Taxpayer money should fund transportation efficiently

The Chicago 'L' and the Dan Ryan Expressway. (Photo: Flickr / Steven Vance)

My latest Record column is on the public subsidies for highways:

Taxpayer Money Should Fund Transportation Efficiently

Today’s lesson in economics: When something good is free, people take more of it. But if it’s the government handing out the free lunch, you better believe you’re paying for it. Space on provincial highways like Highway 401 is one such free lunch, and it’s often painfully clear to motorists that this space is in high demand. Much of that demand is thanks to the taxpayer subsidy for highways.

Insufficient road capacity has been a perennial problem ever since we started driving everywhere and choosing where to live based on road connections. The perennial solution has been to add new roads and widen, widen, widen — neighbourhoods and the environment be damned. It hasn’t worked, however, thanks to the phenomenon of induced demand. Once a busy highway is widened, it only takes a few years before people move in to new, cheap houses further out along a clear commute — and the highway gets congested again. Taxpayer money is thus spent to turn the problem of traffic congestion into two problems: traffic congestion and more infrastructure to maintain.

As crumbing bridges across North America can attest, we haven’t even kept up with the maintenance of our existing road network, much of it built in the 1960s and 1970s. Every new overpass is an overpass that has to be replaced in 40 or 50 years. Every new lane of roadway is an extra lane to repave every several years. More space on the roads results in more driving, leading to the lost productivity costs of congestion and more injuries sustained and lives lost in the lane of duty (with attendant emergency response costs). And, of course, more driving costs the environment through desperate oil production, carbon release and air pollution. Highway spending nets us a much larger bill than we bargain for.

The financially sustainable solution to congestion requires providing transit that is sufficiently good to attract drivers. Transportation by rail uses fewer resources to carry more people, and arguably in more comfort. The infrastructure requires less maintenance, lasts longer, and is lighter on the environment and public health. All costs considered, train service is less expensive than building and maintaining more highway space.

Commuters’ decisions are based mostly on the personal costs and benefits of the choices available to them. They have no great love of driving on busy highways (even free ones), but they can’t take an alternative that doesn’t exist. When presented with serious alternatives to driving, commuters flock to them in droves. The popularity of commuter rail, such as GO trains, indicates that plenty of people would choose to get to work by train.

Instead of spending double-digit billions on further highway expansion, Ontario should funnel transportation funds into train service, such as GO train extensions to Kitchener and to Cambridge, the Waterloo Region light rail project, and frequent and fast train service on the Quebec City-Windsor corridor. With good alternatives in place — which could even be as simple as dedicated bus lanes — Ontario should implement dynamic user fees on limited-access highways to pay for upkeep and to eliminate congestion.

Some would take the train and others would take the bus on those same highways. Yet others would move closer to work — like the three-fourths of Waterloo Region commuters who travel less than 10 km to work (and who currently subsidize those long highway commutes). Of course, occasional and regular users who find the highway worth paying for would have a faster, congestion-free commute.

Limited-access highways are at best a wasteful kind of transportation infrastructure, but when congested they are a tragic waste of economic resources. If we believe in subsidizing transportation systems, we should be doing so efficiently, and doing it to improve overall quality of life.

Utility bicycles are exploding in popularity

In an earlier post I suggested the utility bicycle shop as a sound business idea and a good way of lowering the barriers to cycling as transportation. As I’ve found out more about utility bike availability in North America, it struck me that most such shops had only recently opened. To see whether this was true, I searched out every North American bicycle store I could find that has a strong current focus on utility bicycles and bikes as transportation. The answer turns out to be a resounding yes. Below are the shops ordered by founding year.

Beer in a bakfiets (box bike) to celebrate the one-year anniversary of Dutch Bike Co. Chicago. (Photo: Flickr / Steven Vance)

Human Powered Machines* – Eugene, OR

Curbside Cycle* – Toronto, ON
Rapid Transit Cycleshop – Chicago, IL

Hudson Urban Bicycles – New York City, NY

Urbane Cyclist* – Toronto, ON

A.N.T. Bikes* –  Holliston, MA
Dutch Bike Company* – Somerville, MA

North Park Bicycle Shop – Victoria, BC

Jorg & Olif* – Vancouver, BC (they have since moved to the UK)

