The Car’s “Way”

Peter Norton’s recent book, Fighting Traffic (2010), clearly describes the historical process of putting the car first in the life of cities public rights-of-way.  The period from about 1915 to 1935 saw the transition of streets as, well, what today’s progressive generation would call “complete.”  Trips were short and slow, and therefore walking predominated.  Goods moved by horse and buggy, which made streets dirty and required sidewalks to be slightly elevated.  The streetcar was the main conveyance for people going further, and it stopped frequently for boardings and didn’t get up to much more than 10 mph between the stops and the need to avoid collisions (consider this a time when traffic signals didn’t exist).

When the car entered this miasma of urban life and movement, it was immediately seen as a significant danger — to people.  The force of a pedestrian-car contretemps was between the impulsiveness of human foot traffic and the yearnings of car owners to realize the advantages their investment provided: status and speed.   The first was to buy admiration and deference from other road users.  That deference — expressed as standing aside to let the car have its “way” — was translated into speed.  And speed was the enforcer of the “right” to a “way” for drivers.

The speed soon became a lethal force, especially to people who weren’t paying attention to this new order of things and stepped into the “way” of the driver.  This drew the attention of local safety organizations, which had been successful in gaining housing codes and labour codes to protect people in buildings from fire, collapse, and health problems.  The car was cast, appropriately, as an endangerer and those who were behind the car’s steering wheel when it collided with a pedestrian or cyclist (organized before motorists into a road lobby, the League of American Wheelmen), they were castigated.

The driver’s constant effort to pick up speed was foiled not just by the constant flow of pedestrians crossing the street whenever, however, but also by the need to slow down at every “conflict” with other vehicles, including other cars accessing on or off-street parking, or streetcars, which in the emerging road culture of “might makes right” were clearly superior.  This brought about the engineer’s solution: the right-of-way, officially allocated by traffic police at first, and later by traffic signals.

In a campaign eerily similar to the National Rifle Association’s current campaign against gun controls, the automobile interests wrested control of the road-safety agenda from local safety organizations’ hands and concertedly promoted the idea that it was not any inherent nature of the “beast” that caused deaths (children were all too often its victims) but a small number of bad road users.  They also worked hard at devising a “system for sharing” the roads that, surprise-surprise, favoured the automobile operating at speed.  During this period of time speed limits rose from 10 mph to 30 mph, from being able to inflict recoverable injuries to inflicting death.

Getting in the driver’s way was a no-no.  And the driver soon learned that the amount of “way” he owned was directly related to his speed, a nicely circular logic.  By this standard, pedestrians and cyclists had no “way” as they were not only slow by comparison, but they had little mass with which to inflict harm on other road users (although a cyclist who can keep up with motor traffic can become a serious threat to pedestrians and other cyclists).

Traffic signals provided a switch that alternated the “way” between two competing flows of traffic, allowing one flow the freedom to proceed apace through the intersection, while the opposing flow faced the obligation to stop and wait.  The allocation of the total time of free-flow was eventually unevenly allocated by relative traffic flows (only motor vehicles were counted for this purpose) and the sequencing of  signals of the dominant flow was eventually mastered to allow speedy progress.   Speed clearly favoured not only the car’s status, but conformed to what the manufacturers considered a level that provided the value their advertisements implied would make the each vehicle’s price a worthy investment.  Speed buys its driver a private good, while privatizing a precious public good.  But the private advantage is fleeting, as time-journal studies show car-owners use higher speeds to travel further, rather an reallocate the time-savings to other activities.

Today, city planning departments are looking this heritage of road culture in the eye and making bold statements about how it has created streets that put “through-ness” ahead of “place-ness” (my words), long trips over short ones.  The result has not only been a loss of enjoyment each moment of a journey that only pedestrians can enjoy, but a drain on a limited resource: road space.   A person traveling by car takes 30 times the amount of public space when stopped (and more when moving) than a pedestrian.  The smaller amount of space a car takes when stopped is really no advantage, since parking supply, due to the combinations and permutations of demand and restrictive zoning rules, must exceed local car population by a factor of four to eight.

