Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Rapid transit and the evolution of our streets

Council recently endorsed Douglas St. as the preferred corridor a new rapid transit service connecting downtown with Uptown and the Westshore.  Transit will see dramatic improvements while pedestrians and cyclists can also expect some enhancements too.  Not so happy are some of those who believe that the reduction in vehicle lanes and on-street parking will destroy downtown business.  Some business fear that their customers will disappear and other voices decry the "war on the car". 

The development of the transit project has been evolving over the last couple of years, with extensive consultation involving the many stakeholders in the community that will be affected by the change.  Public protest notwithstanding, business has been consulted through surveys and the many open house events, all well advertised, and presenting ample opportunity for business owners and the public to get engaged.

Transit planners and city council are well aware of the concerns and have listened to feedback on the issues facing downtown business and the customers they rely on.  Highway congestion, growing density downtown and a need for more office and commercial space demands new approaches to transportation in the region and the transit plan is an important and positive step forward.

Future blog entries will share more of the research analyzing transit options and the work that has gone into developing this plan.

If there is a "war on the car", we are still losing - vehicle dependence is still growing in the region.  Walking for transportation has been dropping, mostly due to school consolidation.  Bicycle trips have jumped significantly, but still account for less than 10% of commuter trips in the region, though the share of traffic in the urban core is still higher than in any other city in North America.  Transit use is edging upwards, but more and significant investments are needed to attract people out of their cars.  It's not a "war", but we do need to provide people with more and better choices - it's an environmental imperative.  We don't have the space to accommodate more and more cars and the threats posed by climate change demand that we shift our choices to more sustainable modes.

The fear that businesses will lose customers is a more substantive issue than the overblown rhetoric about the attack on poor Hummer drivers.  We do need to be sure to share the thoughtful analysis that has gone into planning for a more transit oriented corridor into downtown.  Space for cars and on-street parking, however, is much less important to consumers than business assumes, and for many of them, the changes coming will be positive, if not profitable.

Let's start with a recent study out of Toronto, where bike lanes have been proposed for Bloor St., one of the city's key commercial arteries.  One of the key features of the new Douglas St. will be more robust bicycle lanes, often a target for some who would sacrifice bike facilities to preserve space for parking or vehicle lanes.  Transit isn't trying to dislodge people off of their bikes, rather we are trying to get people out of their cars, so disenfranchising cyclists would be counterproductive to the objectives of the project.  Besides, cyclists, no less than anyone else, are coming downtown to work, to shop or be entertained, and they are using the same routes and headed for the same destinations that everyone else is.  "Complete streets" that accommodate everyone are essential to a balanced and effective transportation system - preserving priority for vehicles is neither equitable nor sustainable.

The Toronto study is useful in at least challenging some of the misconceptions about business, their customers, and the impacts of changing street design on travel and shopping habits.  It's an interesting read for anyone looking for more background on what the future of Douglas might look like.

Here's a link to the study, and watch for more blog postings on my site:

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