Thursday, October 30, 2014

Making our roads work for everyone

Everyone benefits from a healthier diet: less fat & sugar, more fruit & vegetables. But did you ever wonder what a better “diet” for our roads would be? Given what we know about physical activity and human health, and the pollution from cars & trucks, a healthier “road diet” would include a greater proportion of pedestrians and cyclists sharing the road with motor vehicles.
But just like eating better, healthier road use has obstacles. Drivers often aren’t that good at sharing roads with cyclists or pedestrians, and when the two collide, generally it’s the person on bike or foot who suffers worse. As an occasional cyclist on Barrie’s streets, I notice many motorists don’t understand the road rights of cyclists or how to safely share, and when I drive, I even find myself unsure how much space to leave a cyclist when I pass.
The simple answer is bike lanes: a clear definition of where bikes and motor vehicles do or do not belong, a way to keep them safely separate. They can share the road, without the more difficult feat of sharing the same lane.
Yet city budgets have limited funds to widen roads to add lanes, a process taking many years for planning, studies, approvals, funding and finally, construction. Luckily, a much faster and more affordable approach exists. Many of our roads are already wider than necessary for the smooth flow of vehicular traffic, resembling speedways! By simply re-painting and redefining lanes, we can create a better way for all road users to share and maximize their benefit.
We can all share a road that's the right size.
Called “rightsizing”, the most common example is when a street with 4 car lanes (2 each way) is re-painted to 1 car lane in each direction and a double-left turn lane in the middle. This leaves space to add a bike lane to each side. Cities across North America are finding this an effective way to reallocate street space to better serve the full range of users.
Is this a “war on the car”? Far from it! With a 2-lane road, you often have obstacles in one lane or the other – a person turning left, a car parked in the right - which drivers weave back and forth to get around, creating risk. By moving left-turners to their own lane and parking off the main street, the remaining single lane allows smooth traffic flow, taking away the weaving or “racing” between drivers in 2 parallel lanes. In this way, 3 lanes more safely handle nearly the same traffic volume as 4. Average speed goes down a little while excessive speeding drops dramatically. This is the traffic calming every neighbourhood needs, and it comes without the annoying speed bumps or unnecessary stop signs between which hurried drivers “floor it”.
As a bonus, bikes can now travel, and be passed by cars, much more safely. “Rightsized” roads also experience a dramatic drop in collisions, good news for all road users.
And by making our roads more friendly and balanced, bicycle and pedestrian traffic can gradually increase and our “road diet” improves. It’s a win-win-win for driver, cyclist, and pedestrian with very little cost: just some paint and new signage.
Longer-term transit plans include expensive rebuilding or widening of many existing roads and new bike lanes will be part of that process, but for now, “rightsizing” lets us get a head-start on expanding our networks of active transportation without unduly penalizing the safe, steady flow of car traffic.

Published as my Root Issues column in the Barrie Examiner as "Healthier road diet includes more walkers and cyclists"
Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is a director of Living Green and the Robert Schalkenbach Foundation

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