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Some thoughts on road design

Yesterday, Council voted to widen Linegar Avenue near the intersection with Warford Road by 1) removing the boulevard between Hennessy and Warford and 2) increasing the corner radii. I opposed the decision and as usual I would like to take the opportunity to clarify my position on complete streets and safety more generally, outside the context of this vote. Part of this job is making my perspective clear when a vote carries with dissent. 

I think the decision raises several important points, which I’ll summarize here and explain below:

(1) Drivers feel more comfortable on wider roads, but wider roads are often more dangerous, because wider roads encourage higher speeds.

(2) Listening to residents is important, but so is listening to traffic engineers. In this case the experts are right.

(3) In this case I thought it was important to vote against the motion even though the motion was popular and very likely to pass.

(4) I hope the City can find a better way to communicate the advantages of narrower roads. 

Comfort and safety 

Let me quote from the City decision note, which can be found at our Monday agenda starting at page 92:

“Extensive research in the transportation engineering field has been conducted on lane widths to understand their relationship to vehicle speeds, collision frequency and severity, and overall effect on road safety. Past practices relied on wider travel lanes, around 3.65m (or 12’), to create a forgiveness buffer for drivers and promote vehicle capacity. New research on this topic is indicating that this approach was misguided and may have resulted in significant negative safety consequences. The relationship between lane width and collision frequency or severity is complex; however, the past assumption that wider lanes are safer has been disproved. The documented relationship between lane widths and vehicle speeds is clearer and indicates narrowing lane widths results in reduced speeds. While wider lanes are appropriate for high-speed roadways (60 km/hr and above), narrow lanes are appropriate for lower-speed conditions (less than 60 km/hr).”

“Wider lanes may give drivers a feeling of comfort but, as a result, create conditions that are less safe for all road users.  This is a fundamental trade-off common in the complete streets approach where drivers’ expectations need to be adjusted to better accommodate other modes and improved safety. Prioritizing driver comfort over the safety of all road users is not acceptable engineering practice in this context.”

As drivers, we feel safer when we have enough space to drive comfortably. But that feeling of safety can encourage us to speed up a little, and faster speeds lead to more accidents and more deaths. A narrow road that feels unsafe can actually be safer: a narrow road can make drivers slow down and pay more attention.

Let me emphasize: vehicle speed has a huge effect on death rates. When two objects collide, damage increases with the square of their speeds. Double the speed of collision, and you quadruple the damage. Look at the statistics for pedestrians struck by vehicles:

Impact Speed Result
32 km/hr 5% death, 65% injured, 30% uninjured
48 km/hr 45% death, 50% injured, 5% uninjured
64 km/hr 85% death, 15% injured

So even at speeds around the 40 km/hr range, the rates of harm are much larger than at the 30 km/h or below rate.

Increasing speed by 50% increases death rates by 800%. Doubling speeds increases deaths by 4,000%. Those numbers aren’t typos. Even a small difference in speed can lead to a huge change in death rates.

A wider road might feel more comfortable to drive on, but if that comfort leads to even a small increase in speeds, it can greatly increase the risk of injury or death for road users.

The intersection between fact-based decision making and resident requests

 

I believe experts when they say that widening roads makes them less safe and has a multitude of adverse effects to road users. It was clear that Metrobus had no concerns with the road design, and it was clear that other roads in the street have narrower travel lanes than Linegar yet still accommodate transit routes (eg. Waterford Bridge Road.)

In some cases residents and experts disagree about the best course of action. Two types of cases I can think of are (1) residents often know local facts that the experts simply missed and (2) a “technical” issue that boils down to a question of values where residents and experts simply disagree, and the residents are the ones who live with the outcomes.

In this case I think the technical experts were right on what the best course would have been. As drivers we often, understandably, feel like experts in our own areas, and while our experiences are valid, we intuitively confuse comfort for safety. We may be used to past practices that promoted wider roads as ways to create forgiveness buffers and promote vehicular capacity, which is now recognized as a misguided approach to road design. Driving as an experience doesn’t inherently teach us that uncomfortable narrower roads might be safer. It doesn’t teach us that small reductions in speed lead to massive reductions in deaths. We are designing roads for current and future road users and we have to be responsive to current best practice.

In the Linegar Ave decision, residents clearly felt that widening the road would make the area safer. There were 3 proposals put forward and Council went with ⅔ of them, specifically increasing the turning radii at the Warford Road/Linegar Avenue intersection and removing all the boulevard between Henessey Place to Warford Road, rejecting the request from the community to remove all boulevard entirely from the project area.

Many concerns were raised by residents about snow on sidewalks and accessibility. The boulevard was designed with these concerns in mind and I referred the topic of enhanced sidewalk clearing to staff during the Council meeting.

The note says “This boulevard area also provides space for snow storage immediately after a snow event, rather than storing snow on the sidewalk” and

“removing the boulevard area to allocate that space for drivers has adverse effects. It would allow vehicle travel lane immediately adjacent the sidewalk, removing the protective space between pedestrians and drivers. This negatively impacts the comfort of pedestrians.”

Making my perspective clear  

Going into the meeting I knew:

  1. That the people strongly felt a wider road was safer
  2. The facts support the current narrowed design

I chose to vote for the safer, narrowed, currently-designed road even though I knew my vote would be unpopular and likely wouldn’t swing the decision.

I feel that politicians have to be willing to cast unpopular votes to achieve results. A politician who always does the popular thing can’t be an effective advocate for change. It’s also clear that politicians have to keep an eye on what’s supported by the electorate, but there can be tension between what is supported by the public and what is deemed by experts as to be safest and then the individual has to make the choice as to which perspective to support during the eventual vote. 

The vote I cast yesterday was neither popular nor effective in changing the outcome. I had some feedback asking why bother to vote this way when you will lose support from residents and it doesn’t change the outcome? 

My reasons in this case: (1) I didn’t want to lose sleep worrying that something will happen and I will be partly responsible, liable in knowingly moving in a less safe direction than I could have. Traffic safety decisions are always on my mind. (2) The “right answer” seemed clear to me; I couldn’t successfully rationalize going the other way. I do not think that I am inserting any of my own beliefs or values here other than a belief in fact; (3) to ensure my position on the City’s commitment to a complete streets approach is clear. 

Communication

This affair points, in my mind, to a communications issue. If the City is going to narrow roads, making them less comfortable, we should foresee that residents will be concerned. We have transportation engineers and communications people on staff. We should be able to find a way to explain the advantages of narrower roads.

I’m interested in your thoughts.

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