Melbourne is Counting Pedestrians in Real Time

You can’t manage what you don’t measure is an old management adage. In many ways the way we have managed our streets has proved this point. Every time a new building goes up, or a transportation project is proposed the number of cars are counted and projections for the number of cars in the future provided.  Yet, cities traditionally have done a pretty poor job of keeping track of how many people get around on foot or by bike. What we get then are streets that are really only designed for people in cars.

An example of one City that is filling this void is Melbourne, which has developed a sophisticated 24-hour pedestrian counting system. The City has set up 28 sensors installed under an awning or on a street pole in the city centre. The sensors, pictured below, counts all pedestrian movements, in two directions, passing through the counting zone.


Not only are the pedestrians counted, but the data is shared in real time on a snazzy looking site.  From the website, you can drill down and see exactly how many people walk down a given street in Melbourne at a given time of day. This shot was taken today at 5pm Eastern or just after 8am in Melbourne.


Accurate counts of pedestrians and cyclists is very important in order to influence policy, inform transportation planning, and support investments in infrastructure that support physical activity, such as walkways and bicycle facilities.  I hope to see systems like the one in Melbourne in cities across Canada soon!


America’s Super-Sized Cities

Brian Lee Crowley wrote a piece advocating for more road construction to ease traffic congestions. He points to the example of American cities, which he claims reduced congestion by building more roads. What he fails to mention is that as a result American cities are super-sized, struggling with the cost of maintaining large spread out cities and an already overbuilt road network.

A report by the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy shows that American cities take up way more space than cities in any other country by a significant margin.

Twenty Countries with the Largest Areas of Urban Land Cover, 2000

Crowley laments the costs of transit but fails to point out that it is also very expensive to build enough roads to relieve congestion. Using the same Texas Transportation Insitute data referred to by Crowley, researchers analyzed traffic conditions in 70 metropolitan areas and found that regions that spent a lot on road capacity expansion did no better than those regions that spend far less. The researchers estimate that households would need to spend thousands of dollars annually to realize reductions in congestions.

The costs are starting to catching up to Phoenix, Arizona, Crowley’s model of how building roads can reduce congestion. Arizona is currently booming, and spending far more on the construction of new highways than maintenance. The result is a significant and growing state of good repair backlog and higher road costs for residents in Arizona. Just to maintain the current pace of construction, the state needs to spend $62.7 billion over the next 25 years. This does not seem sustainable and eventually the cost to maintain existing roads will eat into the cost of building new roads.

Crowley is right however that North American cities have not successfully reduced congestion using transit. So why is transit investment not a viable fix for congestions in North America, when it has clearly worked in other places? Basically it’s because we haven’t really invested in transit and built land use patterns that support transit. Our cities may build one or two lines, but no city outside of Toronto, Montreal, Mexico City, or Washington has really invested in a comprehensive transit network on the continent since World War Two.

Even in the first two of those cities, investment essentially stopped 30 years ago. For example, Toronto has built half a subway in a generation, the bus network is static, and their are fewer streetcars plying downtown routes than in the 1980s. We haven’t done anything to increase transit capacity so no wonder congestion is getting worse in Canadian cities.

The truth is that reducing congestion, whether by building roads or transit is expensive. Just as regions need to spend thousands of dollars per household on roads to reduce congestion, regions would need to spend thousands of dollars on transit to achieve the same ends. It’s very difficult, in fact almost impossible, to build your way out of traffic. The fact that households are not willing to cover the costs makes it a lot harder. That is why most policy makers now focus on far more cost effective transportation demand management strategies instead of building more kilometres of transit and road.

It’s no surprise that in North America we see highway construction as being the answer. As can be seen in the chart below, it is where we have put our money. If we start really investing in transit I know we would see results without having to supersize our cities.


Blaming the Victims


Photo by booledozer

On Wednesday a serious crash on Lake Shore Blvd. W. left 10 people injured. Six of the people injured were hit after two cars collided and one jumped the curb. One elderly person is in serious condition.

Today, the Toronto Star published an article by Andrew Livingstone about the crash and road safety. Incomprehensibly the article focuses on the behaviour of how people cross Toronto’s streets:

“How pedestrians interpret the newer countdown-type pedestrian signals is becoming a major concern for police, said Const. Hugh Smith of traffic services. Many don’t really understand what the timer means.”

Why are the victims, who may or may not “understand what the timer means,” being blamed? The people injured in this accident were not even crossing the street, but standing on the curb.  The person driving westbound made an insane left hand turn from the middle or right lane and got hit by the person driving in the left lane. Yet, for some reason two-thirds of the article focuses on the pedestrian signals.

This article makes it seem as if those six people standing on the corner waiting to cross the street are somehow at fault. For example, there are great tips on how people who are walking should behave:

Using the traffic lights properly to cross, and avoiding crossing in mid-block or walking between cars can improve safety for both drivers and pedestrians.

