecasted traffic level increase of 22% in the first seven years, traffic actually fell 11% in the first eight.

Recent traffic declines are a reversal of a long running trend of Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) increases at above growth in population. Some of this is no doubt due to the poor macro-economy. But there are reasons to believe we may be in a new era of traffic growth or lack thereof.  Many of the trends that drove high growth have largely been played out: household size declines, suburbanization, the entry of women into the workforce, one car per driver, etc. That’s not to say these will necessarily reverse. But we’ve reached the point of diminishing returns in terms of how many more women, for example, will join the labor force given that there’s already 57% female participation and their labor force participation rate is projected to decline in the future. …

So the idea that we need to build fewer roads than we thought is sound. But less attention has been paid to the flip side implications of this.  To repeat, the induced demand theory says that there is a more or less infinite supply of traffic, thus any new roadway capacity will be used up shortly, leaving congestion as bad as the status quo ante.

Despite peak car, articles touting induced demand as a reason not to build roads continue unabated, including recent ones in Wired (“What’s Up With That: Building Bigger Roads Actually Makes Traffic Worse”) and Vox (“The ‘fundamental rule’ of traffic: building new roads just makes people drive more”).  In a world of peak car, where traffic levels are flat to declining on a per capita basis, induced demand no longer holds court, certainly not to the level claimed by those who believe it’s pointless to build roads.

In fact, what peak car means is that while speculative projects may be dubious, there many be good reasons now to build projects designed to alleviate already exiting congestion.  Places like Los Angeles remain chronically congested, which has great economic and social consequences, not the least of which is the value of untold hours lost sitting in traffic.  While individual projects there might indeed be boondoggles, maybe it’s worth building some of the planned freeway expansions there in light of peak car. In short, in some cases peak car strengthens the argument for building or expanding roads.

On the other hands, many of the regional development plans designed to promote compact central city development and transit may be predicated on an analysis that assumes large future traffic increases in a “business as usual” scenario.  Not just highways but all aspects of regional planning are dependent on traffic forecasts. 

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A stunning visual portrait of the new bike route from Burrard Bridge to Point Grey Road, by Kathleen Corey and Brian Gould – this time with extra drone!

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“World premiere” – is that a bit much?  Well, the politics of PGR alone makes it of international interest.  But the design of the project, particularly at the south end of Burrard Bridge, is an achievement of transportation engineering worthy of wide recognition.  So pass along this link to friends and contacts around the world: http://vimeo.com/kathcorey/seacycles

There’s also another reason to help spread the word, and the video.
Price Tags has devoted a lot of pixels to the “New Point Grey Road” in the belief that capturing its success visually would ensure its survival, even in the face of political promises that the project would be ‘reviewed’ to make it “accessible to all Vancouverites” – which can only mean opening it to through traffic.
This video, I think, captures something so beautiful and powerful that such a change to the ‘New Point Grey Road’ will never be seriously considered.

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False Creek’s oldest bridge, Seaforth’s spreading trees. Joined by paths like those between Jericho and Kits Beach.

Pocket parks sewn into a ribbon – Tatlow stitched to Volunteer. Ride a tandem by the seashore, run your fingers ‘long the seam.

A dozen cars for every bicycle? A dozen bikes for every car. What was louder than the waves is but an eddy in the wind.

Gentle ripples lapping at the wall, trickles open up a crack. The waves were out there waiting, and now they’re rushing through.

As the ships sail Burrard Inlet, the seacycles ply Point Grey.

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Music: Dexter Britain, The Time to Run (Finale)
Waves: Tim Kahn, Arcadia Beac

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Let’s look at another infrastructure project, one that cost millions, not billions* – about $6 million in this case to design and re-construct the intersection at the south end of the Burrard Bridge (map here), now almost complete:

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Here is what it used to look like: configured over the years in classic Motordom-style.

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And now a more classic intersection form for vehicles, bikes and pedestrians:

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“Simplified” would probably not be quite the right term, given the complexity of factors that had to be taken into consideration – but the intersection and connecting streets have much greater clarity for drivers, less crossings for pedestrians, and seamless, separated paths for cyclists.

