I recently had the opportunity to learn about some of the future plans for LRT expansion in Calgary. Ordinarily, that wouldn’t be anything to write home about. In this case, however, the city is seeking input on which route to take through the areas that were developed before rights of way were protected for future LRT development. Thus, we have the usual wrangling and nimby. Again, nothing spectactular there except for one thing. One of the proposed routes goes through a natural area while the other two disrupt existing urban development, notably two of the busiest streets in the city.
My original knee-jerk conclusion was that the natural area option (running along an existing heavy rail line) was the best because it didn’t disrupt existing traffic patterns on very busy roads. Roads, I might add, that I used to use regularly and, thus, I understand clearly the impact of reducing road capacity on travel on those roads.
After studying the situation for a while, however, I came to a very different conclusion. The natural area is simply too far from the actual development for people to bother using it. Proponents of the option are quick to say that feeder buses will solve that, but I live in an area that has only feeder service. It is so inconvenient that I choose to drive even when transit would be a better choice and I am more predisposed to taking transit than many. That means disrupting one of the busy roads is a better option. Of the two, it turns out that the busiest road (where most of the buses currently run) is the best option. After all, the buses run on that road for a reason.
Clearly reducing road capacity on a major arterial connection into the downtown core is problematic in the short term. Even with the traffic eliminated by the LRT, which should be substantial for it will replace a lot of bus traffic (well over 1000 per day according to the information I have, on a typical four lane urban street), there will still be a large volume of traffic on that road. Some will displace to neighboring roads which should also see a corresponding decrease as a result of the LRT so it may not be nearly so bad as it could be, especially if the remaining capacity of the road is designed sensibly (with appropriate turn bays). So, really, it’s probably not nearly so bad an impact as the knee-jerk assessment suggests.
There is, however, another important factor to consider. Once this line is built, it is built. It is unlikely that the resources will be available to relocate it. It will likely be in service in a century or two so long as the city remains. But what will the city look like more than a century in the future? Most likely, it will look very much like it does today with one notable difference. There will be a great deal less automobile traffic and a great deal more localized travel. The same factors that are influencing localization of services now will only intensify as automobiles become more and more expensive to operate as the resources to produce and power them become more expensive. For those who believe the electric vehicles will solve this problem, consider the expensive of producing batteries and also the required infrastructure to support charging them. And even if electric powered vehicles do extend the personal automobile horizon, it will, eventually, come. And, if by some miracle that horizon fails to materialize, would we not all benefit from less automobiles on the road through increased safety and reduced air and noise pollution?
So it seems that by planning for the ultimate future with very little automobile traffic within the urban area and building infrastructure with that in mind now, our future infrastructure costs can be reduced. Also, we can begin to encourage the change that will come eventually to happen sooner, and thus we begin to benefit from the change sooner. This does, however, require a paradigm shift in urban planning – a shift away from planning for automobile traffic and toward planning for pedestrians and non-automobile traffic.
To make a long story short (I know, too late!), I have recently come to the conclusion that we should simply not be bothering to accomodate personal automobile travel but, instead, focus heavily on mass transportation system and making it convenient for pedestrians and cyclists to travel where they need to. Unfortunately, due to existing economic realities, it is not practical to do so in many areas of the city and this is where we need a massive paradigm shift in the planning processes.