A glimpse at future traffic nightmares, and how we can cope

As North American cities get bigger, and more people drive cars, how are we going to cope with the traffic? Will it be permanent gridlock? It’s gone out of style to bulldoze neighbourhoods to build new freeways, but even if we did that and built more expressways into the city, where would all the cars park when they got here?

We’ve had a glimpse of what that future dystopia might look like here in Ottawa, as our public transit strike has just finished its first month. We’ve had only about 20% more cars on the road, but combined with very cold weather and heavy snow (including blizzards), things have gotten bad. One-way commutes that used to take 45 minutes now sometimes take two and a half hours, and the downtown core completely gridlocks: even as new drivers arrive, the ones came 30 minutes ago are still circling trying to find somewhere to park.

How can any big city survive a traffic nightmare like this? Here are some of the workarounds people have come up with:

  • Missing work altogether. I know one doctor who had a four-hour shift scheduled at her suburban hospital before Christmas on the morning of a very heavy snowfall. She called and found out that even if she could make it in, there was an hour-and-a-half line-up to get into the parking lot (even for doctors), so she finally just gave up.

  • Time-shifting. Not every job actually requires you to be in from 9-5. People are heading to work a couple of hours early or late and missing the worst of the gridlock. By 7:00 pm, traffic is almost back to normal again, at least in the city core.

  • Telecommuting. People are working from home more often than usual, or just as often, working from the nearest coffee shop. They look at the weather forecast, and if it’s bad and their jobs permit, they just stay home.

  • Human propulsion. People who live within easy walking distance (5 km/3 miles) of work or school are just walking — its faster, and burns off some of the Starbucks calories. Walking’s not pleasant on days when the windchill drops to -25 degC or worse, but it beats gridlock and fighting for a scarce parking spot. Cycling’s not an option in this weather except for the very brave, but people are also cross-country skiing or skating to work when they can.

  • Ride sharing. While it doesn’t help you get to work any faster individually (though it helps in the aggregate), ride sharing is very useful if you have no car, or if it’s difficult to find parking places where you’re heading. Lots of people are car-pooling with co-workers, using ride-sharing web sites, or even just standing by the side of the road holding signs saying where they want to go.

  • Private shuttles. The universities set up private shuttles to help at least some students get in for the Christmas exams, and fortunately, the transit union backed down from its threat to block them with picket lines. Some high schools are also offering limited private bus service (Ottawa urban high school and middle school students use public transit, not yellow school buses).

  • Fewer parking restrictions. Parking spots in the city core that normally have a 1-, 2-, or 3-hour time limit are now unrestricted, so that commuters can use them (the normal time limit is meant to guarantee that they’re left free for shoppers, etc., so businesses might not be thrilled). People have misinterpreted that and parked in no-parking/no-stopping zones or even in front of hydrants, and have been furious when they’ve been ticketed.

  • Helping the vulnerable. Our ParaTranspo service is still operating, and there’s talk about extending it to seniors (so that they’re not shut in). The city is also talking about taxi vouchers for low-income earners whose jobs are at risk.

So over all, a city can cope, even with a crisis like this. Most people I’ve talked to don’t like the strike, but also admit that we’re getting used to living without public transit.

I think we’re missing some real opportunities, though. For example, why not designate one or two lanes on the major highways as carpool-only lanes (minimum 3 occupants)? That way, there would be a significant speed advantage to ride sharing, rather than just a general feeling of virtue. We could do the same with the bus lanes on downtown streets, and let carpoolers just whiz by the gridlock. That’s the kind of thing that we might want to keep even after the strike’s finished.

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1 Response to A glimpse at future traffic nightmares, and how we can cope

  1. John Cowan says:

    Or, of course, the city could settle the strike with a more reasonable offer.

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