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I have a hunch this one is going to attract a lot of attention in the traffic engineering profession – and win a few awards along the way.  So I asked Lon LaClaire, the city’s Strategic Transportation Planner, a few questions:

What were the major challenges?

For the engineers, there were two big challenges:

  • Designing an intersection that would work well for pedestrians, cyclist, transit, AND cars.
  • Constructing the intersection while maintaining access for pedestrians, bikes, transit, and general traffic.  This required a number of interim intersection designs to be constructed

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Who designed the new intersection?

It would be wrong to credit any one person with the design.  The project involved significant collaboration of staff throughout the City including contributions from the Transportation, Streets, Sewers, Street Use, Departmental Services and Budget divisions of Engineering, Corporate Communications, and Parks.  Development Services, Financial Services, and Real Estate also supported several components of the project.

The core project team included engineering, landscape, and construction professionals, operations managers, and communications experts that worked together to build a high quality project while aiming to minimize disruption to the public and nearby businesses and residents.  I’m sure that many people have no idea how much design attention goes into a project like this!

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How long did it take?

The design took about one year to create.

From my perspective in Transportation, just getting to the design of the plan (2D – the two horizontal dimensions) took hundreds of hours of design time with contributions from dozens of engineers and technicians.  This design was followed by (and, in turn, influenced by) a multitude of other related designs, including the grading (the 3D – vertical dimension) , traffic signal design, and bike path and landscape design, to name a few.

I think our landscape architects found locations for about one hundred trees!

The sign and paint plan is one of the most complex we’ve done …  So many design specialists … and we haven’t even talked about the construction planning!

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Before:

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After:

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How did the process go, in your opinion?

On the “easy” side, I’d say the public consultation on this intersection went quite smoothly.  There was strong support for the project throughout the design phase and people seem to be generally satisfied with the project.

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As it happened, the rebuild of the intersection was timed to coordinate with the upgrading of the Burrard Bridge itself and the PGR greenway.  It was not really possible to distinguish one project from the other – nor the impact that any one of them had on congestion.  Indeed, during the times I drove through the intersection, there were few if any delays – partly, I expect, because many drivers avoided Burrard and used Granville instead.  The worst conditions seemed to be on sunny weekends when casual drivers who didn’t normally use the bridge found themselves in jams caused by others doing the same.

But those expecting a crush of traffic along Macdonald when Point Grey Road was closed were, I suppose, perversely disappointed.  Another case of “When bad things don’t happen.”

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It went on a diet.

From citiscope:

Avenida 9 de Julio in Buenos Aries – a triumphant boulevard (map here) that is by some accounts the widest street in the world. Two parts to the picture everyone knows: One is the towering Obelisk commemorating the founding of Buenos Aires. The other is the 20 lanes of traffic commemorating the city’s love of cars.

In the past year, half of that image has changed dramatically. City work crews ripped out four of those traffic lanes in the middle of the roadway. In just seven months, they gave the space entirely to buses and the people who ride them.

Just as interesting as what’s happening on 9 de Julio are the changes going on just a few steps away from it.  Buses used to run on the narrow and busy downtown streets nearby.  Now, those buses have been diverted to the exclusive lanes on 9 de Julio. And the city has turned about 100 blocks of those once noisy and polluted roads into either fully pedestrianized streets or pedestrian priority zones.  The latter allow for vehicles but only at speeds of under 10 km/h and with special permits issued only to those who have parking spaces within the zone.

The busiest part of the city is thus becoming a pleasant place to go for a walk. Early in the morning, it’s possible to hear birds singing and the patter of footsteps on pavement. …

Dietrich, the city’s undersecretary for transport, says 90 percent of those who move around the city are pedestrians. But previously, 70 percent of the space downtown was used by cars and buses. Now that distribution has basically been flipped around in the pedestrian-priority zones. The city also has added 130 km of bike lanes.

There is still plenty of space to drive in Buenos Aires. But what’s happening here represents something of a rebalancing between cars and everything else.

Full story here.

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There’s also this, for the Department of Irony:

Some drivers complained that left turns from the roadway would become impossible. And inevitably, the project got swept up in national politics: Mauricio Macri, the mayor of Buenos Aires and the bus route’s champion, is a political opponent of the current president of Argentina.

