[Event Review] Rethinking Our Streets Symposium

I attended the event a few weeks ago. I was extremely impressed with the presentations and discussions. Some of the speakers’ presentations were very insightful.

Throughout the day, we talked about the potential of our streets, as well as our some of the difficulties we currently face trying to fulfill that potential. The presenters pointed out that even though sometimes we know how we can improve our streets, and bring about a better overall system, it is hard to push those ideas through our current political system. All in all, this was a great event.

Also see:

Rethinking Our Streets Symposium

Engaging Engineers in Dialogue to Define Public Policy
2010-09-25, 9am-1pm
@ Eaton Theatre, Rogers Communication Center, Ryerson University

Organized by OCEPP (Ontario Center for Engineering and Public Policy), PEO (Professional Engineers Ontario), and Ryerson University
Made available to UofT students through Citizen Engineer club.

Introduction by Jim Chrisholm – P.Eng; Vice Chair, West Toronto Chapter PEO

Jim asks how many cyclists there are in the audience, and most people raise their hands. Jim then asks who out of those people have either been in an accident with an automobile while cycling, or have come close to such accident. Most of the first group raise their hands.

This makes me question, are our streets really that dangerous, even in downtown Toronto? I have some experience biking and driving, and I’ve seen the frustration of sharing the road from both perspectives. Often times this is not entirely either party’s fault, but it is because our roads are not designed to be shared with non-motorized vehicles.

Our streets are also not designed for efficiency, but for versatility. The idea is if you own a car, then you can choose from the large pool of roads to get anywhere. With Toronto’s increasing population, I’m not sure how long we can keep this up.

Of course, there is the political issue of which candidate will risk speaking out for major changes to our transportation infrastructure. How do we know that the public – of which 70% drive to work – will support changes to our existing infrastructure? How do we convince the population to steer toward choices that will benefit us collectively and in the long term?

Gord Perks – City Councilor, Ward 14 Parkdale-Highpark

Gord points out that transportation systems used to be seen as a very narrow field, but it should not be because it defines the way we interact. Transportation is our largest use of public space and it accounts for over half of the expenditure in the city of Toronto. It defines our public space, including our mobility, and it is the anchor for main commercial activities.

He mentions that we need to rethink streets to accommodate all methods of transportation, and that we should improve public transit to improve our long term mobility. One problem is that every time someone brings up phasing out private vehicles, or reducing space for automobiles to add a bike lane, people see it as an attack on motorists, and they can become angry. Our transportation system at the moment is designed for automobiles, and it is not surprising that citizens are opposed to reductions in their short term mobility.

John Hillier, OALA – Landscape Architect

John presented on how we can improve Queens Quay. He had some wonderful graphics:

This is what Queens Quay looks like now:

Can it be like this?

We can choose different arrangement of lanes:
pedestrian lanes by the Harbourfront, and then bikes, public transit, and private vehicles
I like the second arrangement better. This is not only much safer for cyclists and pedestrians, but there is also potential in the second design to change the Queens Quay strip from being a road for only traveling, to being an area for traveling and recreation.

Chris Hardwicke – Associate & Urban Designer, Sweeny Sterling Finlayson &Co. Architects

Chris mentions that before the age of automobiles, streets were a place of communication and interaction, but now they are a place solely for transportation. Recently, we have began to see a shift in thinking. We’re starting to plan for people, not things.

Chris points out that in this age, there is a demand for people to live within close proximity. Elevators have allowed people to live closer together, and ironically, cars allow them to live farther apart. Chris suggests that, if we want to live closely, but more comfortably, then we can use our transportation space more efficiently and more effectively by prioritizing the methods that make it efficient. That means pedestrians first, followed by public transit, then cyclists, then automobiles. If we can reduce the amount of space required for transportation, then we could convert that space into much needed public recreational areas.

See Chris’s presentation (with many pictures) here: http://members.peo.on.ca/index.cfm/ci_id/47769.htm

Chris Cavacuiti, MD – Medical Doctor & Bicycle Safety Enthusiast

Why Motorists are at Fault in most Car/ Bike Collisions and Why This Matters from an Infrastructure Perspective

Chris first provides some facts and figures:

  • The majority (probably >80%) of all bicycle/ motorist collisions are caused by motorist error.
  • Cyclists are not inherently “better” road users. But they do pay more attention to cars than motorists to bikes, because they are more vulnerable.
  • The more cycling there is in a community, the greater the likelihood that motorists will adjust their driving habits to keep cyclists safe.

If cyclists are at fault in bike-car collisions, then surely it makes sense to push toward a licensing procedure for cyclists as well as mandatory helmet use. However, many cycling advocates see these measures as unhelpful at best and harmful at worst. In the event of a collision with an automobile, a great deal of damage will still be done even if the cyclist wears a helmet. On the other hand, if drivers are at fault, then our efforts should then focus on measures to change motorist behavior. For example, we could implement stiffer fines for motorists or tougher licensing requirements. Even then, I would not feel safe for riding my bike beside much heavier automobiles. There are suggestions that cyclists need special infrastructure – such as separated bike lanes, and advanced green for bikes – to be kept safe. The problem is that many car drivers (and the media) view these measures as “A War On Cars”.

Chris points out that in politics, we have not progressed very far with cycling safety priorities and initiatives, because of the volume of opposition to any change to heavy car culture. We hear things such as “This city seems to be in a deliberate campaign against vehicles”, from Councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong. We see the Toronto City Council reject the proposal for a 3 month pilot project to provide a safer (buffered) bike lane on University Ave., on the grounds that it would be too disruptive to motorized traffic. Devastatingly, we also see politicians such as Rob Ford say “I can’t support bike lanes. Roads are built for buses, cars, and trucks. My heart bleeds when someone gets killed, but it’s their own fault at the end of the day.”

Chris refers to a study about sharing road space that found “In general, drivers who do not cycle tended to view cyclists as a minority group, commanding too much by way of resources, but who were clearly benefiting from significant additional provision [of road space].” On the upside, the study also finds that drivers who do cycle do not hold these views and are much more tolerant and supportive of cyclists.”

The idea is that we should implement the policies and infrastructure in place to make cycling safe, then to cyclists and cars could be allies instead of adversaries.

Also see Chris’s Cycling Health and Safety Review.

Antonio Gomez-Palacio – Urban Planner And Urban Designer, Office For Urbanism

Antonio asked what a complete street should be. Some results are:

  • dictionary.com: Any roadway having a bike lane, sidewalk, and room for mass transit
  • Wikipedia: In urban planning and highway engineering, complete streets are roadways designed and operated to enable safe, attractive, and comfortable access and travel for all users
  • completestreets.org: Complete streets are designed and operated to enable safe access for all users. Pedestrians, bicyclists, motorists, and public transportation users of all ages and abilities are able to safely move along and across a complete street.

By the dictionary.com definition, one can argue that there are some complete streets in Toronto. However, better definitions of a complete street must include the safety aspect. A complete street should not only be accessible for different users, but it should be designed to ensure the safety for all of those users.

This is an interesting idea: design streets so that they are safe for everyone from 8 years old to 80 years old. http://www.8-80cities.org/.

Some other pictures in Antonio’s presentation:

Traffic Capacity:

Percentage of people who drive to work:

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