I’m not sure how those tips would have helped any of those six victims. Do you?  Meanwhile excuses are made for drivers hitting people walking in the area:

“People are coming out in the blind areas and the drivers think there is no pedestrian there, they’re starting manoeuvres,” he said. “The amount of construction … it disrupts driver’s sightlines and they have to pay more attention to the traffic signals and be more aware of what’s going on.”

What gives?

Let’s be clear, this accident had nothing to do with what the people standing on the street or sidewalks were doing or poor driver sightlines. The victims of this accident, travelling in the cars and standing on the sidewalk, are innocent bystanders injured by one person’s reckless, irresponsible, and criminal behaviour.

If Andrew Livingstone wants to raise questions about how drivers and pedestrians navigate major downtown arteries this is the wrong way and wrong place to do it. If anything, this accident highlights how dangerous it is to have a high-speed arterial road in the middle of a neighbourhood with thousands of residents, jobs, and tourists.

If you want to cut the severity and number of accidents in urban areas the most effective way to do it is to cut the speed and number of cars. The recent review on pedestrian fatalities in Ontario by the Chief Corner  is pretty clear on this fact. The study found that 75% of pedestrian fatalities occurred on wide roads, with four or more lanes and that pedestrians hit in areas where the posted speed limit was more than 50 km/hour accounted 95% of the total of pedestrian deaths. The major traffic safety issue in this city is not  countdown signals, it’s the design of our streets. Let’s stop blaming the victims and start discussing constructive ways to improve our streets.

Remember when Toronto wanted to Build a Highway through Little Italy?

By Matthew Burpee

Little Italy and Little Portugal By Matthew Burpee

As a follow up to the previous post, Toronto did have expressway plans in the 1950s as ambitious as most American cities, it just didn’t implement them. Get Moving Toronto has a good overview of the various plans, as does Transit Toronto. The most famous unbuilt expressway is the Spadina Expressway, which was partially built.

For me however, the craziest project would have been the Clinton-Christie expressway, which would have been an extension to Highway 400 and was meant to connect it to the Gardiner. The expressway would have swooped through the Junction Triangle, followed Dupont until it got to Christie and then would have cut through the heart of Little Italy, along or through (plans were never finalized) Trinity Bellwoods Park and right down to the lake.

A good look into the thinking behind the expressway plan that would have destroyed a great part of Toronto is provided in the “The Changing City: A Forecast of Planning Issues for the City of Toronto 1956-1980.”

Good planning practices in the 1940s and 1950s dictated that downtowns be served by a ring of expressways. The report provides the diagram below of the proposed expressway ring that inspired the need for the Clinton-Christie expressway and provides an example of what other cities had actually built.

Even the planners in the Changing City were skeptical that the Clinton-Christie corridor was the best choice.

“On the west side of the loop, the North-South Expressway near Christie and Grace Street is too far west to serve downtown well. Would an alignment on Spadina Avenue be more satisfactory? Perhaps the North-South Expressway could be best built on Spadina Avenue as an extension of the Spadina Expressway, making a direct connection with the Gardiner Expressway on the lakeshore. This would take the place of the proposed alignment near Christie and Grace Street, which would…run through an almost totally residential area.”

In the end, the extension never became a priority and wasn’t seriously considered. When Spadina died so did the plan to extend the 400. The only part to survive became what is now Black Creek Drive, built in the 1980s.

Free Public Transit a Hit in Tallinn, Estonia

Photo by donkeroranje

Photo by donkeroranje

Planetzine is reporting that Tallinn’s experiment with free public transit is proving to be a success. The City of Tallinn decided to make transit free to reduce the number of cars in the centre. Council examined imposing a congestion charge or building more roads, however it was decided that making transit free would benefit the most residents. It is estimated to cost the City €12 million a year.  The decisions seems to be an excellent compromise in a small city, such as Tallinn, where enticing residents to shop and work in the centre can be a challenge.

Happily, Eurocities reports that the project is proving to be successful since its implementation January 1st. A longer period is definitely required before making a definitive judgement, however initial reports show that ridership has increased by 10% while traffic in city centre has reduced by 15%. If the decline is maintained, the results are comparable to London’s implementation of the congestion charge, which decreased congestion by about 15%. In order to cope with the increased ridership the City is buying 70 new buses and 15 new trams. The project is supported by 75% of the city’s residents.

For more details take a look video below from the City of Tallinn.

Built for Speed

Photo by by Jeremy Wilburn

Photo by by Jeremy Wilburn

I began listening to podcasts during my workouts and have fallen in love with 99% Invisible. 99% Invisible brands itself as a “show about design, architecture & the 99% invisible activity that shapes our world.” Today I listened to the episode “Built for Speed.

The episode does a very good job of covering the issues related to designing “forgiving roads.”  These are roads that are designed to “forgive” mistakes made on the road in order to reduce the severity of an accident. As a result, it became common practice in the 1970s to build wider streets with wider lanes, remove trees, and not build sidewalks in order to make it safter for a driver if they veered off the road.