Now that the bus system is operational, most of the opposition has gone away. That’s because it’s helped to unclog traffic and reduced travel times for just about everybody traveling through the area.  Travel time is down for buses by 50 percent, for minibuses (private buses that make fewer stops) by 45 percent, and for cars by 20 percent.

Note the examples typical of transportation politics: the threat to motordom, the predictions of carmageddon, the conflict between local and senior governments, the trauma of change – and the ultimate success, even for drivers, when a better balance is achieved.

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Another in our series of how Carmageddon fails to cooperate when road space for vehicles is reduced.

For much of the summer and through the Fall, the City has removed two lanes from Georgia Street for the construction of a water line.

Georgia is one of only several hundred-foot rights-of-way in Vancouver – and the only arterial that serves traffic coming onto the downtown peninsula from the west.  Every vehicle approaching from the northwest quadrant of the region – traffic from the ferries, the Sunshine Coast, Squamish, Whistler, and much of the North Shore – has to use this street.  It’s been congested for years.

So it’s reasonable to assume that when you take out two of its six lanes, something very bad will happen: namely, Back-ups from Hell.

It turned out to be more like purgatory: an intermediary state awaiting those trying to reach heaven in the CBD, or having been blessed, returning to a more earthly existence in West and North Vancouver.

From the front of a bus, on November 9, during the early evening rush it looked like this:

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Inbound, even with two lanes closed, the traffic kept moving.  Outbound, the usual line-up.

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By Thurlow, the east-bound traffic was flowing better than normal; west-bound was typical for the outbound rush – backing up on the red, edging forward on the green.

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At Georgia and Granville, looking west, the traffic was no different than normal.

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According to my reliable source – the bus driver – traffic has been slightly worse during construction, but manageable.  They’re not notably more delayed.

Yes, anecdotal evidence only.  I’d really like to get some data from the City on this.  But look at it  this way: if traffic was completely bolloxed, there would have been regular news stories.  Certainly the eyes in the skies, the traffic reporters, would have informed us in excruciating detail, every 10 minutes on the 10, how much worse it was.

How many such reports have you heard?

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Last weekend, after driving through the construction works at the south end of the Burrard Bridge and along Cornwall and MacDonald, I have an impression – not yet backed up by facts and measurements – that not only is there an absence of congestion since PGR was closed, but that the traffic is actually moving better.

It was on Friday at 4:45 pm – early rush hour – heading south on the Burrard Bridge, expecting backups before I could make the turn onto Cornwall.   To my surprise, I slalomed through the intersection, constantly moving the whole time, barely touching the brakes.

As most of the traffic headed up Burrard, I seamlessly moved into the new right-hand turn lane and flowed all the way to Cypress, where the red light had created some minor delay.

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From there, I kept to the usual speed, a bit below the posted limit, along Cornwall, up MacDonald to 16th, never having to stop except at signals, even with all the construction pylons.  Because there was no cross traffic at Point Grey Road, I realized Cornwall and MacDonald had become essentially a single street, with no interruptions or delays.

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There is, of course, a new ped/bike light on MacDonald to connect the Seaside route to York Street, that will effectively reproduce the cross traffic as volumes increase.  But there’s a larger point here: Not only did the predicted congestion not occur, the closure of Point Grey Road may have actually improved the traffic flow.  The new Cornwall/Burrard intersection could even reduce the actual amount of traffic using those arterials, as the engineers were predicting during public meetings (to considerable dismay).

It’s early, conditions will change, data will be collected, judgments will be made.  But this is not the first time that Carmageddon failed to bring the world as we know it to an end when the City reallocated space from the car – and it’s a story that needs to be told, it’s a meme that needs to be changed.

I’m also not the only one to notice this change.  Here’s a comment by Ben from a previous post on the PGR controversy:

Have you noticed how the traffic on Cornwall street has now also been reduced which is allowing buses to travel more quickly? Yesterday it took me eight minutes on bus 22 from Larch street to Robson with a return time from Robson street back to Larch of seven minutes!  These are truly amazing numbers.

No doubt there will be other observations.  So let the comments flow along with the traffic …

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