Monday, August 8, 2011

Why Davenport is a good idea

I know Davenport Road pretty well. I used to live on Kingscourt, behind Conestoga Mall. You needed to have your wits about you on Davenport Road.

Davenport used to be a speedway. A twisty 1980s era 4-lane road, filled with obstacles like an overflowing Timmy's drivethrough (serving as a kind of multi-level symbolic reminder of how we're getting some pretty basic things in our life badly wrong), stopped left-turners waiting to get into the mall, and of course the cars who weave in between it all.

What it is now is being billed as Waterloo's "first complete street". Really, it's our first no-holds-barred Road Diet.

You've probably heard that term bandied about for a while now, it's been seeping into popular usage for a while. On the surface, it sounds like bald euphemism-- what is a road diet, then, but less road for cars to fit on?-- but road diets are a remarkable example of the non-intuitive nature of traffic. From less, you get more. Or at least, you get the same amount of car capacity, but you get more of other things: cycling lanes, pedestrian friendliness, safety, adherence to speed limits, visual attractiveness...

But don't take it from me. Here's Streetfilm's piece on Road Diets:

A 2-lane road with turn lanes, like new Davenport, typically faces opposition from people who think that it is going in the wrong direction when it comes to accommodating our growing traffic. But, there is data (such as Walkable's report [pdf]) which shows that road diets like this frequently maintain the amount of traffic capacity that the old road had, especially when the number of driveways and turning opportunities on the road are limited-- such as they are on Davenport.

The dieted road is slower. No question. But it's not congestion so much-- the pace of traffic self-limits better. Without an extra lane to allow passing, the pace is now set by the prudent driver. We're also getting better at designing roads that psychologically cause drivers to limit their speed. And the turn lanes still allow for good traffic flow at intersections-- the difference is intersections are no longer chicanes and obstacles in the middle of a long speedway.

So traffic is calmer, the opportunity for and severity of accidents is reduced, and the extra space can allow for cycling lanes, pedestrian refuges and plain old landscaping.

And still, initial reactions to Davenport reveal a lot of criticism and doubt. Even someone whose backyard has been driven into twice openly wishes that it was still four lanes. This underscores how intuition in urban design has really led us down the garden path-- and then caused us to dig up the garden path, replace it with a freeway, and wonder why the garden withered and died.

What road diets reveal to us in great clarity is the folly in optimizing for the car. Much of the last half-century has been based around the premise that what's good for the car is good for everyone, because everyone drives. Instead, the truth is that what's good for the car comes at the expense of just about everything else, and the incremental denial of spaces to anyone but the automobile-enabled ends up forcing everyone to use a car. Finally, when capacity for cars is reached, we end up with an urban form that punishes everyone, and with no easy fix available.

We need an urban form that enables car use, but does not optimize for it, especially on a road like Davenport which is not a major thoroughfare. 4-lane road capacity turns out to be only marginally better than a well-designed 2 lane road with proper turn facilities. That marginal improvement comes at the expense of usefulness for other modes, and of safety for all.

Oh, and hey! The new Davenport has Waterloo's first bike box! But that's a topic for another time...

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