Through interviews with Dennis Schafer and Tom Vanderbilt the episode discusses why Arterial Streets, designed to be forgiving, are in fact among the most dangerous streets in North America. I highly recommend the podcast as a primer on some of the issues with modern road design and their effect on today’s cities.

Stroad: A bad Road and bad Street

Octavia Boulevard, San Francisco, California via Strode to Boulevard

Octavia Boulevard, San Francisco, California via Strode to Boulevard

Happy New Year!

My first post of the year is about a tumbler I stumbled upon “Stroad to Boulevard” by @Neil21.  For those who do not know, a stroad is:

A street-road hybrid that frustrates everybody who uses it. Roads efficiently connect clusters of destinations. Streets are the spaces between those local destinations. Roads are fast, wide and straight. Streets have intersections, crosswalks, parking, cyclists and sidewalks.

A Stroad is both a bad Road and bad Street: the worst of both worlds, frustrating and harming drivers, cyclists, pedestrians, businesses and homeowners.

Stroads are commonly called Arterials in North America. They are an anachronism, surviving only by inertia from 1960s traffic engineering guidebooks.

The tumbler exhibits examples of Boulevards across the world. I share Neil’s enthusiasm for boulevards as an alternative to Arterials. Adopting a boulevard approach would be one of the best strategies for improving walkability along post war arterial roads.

Inspiration for the tumbler is drawn from Allan B. Jacobs’ wonderful The Boulevard Book, which also provided me with a great deal of insight while working on my graduate research project. I have been meaning to add this book to my personal library.

So check out Neil’s tumbler and buy the Boulevard Book!

Can driverless cars pave the way for complete streets?


Richard Gilbert is writing a comprehensive series in the Globe and Mail on driverless cars. I’ve written before on the topic, but Richard has done an amazing job researching the technology’s potential. Most tantalizing he suggests that driverless car sharing services may be available in as few as five years:

Google has hinted that it may see car-sharing as the primary business model for its driverless car technology. The above-noted statement by IEEE members suggested that driverless cars will be much used in car sharing programs. A car-sharing service using driverless cars and an AT service amount to essentially the same thing.

My personal hope is that the new technology will not only change how we move around but how our cities look, paving the way for complete streets. Not every house will need a garage or as big a garage if more cars are shared. Malls and retail centres won’t need as many parking spaces, and the ones we do build can be built out of the way. We can better share the space on our roads because automated cars will be able to use it more efficiently. This technology provides a great deal of promise and Richard makes it clear that my generation is ready for a transportation revolution.

The Future of Cars is Sharing


Photo by nic_r

Car ownership is becoming less popular with my generation.  The Economist reported in September about peak car use, and noted:

private alternatives to car ownership, notably car clubs, have been spreading across North America and northern Europe.

National Geographic highlights one such club in San Francisco. The club is called Getaround and it offers a peer-to-peer car sharing service. Members of the service can rent other people’s cars for about $40. It similar to other Peer to Peer services like Airbnb for vacation accommodations.

The genius of these lending systems is that they recognize the potential of under-utilized resources. Airbnb lets you make money off an empty apartment, Getaround, an empty car. For example, the average car sits unused nearly 90% of the time, and even when it is used it is occupied by only one person. Why not let other people use it during that time? It is also a great way to offset the high cost of car ownership.

Car sharing services make economic sense to individuals who have alternative means of getting to work and investors are noticing. There were only a handful of car sharing companies in 2010. Today there are more than 30 companies worldwide. Getaround recently raised $13.9 million. Just one more reason why car ownership won’t be as important to my generation.

Mapping Frequent Transit in Toronto

Photo by vasta

Inspired by Jarrett Walker, author of Human Transit, I started a little project back in the spring to make a map of Toronto’s frequent transit network. Why a frequent transit map? As Walker explains,

Frequency and span of service… are the most important indicators of majorness, because they are the answers to the question:  “Does this service exist when I need it?” Notice that this not a question about service quality, but rather about service existence.  Until you’ve verified existence, all the other features of a service — even speed — are irrelevant details.

The TTC does not currently provide a map that can tell a person where transit runs often enough that you don’t have to plan your trip around a timetable. Instead, the current network map is designed in a way that makes it very difficult to disentangle bus routes. Can you look at the map to the right and tell which route runs all day, only at peak hours, or only every half hour? All the bus and streetcar lines look equally important, yet they are not.

Instead of the tangle of lines in the TTC map, a Frequent Transit Network Map for Toronto would look more like this:

Click Image to Enlarge

The map shows only the important routes. The routes where you won’t be waiting for more than 10 minutes on weekdays and 15 minutes on the weekend.*

Do you think it would be useful if the TTC published a Frequent Service Map? How does it change your sense of our transit network?

*Based on posted schedules from March 2012.