Ottawa’s planners are at the early stages of doing what they are terming a “refresh” of five important documents: the Official Plan, the Transportation Master Plan, the Infrastructure Master Plan, the Pedestrian Plan, and finally, the Cycling Plan.  The theme this time is, appropriately to me, “affordability” (their word).   Planners seem ready to finally blow the whistle and say, “sorry” to those who own, manufacture, sell, insure, service, and fuel cars that we are running out of space, space that, frankly, we want to put to another use: people and commerce and culture, which an increasing number of urbanists and economists point out attract the “creative” classes that make cities vibrant and successful.  This point-of-view is being complemented by the that from the leaders of the most powerful of the “soft” services: health, who say that the present mix of danger, pollution, and personal cost have created a pathological stew of death-disability, obesity, stress, and, for the equality crowd over in the social service sector, unequal mobility.   Affordability refers not just to what the taxpayers can afford collectively, but to the amount of income needed to live a minimal quality of life.

This focus is good, but it reflects past plan reviews that have made nice motherhood statements that rarely get implemented.   One that I especially liked from the last TMP was, “In 2031, the ability of residents to access essential opportunities will not depend on their ownership of a car. ”  When I went to the microphone to comment on the launch of the current 5-year review, I asked for assurance that such a committment would be in the new TMP.  I was told, “yes.”

However, the preliminary documents again set a fairly low goal for shifts in trip modes: it reports that walking, in the last five years, dropped from a share of 9.6 percent to 9.3, but offers no comment.  Then it forecasts this share will go only up to 10 percent during the twenty-year period. when the planners should expect to rise to at least 20 percent (walking is counted only when the trip is made completely on foot).   The car is forecast to still be the standard by which residents will judge the efficiency of their time and the success of their life.  That means children will be deemed unfit to travel independently and seniors facing declining abilities, will face the contradiction of both becoming more dependent on door-to-door motor transport and having their driving abilities closely scrutinized.  There is no recognition that seniors deserve such a service without having to drive or own a car.

The five documents being revised need a reasonably complete vision of what will replace car-dependency, not just in the downtown core that has the least space for road widenings and parking augmentation, but in all areas that are centrally serviced.   That vision needs to make bold steps to, first, creating a finer-grained distribution of shops and services that are within walking, or easy-to-access and frequent, transit service, rather than malls or the big-box “power centres” available only by “district” rather than neighbourhood.  If successful in this, most non-commute trips will be considerably shorter.  Second, commute trips would be shortened if  planners and official stop telling them that they have a right to drive themselves to these destinations, instead of putting their intellect to arranging their lives to live within a reasonable distance for an efficient travel-mode-of-choice.  Fourth, “road-pricing” should also be utilized to ensure a scarce resource is well used.   Fourth, the use of the roads needs to clearly be restructured to favour the less-land-intensive “active” modes, rather than the “improvements” of the last 75 years that reflected our collective fear of delaying any driver.   The fastest way to convey this shift in priorities from a car-first to a foot-first culture is to lower speed limits to half their present levels.   The “complete streets” concept is nice, but is based on further separation of the modes (which lower speeds will make less necessary), will apply only to main streets, and will take a long time and many hundreds of millions of dollars to effect.  Easier and more effective is to remove turn lanes (making crosswalks shorter), move transit stops back nearer to intersections (making walking distances at transfer points shorter and safer), and stop synchronizing lights for car-driver time-efficiencies.   Lower speeds means that narrow streets don’t need segregated cycling lanes, as cars and bicycles will travel at much the same speed.

We can’t afford to give the car as much “way” as it has been granted in its heyday.  Today’s younger generation has found communications and information technology (and related devices) to fascinate them more than cars, the piloting of which prohibits using such devices.   Transportation needs to measure success in terms of trips completed and the percent of the population — and visitors — that are able to move independently, not in kilometres traveled or in cars sold.   Everyone deserves the same amount of “way,” and there really is not enough to go around unless the car, even if, rarely, it has every seat filled, is given far less.  We’ll all breathe easier as a result.  But we can’t hold our breathes much longer.


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