Friday, September 25, 2015

Pick Up Sticks

The conundrums of Victoria's cycling network.

Spent a couple of hours earlier this week kicking around ideas at the city's Technical Advisory Committee for another iteration of the bicycle network plan.

Some didn't quite get the concept of an advisory committee - council makes decisions and committees provide advice to help shape the projects that will fulfill the direction set by those elected to do so.  It's not the place of committees to revisit those decisions, but to add value to help ensure that projects fulfill the vision.

Facebook, however, is a place for some discussion.

While I agree with the "all ages and abilities" concept, there is not a lot of understanding of how that works in practice on the ground.  Some are content to repeat the rhetoric when confronted with issues of engineering and design that they have no grasp of.

Victoria does not have a grid pattern transportation network where we can displace traffic to parallel streets that serve common destinations.  We have pick up sticks.

There was some resistance to the focus on expensive cycle track projects at the expense of neighbourhood fixes that are essential to network connectivity and completeness.  Both, however, will be useful evolutionary steps to increase the attraction of cycling as a transportation solution.  Care, however, must be taken to building solutions, not symbols.

The two way track on Pandora is a case in point.  While it mimics projects found in other cities, it will not function as its most ardent supporters believe.  With multiple intersections, all of which will likely need to increase signal phasing by 50% of existing cycles, stop and go traffic along a short section of a single route, and trip generators and destinations that are narrowly focused, it is unlikely to draw the orders of magnitude growth some are forecasting.  It most certainly will not be an extension of the Goose, where bicycle traffic is mostly free flowing and faces few delays.  The Goose is a river, downtown is a delta.

Paired facilities along Pandora and Johnson would make more sense, reflecting existing patterns of demand more so than the assumption that some advocates make that people will choose dysfunctional routes if you just give them more protection.  Cyclists, the old nugget goes, are not blocking traffic - they are traffic.  They will continue to seek out the routes that connect them to their destinations, not to a merry go round of facilities designed by those who know what’s best for them.

There are numbers of examples of problems created by the assumption that car trips will simply disappear if we add more and better bike routes.  Some will, but many will still drive more many of their trip purposes.  Traffic is like a balloon - squeeze it here and it pops out over there.  Victoria's road network is not designed to absorb displaced capacity and some routes will be badly compromised by the leakage to other roads.

In my own neighbourhood of Fairfield, bicycles account for about 20% of commute trips, though not much has been done to the road network to improve conditions for cycling.  A few signs don't add much to the main attraction - quieter streets, lower traffic volumes, and the proximity of destinations that support shorter trips.

One notion that is being played out suggest that Cook St. is an easy target for a road diet, though traffic volumes will suggest otherwise.  Transit and emergency service providers will not be impressed.  Anyone living on, or using, Vancouver St. will be apoplectic at the traffic they will have to absorb.  Between Fairfield and Fort St., Cook has no on street parking (except for a few spots north of Rockland), lanes are narrow, and traffic drains from Fairfield street networks to feed downtown and other destinations.    Volumes are more concentrated in this section than they are along other stretches and the city may not be well served by the imagined quick fix.

Vancouver St. can be more easily adapted as a bicycle priority street, with a couple more diversions and traffic calming elements.  Numbers of displaced movements will not be so high as those that would be impacted on Cook.  Incremental change, less costly and less intrusive, is likely to be more effective than a “statement” that will be expensive and have impacts well beyond the isolated streetscape the more myopic tend to recognize.

That myopia was likewise present when we were working through options on the bridge.  Those with a more simplistic view of traffic complexity were convinced that adding capacity to the Bay St. Bridge would solve downtown traffic problems while preserving the wreck of the Blue Bridge.  Bridges connect to something; they do not operate in isolation.

Some of the same soapboxers who continue to fire broadsides at the new bridge have now realized that the extension of the Goose to a downtown terminus will demand changes to core routes.   It’s a good thing though, that Wharf and Belleville are targeted for some next level of fixes.  The wheel was not invented after the occasion of the last election, and we were, going back to the bridge debate, planning the extension of waterfront routes then.  Some historians, apparently, are more selective with their remembrance of things past.

Douglas or Government?  That’s another point of discussion at the table.  It might be emerging from the solution to some of the friction on city streets will be solved if we get some of the bikes out of the way of the cars.  Again, we are not blocking traffic, we are traffic.  Plans for Douglas exceed the age of some of those elected.  Rapid transit has been talked about since the ‘70s and more recent iterations included, no doubt to the surprise of some, a two-way cycle track I promoted as part of the design features of a more sustainable mainstreet.  Planning Douglas in isolation of transit solutions is not a good approach.  Better to look at fixes along Government that stand on their own.  Destinations along Douglas will not be served well enough by facilities along Government.

Haultain is a good target for fixes.  We’ve been talking this one up for years.   Most of it is supported by signs alone and key crossings need better treatments.  At the east end, diversions have worked very well but at the west, Cook St. is a chasm that needs serious work, and links through to Quadra-Hillside destinations are lacking.

That brings us to the issue of dollars.  While some insist that they are going to save the world for $7 million that’s a little ambitious.  I’ve been involved in designing lots of projects and secured funding for many of them.  To be sure it’s a generous program, a boost from the $4 plus million earmarked by the previous council.  But it will not complete a network, especially given the high ticket symbols proposed for immediate implementation.  Might be wise to tone down the utopian prose and look to take measured steps. 

Piggybacks and partnerships will be key too.  The new Capital City project behind the legislature will draw more bike traffic south, running counter to the illusion of those who insist Pandora will draw everything from the Goose.  Connections and road design along adjacent routes need to provide robust bike facilities.  Ran into one of the architects for the new seniors housing project on Hillside at Blanshard Court.  Asked him to draw in some bike lanes along Hillside.  Hey, it’s only a block, but a network will be a sum of its parts, not imposed from above or drawn in one go.

I’ll lose some of the battles for more practical facilities, help where I can to make sense of ambitions to sketch out workable solutions.  Been doing it for years.