Dutch Bike Co. – Seattle, WA
A Black Bike – New York City, NY
Rain City Bikes – Vancouver, BC
Clever Cycles – Portland, OR
Tip Top Bike Shop – Oakland, CA

Bowery Lane Bicycles* – New York City, NY
Flying Pigeon LA – Los Angeles, CA
Renaissance Bicycles – online
Madsen Cycles* – online
Downtown Bike Hounds – Hamilton, ON
Metrofiets* – Portland, OR
Dutch Bike Co. – Chicago, IL
Joe Bike* – Portland, OR

Commuter Bike Store – online (the year is my guess)
Violet Crown Cycles* – Austin, TX
My Dutch Bike – San Francisco, CA
Wheel House Bikes – Santa Barbara, CA
Copenhagen Cyclery – Chicago, IL
J.C. Lind Bike Co. – Chicago, IL (formerly De Fietsfabriek USA)
Arriving by Bike – Eugene, OR
Beater Bikes* – Toronto, ON

2010 (up to May / the date of this post):
Republic Bike/Urban Outfitters* – online (founded in 2009, Dutch-style bikes added in 2010)
Bike Bike – Calgary, AB
Portland Velocipede – Portland, ME
Fort Langley Cyclery – Fort Langley, BC
Adeline Adeline – New York City, NY
Cycle Butik – Toronto, ON
Public Bikes* – San Francisco, CA

2010 (June or later):
Rolling Orange Bikes – Brooklyn, NY
icargobike – San Clemente, CA

Shops marked with a * build, design, or special-order their bikes. (Curbside gets a star for starting a major distribution company and helping design the Batavus Fryslan and Breukelen.) I think the number of shops doing their own thing is partially a consequence of major North American bike companies long ago abandoning utility bicycles. That said, in addition to the growing number of imported brands, some smaller North American bike companies do now focus on city bikes and utility: Electra (founded in 1993), Xtracycle (1998), Breezer (2002), Yuba (2006), Civia (2007), Madsen (2008), and Linus (2009). For that matter, new European manufacturers of city bikes have also been setting up shop, including Azor (1998), Retrovelo (2003), WorkCycles (2003), De Fietsfabriek (2003), and Velorbis (2005). Interestingly, both WorkCycles and De Fietsfabriek were started in Amsterdam by Americans.

Utility bicycles really are exploding in popularity, despite (or maybe thanks to) the recession. And it’s not just the bikes, but also the inviting “slow bicycling” that goes along with them, the ever-more-frequent calls for dedicated cycling infrastructure and buffered bike paths, and the rapid spread of bike-sharing schemes (which of course use utility bicycles). So expect to see more city bikes coming to your town. And if you want to see them sooner, now’s the time to open up a bike shop and get more regular people riding (and demanding cycling infrastructure).

Making new urban space in Northdale

Today’s Record carries my community editorial board column on new urban space and the Northdale university-area neighbourhood. Below is my original text:

Making New Urban Space in Northdale

In the last half-century the Region of Waterloo has seen tremendous growth. We’ve built a university on farmland. Subdivisions upon subdivisions have sprung up at the outskirts of town. Industry has been pushed out to “parks” accessible only by car. We’ve put up office building wastelands and power centres galore. We’ve torn down parts of our downtowns to put up parking lots and inward-facing malls with blank walls facing the street. And we’re still going strong, with plans to demolish industrial buildings in Kitchener’s warehouse district to turn it into a parking district.

At least we’ve decided to somewhat curtail the building of widely spaced houses on inaccessible crescents and cul-de-sacs, and new policies call for intensification and reurbanization. However it seems our thinking stops at a strange one-dimensional notion of density, one of condo towers, parking garages, and monster developments of all kinds. Where are our lively new city streets? Where is our walkable city built for the street level? If we seem constitutionally incapable of building new urban space, one reason is that our planning policy makes it essentially impossible.

The late Jane Jacobs, renowned urban activist and thinker, wrote in The Death and Life of Great American Cities: “There is a quality even meaner than outright ugliness or disorder, and this meaner quality is the dishonest mask of pretended order, achieved by ignoring or suppressing the real order that is struggling to exist and to be served.”

