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The Automobile City

Steinbach has always prided itself as being the car capital of Manitoba. The first car dealer opened shop all the way back in 1914, when cars were still a novelty. These first dealerships were run by savvy folks who realized that the future of transportation would be on four rubber tires – cars that would be privately owned by every family and could take a trip anywhere and at any time, completely at their leisure. In other places that were already much larger and more dense at the time, people that owned a car could escape the city and live on the outskirts, a little suburban plot of land to call their own with a white picket fence and a car in the driveway for them to raise their nuclear family.

This new lifestyle appealed to many, and so great sums of money were spent to make the new Suburban Experiment a reality.

This was a time of unprecedented development. At no point in human history was there an effort of new construction that matches the scale of what we saw in the decades following the 1940s. Older methods of building cities were abandoned in favour of a new explosive expansionist pattern. No longer did we take small incremental steps of development, now we were more focused on building outward as fast as possible.

As housing developments start getting farther and farther away from other destinations, it seemingly becomes increasingly necessary to build road infrastructure to meet the demand of all the new cars now making these longer trips. If an arterial road is inundated in traffic, the common solution is to build additional lanes on that road to accommodate said traffic.

In fact, counter-intuitively, expanding on the road network by either widening existing roads or constructing entirely new roads does not actually appear to solve the issue of traffic. A widened road that was previously subject to rush hour gridlock offers a more efficient route for prospecting commuters, and so people who would have otherwise taken a different road will now be drawn here instead, pulling traffic from elsewhere and concentrating it. This induced demand fills the road up with traffic that would not have been here otherwise.

City planners and traffic engineers have a mandate that when considering the design of a road, careful attention must be paid to how smoothly and effectively the road is able to move traffic. Roads are given a grade based on their level of service, with the best grades given to roads where traffic is able to move with relatively few disruptions and the worst grades given to those where traffic grinds to a halt. Intersections that have drivers waiting for more than a minute before making it through are given an F and marked for future redevelopment.

There are multiple tools available to engineers when determining how to improve the level of service of a road. The most common is to build an additional lane onto an existing road where cars are already traveling. A quiet single lane road that has been projected to face an increase in traffic volume due to an upcoming improvement elsewhere will have additional lanes built onto it. First a minimum required speed limit is chosen and the design of the new road will be based around that speed; the road will be widened and there will be areas along the edges that will be cleared of obstacles and distractions, and overall the road will be made more flat and straight. After this is complete, a traffic study will be done to determine the new level of service and if any changes need to be made to the posted speed limit.

This is all done in the name of safety and is all to the standard. At the forefront of every engineer’s mind during any kind of development is safety, and in designing a road this is especially important. Engineers take this so seriously that they even have a ritual that university graduates undergo in which they receive an iron ring worn on their little finger as a reminder of the burden to society they carry.

Something is lost, however, when the conversation turns to the development of car-centric infrastructure. When building a road for the car, safety is paramount; but for some reason that safety only extends to drivers. People outside of the car are in the best case an afterthought, or in the worst case a nuisance. Most considerations for pedestrian and bicycle safety lie in direct contradiction to a road’s level of service, and so vehicle safety is prioritized.

Consider the following intersection at Park Road and PTH 12N on the northern edge of Steinbach, recently rebuilt to accommodate additional vehicle traffic.

For a pedestrian coming from the south to cross over the highway to get to the western side, they will first need to cross over Park Road E. From the sidewalk, before even arriving at the intersection to begin crossing, the first obstacle is a lane built for north-bound traffic making a right turn to quickly and easily slip by the intersection without being caught at the lights and without needing to slow down; a driver can easily take this turn at the 70 km/h speed limit. This is called a “slip lane”, and is used by drivers who are far more focused on vehicle traffic out their left window than they are on potential foot traffic to their right.

