by Tom Babin
March 7, 2014. 7:42 am
Source: Calgary Herald
That has been one of the more common (and polite) reactions to part of aproposal that will go before City Council in April to build a network of downtown cycle tracks. The most talked-about part of that proposal is an idea to turn a lane of traffic on 1 Street S.E./Macleod Trail downtown into a cycle track, which is a bike lane separated from vehicle traffic by a concrete barrier. In other words, one of the four lanes on the road would be given to people on bikes.
That part of the proposal is an eyebrow raiser because that’s one of the major vehicle routes in downtown Calgary, and removing one of those lanes from car traffic would seem to be a recipe for gridlock. Doubts about the idea turned to outright skepticism when a traffic study was presented as part of the proposal that said the cycle track would lead to an increase in travel time on 1st Street by a mere 30 to 60 seconds during the evening commute. Many people who ride their bikes to work downtown have said that small increase in time is a reasonable cost to pay for a safe route in a prime location. But they aren’t the ones sitting in traffic: Many motorists have expressed doubts about the report.
It’s easy to understand that latter reaction. How could removing a lane of traffic on a busy road have virtually no impact on traffic? It’s counter intuitive. It’s one of those forehead-slapping no-brainers. Some thought the traffic study must be flawed. Others told me they thought the report was created with a predetermined outcome to downplay the impact of the bike lanes. I also found the traffic study a bit far-fetched, to be mild. So I decided to look a little deeper into it. I called the guy who wrote it for an explanation.
Rock Miller works as a transportation planner and traffic engineer with Stantec in Irvine, Calif., and is a specialist in designing for cars, pedestrians and bicycles. He spoke in Calgary last summer as part of a panel of of visiting bicycle experts at an event hosted by the City of Calgary. He was hired by the city to create the traffic report (here’s some information on his report). He seems to be a very nice guy, and took some time this week to explain the thinking that went into it.
Miller said he understands the skepticism around the report, but he defended the study. In fact, he went even farther, saying that estimate of a 30-60 second delay may be too conservative. He thinks travels times may actually improve once the cycle track is put in. Seriously.
Here’s why. First of all, the road has the capacity for more traffic. If you don’t believe it, Miller recommended going to stand on the corner of 1 Street S.E. somewhere around 6th or 7th Avenue during a typical rush hour. Watch cars moving through the green light, and count the seconds between the time the last car goes through the green light and it turns red. I did this on Thursday, and counted four or five seconds most times. That’s extra capacity. That means the road can handle more cars. The backups in traffic in this area tend to be caused, not by the volume of cars on the road, he said, rather by the red lights.
“When traffic fills up a block (at a red light), people assume it’s because there’s a lot of traffic, but when it goes green, the traffic moves right through,” Miller told me. “How many more cars could go through (a green light) after the last car gets through? Quite a lot.”
Another current problem that slows traffic on the street, he said, is turning vehicles. Currently, drivers looking to turn off the road tend to clog up the curb lane because they need to slow to turn, and they are delayed by pedestrians crossing the adjacent streets. Not only does that slow all the drivers behind the turning vehicle, but it encourages drivers to avoid those lanes completely, clogging up the centre lanes. Miller’s plan for the street will see turning lights implemented to help make those turns more efficient, and better use those curb lanes to actually move traffic.
“The lane that is proposed to be taken away isn’t that heavily used because it’s jammed with people trying to turn,” he said.
Those are just two of the proposed changes that should help move traffic, but Miller admits the road won’t be perfect. Right now, he says drivers tend to hit a red light around 12th, 13th or 15th Avenues heading south. He thinks motorists will probably hit one more red light if a cycle track is built, but by using road space better and maximizing the street’s excess capacity, the delay should be minimal. On the city’s only other cycle track on 7th
Avenue Street S.W., city studies have found vehicles moving faster through the street than they did before the bike lane was added.
There’s something else to consider. Something that might be called the psychology of drivers.
Miller says he can’t put this kind of thing into a traffic report (“we don’t have a model for psychology,” he said with a laugh), but he has seen similar cycle tracks installed in both New York and Chicago in very similar situations — on busy downtown streets with few alternative routes for cars, in cities that are much more dense than Calgary — and after the lanes were installed, traffic started to actually move faster down those roads.
That’s because of the the way humans think about traffic. The simplest explanation might be this: Drivers tend to look for alternatives. Many drivers will seek alternate routes at the first sign of traffic looking sluggish (or at the prospect of a delay, even if it is only 30 to 60 seconds), and downtown grid patterns tend to absorb them without too much of an overall impact.
“There are infinite ways to get from one side of the checkerboard to the other,” he said. “If you are able to exploit those options, it won’t be much of an impact for those going through downtown as someone just skirting downtown.”
Rather than take the word of a guy paid to write the report, I decided to run Miller’s ideas by somebody who is not being paid to work on the project. I looked north, and tracked down Sandeep Agrawal, A Professor and Director of the Planning Program at the University of Alberta in Edmonton. Agrawal couldn’t speak directly to Calgary’s cycle track network proposal, but having followed the debates around cycling in other cities, he said bike lanes tend to draw a disproportionate amount of flak for traffic delays.
“Whenever you remove a travel lane and put in a bike lane, the bike lane gets a bad rap, especially when people in cars don’t see many bikes,” Agrawal said. “The question is, if those people (on bikes) were in cars, how much would it have delayed traffic? They probably would have delayed it more.
“Keep in mind who are the folks who are driving. They are not living in the inner city, they are not understanding the lifestyle of living downtown. They are driving for hours and they find a lane slows them down and they see a bike lane and they blame it, whether it deserves it or not.”
So what will the real impact of a cycle track on 1st Street S.E. be? Until it’s built, it’s difficult to say. The mere idea has already sparked a backlash that may doom the project. There is more information on the 1st Street S.E. plan here (scroll down a bit, then click the cycle track link to see more information to the right of the screen). Until the issue of implementing the entire network comes back to City Council on April 16, there will continue to be talk about alternatives to 1st Street S.E. and, for that matter, all of the routes proposed.
Miller says his team looked at every street downtown, and 1st Street S.E. is the best north-south option for all users (most people tend to agree, at least the ones who filled out this poll last week).
“I kind of understand where the resistance is coming from,” he said. “There’s a lot of people fairly convinced we’ll somehow break downtown. A lot of others will say we break downtown if we don’t look at this kind of option.”