Northdale is a rapidly growing area in Waterloo adjacent to Wilfrid Laurier University and near the University of Waterloo, Research in Motion, and the Research and Technology Park. Growth of the universities has resulted in a student residential monoculture there, with its attendant problems of overcrowded houses and rowdy students. Waterloo city planners recently completed a report to allow City Council to decide between the staff vision for Northdale and an alternative vision brought forward by community members unsatisfied with the current approach.

That current approach forces high-demand land in the interior of the neighbourhood to remain as low density detached housing (to attract hypothetical families) and allows for only residential use without provision for neighbourhood amenities. There is no liveliness save for keg parties, no public space, and nothing to attract outsiders in. The corridors chosen for higher density are growing duller and drearier with every new student housing building added – either parking-oriented barracks or stucco towers.

The alternative is to allow and encourage the built form of our streets to become urban, and this requires considerable changes to zoning: removing minimum parking requirements, setting minimum densities, limiting heights to street-scale (e.g. six or eight storeys), and – most importantly – permitting mixed uses. The city of Kitchener is implementing new mixed-use zoning, and Waterloo’s planners should take note. For all the housing sprouting up in Northdale, there is no grocery store in sight. City planners require parking so that we can all drive to the mall, but in their infinite wisdom they do not see fit to allow streets where we might have reason or desire to walk. (The only exceptions are grandfathered in.)

Northdale is within walking distance of two universities, many major tech companies, busy transit corridors, future light rail, as well as Uptown Waterloo. Currently it is prime land for students without much choice, but it could easily also be attractive for students with choice, for university faculty and staff, and for RIM employees. Add commerce and a few academic and office buildings to a diverse mix of housing, and you have a great alternative to more suburbs.

We should plan for neighbourhoods in which people enjoy living and enjoy walking – where we not only live, but also work, shop, and play. Neighbourhoods where we have welcoming streetscapes, good transit routes and service, shops on our way, useable public spaces, and a built environment that supports community instead of hindering it. Northdale is a perfect opportunity to create new urban space.

Michael Druker is a graduate student at the University of Waterloo. He is a member of the TriCities Transport Action Group (TriTAG) and of Help Urbanize the Ghetto in Waterloo (HUG Waterloo). See more of his opinions at

Gridding UW: A new street plan for the University of Waterloo

UW from a hot air balloon. (Photo: Ann E via Flickr)

In a previous post I described how the University of Waterloo fails its pedestrians. But UW’s problems go deeper. It was built as a suburban campus on farmland in the 1960’s and 1970’s — when it seems planners and architects were intent on planning for the car, even when designing a pedestrian-dominated place. Now that the campus is surrounded by the city on all sides and there is growing recognition that spaces need to be designed for pedestrians, it is important that it integrate well into its environment. However the campus street plan essentially does the opposite.

Currently the main campus road, Ring Road, is accessed by vehicles only through two connector roads on the north and south. There are thus a high number of intersections for vehicles to contend with, and it is a roundabout trip to get in and out of the campus. My estimate is that most of the people travelling by motor vehicle on Ring Road are actually using transit. So the meandering is a waste of time particularly for bus riders and of money for Grand River Transit (as UW is a transit hub). But even though Ring Road is difficult to get to, it is wide open in many parts and even the few speed humps don’t suitably slow down car traffic.

UW can be a pain to get to on foot from some directions, and difficult to navigate once you do. There are barely any pedestrian thoroughfares, mostly just paved paths (if that). In many cases, vehicular access roads serve as makeshift pedestrian corridors. All parking is surface parking, and there are lots right inside the main campus (bounded by Columbia and University).

The current UW campus, based on an official map. Solid lines are roads, many with missing sidewalks. Dashed lines are pedestrian paths that are wide, specially paved, or otherwise deliberate.

I propose a new University of Waterloo street plan. With contribution from Sylvan Mably, I’ve drawn what I think to be a much improved version of UW’s campus. The emphasis is on connectivity, navigability, and a street system that fits its use. This alternative street plan is ambitious but firmly rooted in what is actually feasible to do from the current situation.

There would no longer be a Ring Road, and its east and west segments would be through streets. Moreover, both of these streets would connect with Seagram Drive at the south end of the campus, and part of the current Seagram alignment would be turned into a pedestrian thoroughfare (as it would not be a useful vehicular connection). Other notable road changes are an extension of the current St. Jerome’s access road across Laurel Creek to the extended Seagram Drive, and a street connection for the west end of the student village. Good road connectivity would reduce the distance vehicles (including bicycles) need to travel to reach points of the campus.

