CBC’s The National asks leading urbanists if our cities still work and how we can make them better.
The classic American residential street has a 12-foot lane that handles traffic in two directions. And many busy streets in my hometown of Washington, D.C., have eight-foot lanes that function wonderfully. These are as safe and efficient as they are illegal in most of the United States, and we New Urbanists have written about them plenty before, and built more than a few. But what concerns us here are downtown streets, suburban arterials and collectors, and those other streets that are expected to handle a good amount of traffic, and are thus subject to the mandate of free flow.
Second, you should know that these streets used to be made up of 10-foot lanes. Many of them still exist, especially in older cities, where there is no room for anything larger. The success of these streets has had little impact on the traffic-engineering establishment, which, over the decades, has pushed the standard upward, almost nationwide, first to 11 feet, and then to 12. Now, in almost every place I work, I find that certain streets are held to a 12-foot standard, if not by the city, then by a state or a county department of transportation.
In some cases, a state or county controls only a small number of downtown streets. In other cases, they control them all. In a typical city, like Cedar Rapids or Fort Lauderdale, the most important street or streets downtown are owned by the state. In Boise, every single downtown street is owned by the Ada County Highway District, an organization that, if it won’t relinquish its streets to the city, should at least feel obliged to change its name. And states and counties almost always apply a 12-foot standard.
Why do they do this? Because they believe that wider lanes are safer. And in this belief, they are dead wrong. Or, to be more accurate, they are wrong, and thousands of Americans are dead.
They are wrong because of a fundamental error that underlies the practice of traffic engineering—and many other disciplines—an outright refusal to acknowledge that human behavior is impacted by its environment. This error applies to traffic planning, as state DOTs widen highways to reduce congestion, in complete ignorance of all the data proving that new lanes will be clogged by the new drivers that they invite. And it applies to safety planning, as traffic engineers, designing for the drunk who’s texting at midnight, widen our city streets so that the things that drivers might hit are further away.
The logic is simple enough, and makes reasonable sense when applied to the design of high-speed roads. Think about your behavior when you enter a highway. If you are like me, you take note of the posted speed limit, set your cruise control for 5 m.p.h. above that limit, and you’re good to go. We do this because we know that we will encounter a consistent environment free of impediments to high-speed travel. Traffic engineers know that we will behave this way, and that is why they design highways for speeds well above their posted speed limits.
Unfortunately, trained to expect this sort of behavior, highway engineers apply the same logic to the design of city streets, where people behave in an entirely different way. On city streets, most drivers ignore posted speed limits, and instead drive the speed at which they feel safe. That speed is set by the cues provided by the environment. Are there other cars near me? Is an intersection approaching? Can I see around that corner? Are there trees and buildings near the road? Are there people walking or biking nearby? And: How wide is my lane?
So yeah, I hear the complaints out of Evergreen, Hampton Village, and other new neighbourhoods that your narrow streets bug you but they are making those streets safer for children, other cars, and yourselves because you have to drive so slow to navigate them. You know what, that is a good thing.
Yet we need it more than ever. The Vancouverist ideology solves a number of serious problems.
First is sprawl: According to a recent projection, the population of the Greater Toronto Area will rise from six million today to almost 10 million in the next 28 years. Vancouver will go from 2.2 million to 3.4 million in the same period. Most of those people intend to move downtown or into inner-ring suburbs. But if housing there is in short supply, they’ll push out into the outskirts.
Second is the housing shortage: If we cannot increase the supply of housing, and at least double the population density of our big cities, then our children will have little chance of becoming homeowners. If foreign investors buy the new condos, all the better. We even more seriously need an increase in rental stock, to push down rents and give people an urban entry point.
And third is quality of life: That doubling of density isn’t just needed – it’s highly desirable. With twice as many people per square kilometre, there will be sufficiently large markets (and tax bases) to justify subway lines, parks and cultural venues. At the moment, density-increasing development is being blocked in the neighbourhoods that most need these things.
It’s not just governments. Canadian city-dwellers need to adopt a Vancouverist mindset. I’ll never understand why downtown homeowners, who often rail against the horrors of farmland-destroying, carbon-speawing urban sprawl, then turn around and oppose midrise condominium projects in their own neighbourhoods. Not only do those developments add neighbours and thus demand for nice services and better schools and shops and transit routes, but they are the only solution to urban sprawl. You get one or you get the other. “Density,” writes the Vancouver developer Bob Ransford, who consulted on the Melbourne report, “is the antidote to sprawl.”
Urban Planner Brent Toderian speaks about density done well in downtown cores. This is going to be a huge challenge for Saskatoon as we try to increase density in downtown Saskatoon. It’s interesting that he speaks of designing downtown for kids because if it works for kids, it will work for everyone. In Vancouver where they have 7000 kids, they build daycares and schools downtown. Saskatoon has really no amenities other than River Landing for families. We have a long way to go.
The other thing is that if you agree with Toderian and most other urban planners, Saskatoon is making decisions right now that will hurt our city for generations. It’s almost as if as a city and city council identify best practices in cities and do the opposite. They talk a great game about Transit 2.0 while putting bridges all over Saskatoon. In the next decade we will have a new bridges south of the city, two north of the city, and I have heard some talking about adding one along 33rd Street or another one south of the city. You can’t do both folks and to be honest, we are probably at a point where we should just give up on the dream of living in a livable city and just admit that we are all about cars and sprawl.
“America has never confronted a global challenge of the type or magnitude it faces today,” concludes Doherty. “If it does not change course, the United States will be racked by violent storms — both figurative and literal — as the global order breaks down. The country cannot delay. For a few short years, it has a window in which it can choose an incredibly prosperous 21st century, but that window will close. It is time once more to lead the world through difficult change.”
The U.S.’s economic engine, foreign policy, and infrastructure are all out of date, argues Doherty, and to meet the interdependent challenges of the 21st century’s strategic landscape – inclusion, depletion, depression, and resilience – the country will need to develop a new strategy: to “lead the global transition to sustainability.”
As part of that strategy he envisions a new economic engine for the United States oriented around walkable communities, regenerative agriculture, a revolution in resource productivity, investment in regional growth, and the transition to a reduced carbon emitting energy sector. This strategy will have major implications for the country’s foreign policy and governance structures.
Some lessons for Saskatoon and Saskatchewan in there as well.