Transportation

City Engineer: Traffic Volume Assumption on York is Reasonable

By Ryan McGreal
Published February 24, 2009

this blog entry has been updated

Last week, RTH reported that the city dropped a proposed pedestrian scramble intersection at York and MacNab from its York Blvd Streetscape Master Plan because a traffic study indicated that traffic on York west of Bay would back up to Queen after an hour of peak activity.

Hart Solomon, manager of traffic engineering and operations in the operations and maintenance division of the public works department, has since provided more context on the study and the assumptions that went into it.

I contacted Solomon last week to ask whether the study assumes that total traffic volume will remain the same after the two-way conversion and scramble intersection.

Solomon responded that the study is based on current traffic volumes. He defended this assumption as a "reasonable choice" given the city's plans for other east-west thoroughfares:

This is likely conservative, in that the future impact of rapid transit and other initiatives on Main Street and King Street would be the diversion of additional traffic to York.

He added that the base volume of traffic is also steadily growing - "subject to the cost of fuel and the current economic climate" - in the background.

He concluded that since the effect observed in the traffic study was "quite severe", a "minor adjustment in volumes would not change the outcome." In other words, the combination of two-way conversion and a pedestrian scramble would produce such a significant slowing of traffic flows that the magnitude of the base traffic volume isn't an especially sigificant factor.

No More Business As Usual

What concerns me is this assumption that overall background traffic volumes will continue to grow. Isn't the ultimate goal of the city's traffic and land use plans to transform our patterns of travel so that traffic volumes do not continue to grow indefinitely?

One of the objectives of revitalizing an under-used area is to bring destinations closer together so that people don't need to travel as far. Similarly, one of the objectives of higher order transit (like LRT on the B and A Lines) is to replace driving trips with transit trips at a much more efficient use of lane capacity.

The economic and geological evidence from the global oil industry is that energy price volatility will persist over the next couple of decades; and the overwhelming evidence of human-caused climate change indicates that we need to reduce dramatically our total greenhouse gas production.

In this context, what justifies a continued business-as-usual approach to traffic planning?

Update: Response from Solomon

Hart Solomon just responded to my last question with the following comment:

Please separate the long-term goals/planning of the City from the short-term effects of a particular local traffic change.

Longer-term, we have plans and strategies to change transportation behaviour, although those will be most successful if we also change how we plan and implement land use, since transportation and land use are tightly connected.

The scramble was proposed for 2009 or 2010 and at that point in time the effects of changes like LRT, etc. would not be in effect.

However, in the meantime, we have to try to operate a traffic system that is reasonably efficient, as that is the best way to minimize the use of non-renewable resources, maximize air quality and minimize motor vehicle collisions.

So the assumption on traffic volumes wasn't for 2020, it was for tomorrow or the next day.

Hope this adds some clarity to the discussion.

Ryan McGreal, the editor of Raise the Hammer, lives in Hamilton with his family and works as a programmer, writer and consultant. Ryan volunteers with Hamilton Light Rail, a citizen group dedicated to bringing light rail transit to Hamilton. Ryan writes a city affairs column in Hamilton Magazine, and several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. He also maintains a personal website and has been known to post passing thoughts on Twitter @RyanMcGreal. Recently, he took the plunge and finally joined Facebook.

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By kevlahan (registered) | Posted February 24, 2009 at 10:30:19

Kudos to Hart Solomon for giving RTH a full explanation of the assumptions and reasoning behind the analysis.

RTH readers might not agree with the assumptions, but it is really helpful to the public to know what went into the decision.

In cases like this (where a neighbourhood is being redeveloped and intensified) it would be helpful to get traffic people working directly with the urban planners. They could look at scenarios where overall traffic volume might change, by comparing with other similar developments. There are many cases where removing a major road (Embarcadero freeway in San Francisco) lead to no major increase in traffic because people choose other routes, travel at off-peak times or switch modes.

Studies used by Metrolinx show that a major component of traffic is non-commuting, related to leisure, business or shopping. These trips can easily be re-routed or re-scheduled.

As Ryan points out, one of Hamilton's official goals is to double per capita transit use. We should be planning as if we will actually achieve this goal, not assuming we will fail!

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted February 24, 2009 at 11:03:04

FYI Hart Solomon responded to my last question, and I've updated this blog entry to include it.

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By jason (registered) | Posted February 24, 2009 at 11:08:16

I cringe whenever I hear someone use "saving natural resources" or "improving air pollution" as reasons for unimpeded traffic flow that only encourages more car trips and less trips taken via foot, bike or transit.

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By Robert D (anonymous) | Posted February 24, 2009 at 13:18:14

I'd also like to thank Mr. Solomon for responding to RTH. What he's saying does make a lot of sense in terms or projections. Also, simply because York wouldn't have a scramble intersection currently does not mean it could not grow to gain one in the future. Given the configuration of parking garage/market doors on diagonal corners I think it's a natural growth opportunity in the future.

Also a time limited scramble intersection (which operates only on market days and times, and avoids peak hours) could be a solution which would please everyone.

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By kevlahan (registered) | Posted February 24, 2009 at 14:15:06

Excellent update from Hart Solomon.

It's good that the City recognizes that this decision is based on current traffic volumes, and is not indicative of future changes due to densification, LRT or mode switching.

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By OccasionalCommentor (anonymous) | Posted February 24, 2009 at 15:01:14

It's also possible that the assumption of permanency laid on the side of this publication -- not the city's. Although, that sort of thought will get undue grilling here.

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By jason (registered) | Posted February 24, 2009 at 15:21:59

yea, how crazy for anyone to think that it's business as usual at Hamilton City Hall....

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted February 24, 2009 at 15:23:09

One of my big concerns with the city's plan to meet the terms of the Ontario Places to Grow framework is that we've back-loaded our 25 year planning horizon (which retroactively starts in 2001).

It's more or less business as usual until an intense burst of infill after 2016:

http://raisethehammer.org/blog/403/

Intensification deferred may turn out to be intensification denied. Like climate change and saving for retirement, intensification proceeds in a compound fashion that places a premium on starting earlier rather than attempting heroic steps earlier.

Couple this with the fact that much of the traffic in a transportation network is flexible - again, consider kevlahan's example, above, of San Francisco's Embarcadero - and is subject to induced demand (and its converse):

http://raisethehammer.org/blog/1064

Todd Litman's piece in the current RTH issue demonstrates further that cities which started early on reducing highway capacity and investing in alternative transportation have already realized significant reductions in per capita driving:

http://www.raisethehammer.org/article/82...

Meanwhile, in Hamilton our short-term plans (i.e. things we're doing now) are always based on the status quo - but the long-term will ultimately be shaped by a succession of short-term steps, not by a few dramatic flourishes that may or may not happen ten years from now.

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By jason (registered) | Posted February 24, 2009 at 17:00:03

Yea, I remember seeing that 'intensification' plan a yaer or two ago and realizing that it's already being destined for the trash heap like Vision 2020. At least they aren't lying to us anymore. Vision 2020 led us all to believe that we were actually going to make decisions based on it's criteria. With this plan at least they are honest enough to say "We ain't intensifying. We'll stick in there somewhere in the distant future so future councils can stick it further ahead in the future and the status quo can reign supreme".

If we get LRT it will be interesting to see if we'll line the route with box stores and strip malls or if developers will start trying to build higher densities as they do in every other city, only to be met with our city hall refusal. LRT is a magnet for quality, high density development. It's one of the reasons that I believe our city's future hinges on us building a system. If we don't, there will be zero incentive for anyone to break out of this lame status quo we've become addicted to.

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