My proposed street plan for the University of Waterloo.

The solid lines on the map would be streets with wide sidewalks and perhaps bike lanes. As the design of a road dictates how drivers use it, through streets inside the campus would be designed for low speeds (30 km/h). Where possible, they should have street parking with demand-responsive pricing; this would ensure that short-term parking is available when needed. The dashed lines are what I call pedestrian lanes. These are wide thoroughfares laid out with paving stones and designed for pedestrians, but shared with cyclists and the occasional intruding campus delivery van. These lanes should be named, especially the several that provide east-west routes and the north-south thoroughfare (which splits around the Grad House knoll and the Math & Computer building). With naming and a somewhat grid-like network of lanes and streets, the navigability of the campus would improve dramatically. Wayfinding and campus travel would become easier and more pleasant. Thanks to improved connectivity, the campus would be easier to access by walking, cycling, bus, and light rail (which will stop along the east side of campus).

Most of the lanes follow existing paths, but some would need to be graded first and others would need to be created through current parking lots. A connection would be made between Lester and Phillip Streets to make Hickory Street/Lane a useful corridor across UW, through the Northdale neighbourhood, and past King Street. Two buildings would have to be sacrificed to open up the north and south pedestrian gateways to the campus. The more pressing one is South Campus Hall at the south gateway, and the current campus master plan actually calls for it to be demolished for this very reason.

Endless construction has been steadily devouring what little open space UW’s main campus has left. There are currently grand plans afoot to develop distant parts of the University of Waterloo lands, possibly including academic buildings. My plan would allow well-located possibilities for street- and lane-facing campus buildings to accommodate growth, in particular at the parking wastelands in the north and south ends. UW is actually already haphazardly removing lots to put up new buildings. With my street plan there would be opportunities for well-located parking garages, e.g. by St. Jerome’s, off Seagram Drive, or by Columbia Street. It would also open up important possibilities for public space, such as around the south gateway to campus. Eventual demolition of some of the old three-story buildings in the center of campus (and replacement with taller, more compact ones) would allow for some much-needed central public space.

This is intended to be food for thought, and is neither exhaustive nor definitive. However, I strongly believe that a plan along these lines would dramatically improve the University of Waterloo’s walkability, connectivity, campus experience, and safety, and make it a better university overall.

Down with “avid cyclists”

As if it wasn’t enough that we scare people away from cycling with our exclusively car-oriented infrastructure and even a socially constructed fear of cycling, we also do it by marginalizing cycling as something done only by the kind of people who cycle. Make a mental count of how often you’ve seen news reports or commentary refer to “avid cyclists”, and the number of times you might have used this term yourself.

Banish “avid cyclist” from your vocabulary. Self-marginalizing language like this is why we can’t have nice infrastructure.

By using and condoning the use of this term, we help reinforce our tendency to neglect the impact of the situation and over-attribute behavior to characteristics of the person. In other words, labelling those who willingly cycle as “avid cyclists” is a way of setting aside the difficult and interesting problem of how to make our cities conducive to cycling — in favor of the easy story of cycling as something “other”, as something done by people who aren’t normal. Why bother making the city a better place to cycle if the only people who will do it are the ones who are already cyclists? Why waste city money on them?

Note the division into us (normal people) and them (avid cyclists). Never the twain shall meet. Is that true? No it is not.

I claim that in most North American cities, while you will find many people riding a bicycle for utility/transportation, most people who cycle are hardly avid. Do they cycle in the dark? Do they always cycle on the road? Do they cycle in any part of the city? At any time of year? The answers are an emphatic no. And the reason is that the majority are cycling when the situation makes it easy and attractive for the person who considers the possibility. Avid cyclists should be resilient cyclists, but actual North American cyclists are fickle. With their recreational bikes and the poor infrastructure they have access to, they are fair-weather, back-roads cyclists.

Some places seem so far into the motor kingdom that cycling as transportation appears patently absurd to many. Thus, to brave the unfriendly conditions, cyclists must be avid — doing it as a sport, as exercise, to prove a point. Yet this describes fewer places than you think. I know it absolutely doesn’t describe Kitchener-Waterloo, Ontario, however “avid cyclist” still seems to be the mindset here.

There is a poignant irony in the number of obituaries a search for “avid cyclist” turns up. If instead of marginalizing cycling, we facilitate it through infrastructure and encourage regular people to ride, fewer people will die on the roads and those who cycle will be healthier for doing so. We need to free cycling from the shackles of recreation. We need to get utility bicycles into our bike stores. And instead of the conversation being about cyclists, we need to make it about regular people taking advantage of the two-wheel mobility available to them — because it is effective and enjoyable.

Addendum: There are more comments on this post over at and Kaid Benfield responds as a proud avid cyclist.

The fundamental attribution error in transportation choice

In social psychology, the fundamental attribution error refers to the tendency for people to over-attribute the behaviour of others to personality or disposition and to neglect substantial contributions of environmental or situational factors. (Actually it isn’t quite fundamental, as collectivist cultures exhibit less of this bias.) People are generally more aware of the situational influence on their own behaviour.

Thus, the fundamental attribution error in transportation choice: You choose driving over transit because transit serves your needs poorly, but Joe Straphanger takes transit because he’s the kind of person who takes transit. This is the sort of trap we find ourselves in when considering how to fund transportation, be it transit, cycling, walking, or driving.

Let’s say you live in a suburban subdivision. You can afford to drive, and it’s the only way you can quickly and easily get to your suburban office and to the store, and pick up your child from daycare. How do you interpret the decision of other people to take transit? Is it something about the quality of transit where they are? More likely you are going to attribute it to something about those people themselves — they’re poor, or they’re students, or they’re some kind of environmentalists. It’s difficult for people to realize the effect of the situation, e.g. one with frequent transit service to many destinations along a straight street that is easy to walk to. (I’d also point out that students, the poor, and even environmentalists do drive as well.)

Why do Europeans walk more, cycle more, and take transit more? Surely it is something about their culture? But this is an excessively dispositional attribution. I won’t deny that culture plays some role in transit use, especially in the decisions that lead to the creation of transportation infrastructure. But that infrastructure itself and the services provided on it are a strong influence on the transportation choices people make. The European infrastructure situation facilitates those other modes of travel much more so than does typical North American transportation infrastructure.

Where our infrastructure gets closer to the European model, so does the transportation mode choice, and conversely, where Europe is more like the North American model, Europeans turn out to drive more. If culture were really the driving force, you wouldn’t expect to see much fluctuation in transportation choice. But just as North America suburbanized and fell in love with the private automobile, so did Europe, albeit to a lesser extent. Only recently has Europe started again building new tram lines and clawing back space from the car. Copenhagen, now viewed as an urban cycling mecca, wasn’t always one. The rise of the car drastically lowered cycling there in the 1960s. Copenhagen owes its recent fame to restrictions on parking and to its dedicated cycling infrastructure, which have led to a cycling renaissance.

Consider how North American visitors travel in Europe. How do they get around London? The Underground. How do they get between London and Paris? The train. How do they get around Amsterdam or Copenhagen? Quite possibly they rent a bike. When in Rome, they do as the Romans do: they walk, take the subway or tram, or maybe ride a Vespa. What do European tourists do in North America? Generally they rent a car, because that’s the only realistic way to travel in most places. There are exceptions, of course: tourists to New York City or Washington, D.C. take the subway because that’s the most convenient way to travel in those cities.

We’re not so different from tourists in how we choose to get around. We may have our own preferences, but the biggest influence on our choice of transportation mode is what modes are available to us and how useful they are. Above all this is determined not by culture and personality but by the kind of infrastructure and transportation service provided.

Addendum: Jarrett Walker has some great commentary on this post at Human Transit. More context was given in the Streetsblog write-up. Cap’ Transit provides a counterpoint,  and there’s more commentary at Kaid Benfield’s blog.

Another perspective on the Iron Horse Trail

This post is cross-posted to the TriTAG blog. Go there to leave any comments.

It can be insightful to take another perspective on something we’re used to. Yesterday I walked the length of Kitchener-Waterloo’s Iron Horse Trail and photographed it from its most common vantage points — the roads crossing it. There is little immediately evident in these photos, but I will explain below. Read More…


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