After the pedestrian is able to avoid a collision with a car in the slip lane, they must now wait to cross over Park Road. It does not matter at which point in the cycle the lights are at, pressing the pedestrian crossing button will not trigger the light to turn and allow them to cross. Instead they must wait a full cycle of the lights and only once every single lane of vehicle traffic has cleared the intersection does the pedestrian crossing indicator come on. This extensive wait time encourages pedestrians to cross before it is deemed safe to do so, when there is potentially dangerous traffic advancing through the intersection with the right-of-way, not expecting a pedestrian to be on the road.

The crossing over Park Road is approximately 16 meters in length. The average person walks at a pace of 1.4 m/s, so a safe assumption would be that under ideal conditions you could cross over this road in a little over 10 seconds. That’s 10 seconds surrounded by nothing except for vehicles waiting their turn to enter the intersection.

We aren’t even half way through the intersection yet. Now that the pedestrian has made it to the northern corner of Park Road, they must again press the beg button and wait another full cycle before the pedestrian indicator comes on. This stretch is a bit more harrowing than the first – at 41 meters in length, the average person would take nearly 30 seconds to complete the crossing.

It is difficult to put into words the level of discomfort experienced while crossing this highway on foot. This is a place that has had so much time and effort poured into its level of service that people on foot are left entirely by the wayside, literally. When beginning to cross, the pedestrian steps out from the sidewalk and down onto the road level. This is a clear indication that they are no longer in a space designed for them, they’ve entered the domain of the car and they are not welcome here.

Cars headed in the same direction that were waiting have also been given the green light and come up to speed, creating noise levels in excess of 75dB. (Health Canada suggests that continued exposure to this level of noise is tied to adverse health problems)

Walking ahead, the pedestrian will first cross in front of two lanes designated for north-bound traffic. Then across a dedicated turn lane for south-bound traffic turning east. Then over their left shoulder they notice another two lanes of dedicated turning traffic coming from the south, and up ahead another two lanes of south-bound traffic; drivers thumbing their steering wheels while waiting the extra time allotted to the pedestrian crossing light. Even after clearing the intersection and stepping back up onto the relative safety of the sidewalk, the relief is short lived since there is still yet one more slip lane to cross.

If you need more concrete proof at how little thought is given to people outside of cars, this intersection has 54 individual lights for vehicle traffic and only 4 for pedestrians. It cost the city $1.7 million to rebuild, in the name of bringing it up to standard and improving the level of service.

Strong Towns has a name for a place like this. Much like a futon which does a poor job at being a bed and an equally poor job at being a couch, the “stroad” is as bad at being a street as it is being a road.

Let’s get some definitions out of the way. Traditionally, a road is a piece of infrastructure designed to move a large amount of traffic at high speeds. Lanes are wide and forgiving and if there are any curves they should be as gentle as possible. A road is a place where cars travel through (or upon) and is not a place where anybody should ever need to stop.

Conversely, a street is a destination. This is a place that people want to get to, not pass through. On a street you will find houses, apartments, schools, shops, restaurants, pubs, cafes, etc. This is a place that has been built to human scale because this is a place where humans want to be, and walking here you will feel a sense of comfort and belonging, the same feeling that designers were trying to emulate in the last half century with the advent of the shopping mall. Vehicle lanes on a street should be narrow and constricting to discourage speeding, with all priority given to cyclists and pedestrians and their level of safety and comfort.

A stroad is a road pretending to be a street. It has many wide lanes to encourage high speeds, but you will still find housing and businesses located here. This means that traffic needs to be constantly broken up by cars entering and exiting. Intersections are even designed to create breaks in the flow of traffic to allow for the free movement of cars up ahead. The signs you will find along the sides of the stroad a large, intended to be seen from inside a car moving at high speed, so for somebody on foot these signs appear out of place and tower unnecessarily high above their head.

The design of a stroad doesn’t properly communicate the intentions of the engineers that build them either. The 52 highway entering Steinbach from the west very quickly turns from a proper road to a typical stroad, but the overall design of the road doesn’t change. The speed limit drops from 100 km/h down to 80, but the only way this is communicated to a motorist is a large speed limit sign posted along the ditch. The speed falls again from 80 now to 70 to prepare drivers to slow for an upcoming signalized intersection, which should not exist on a road where cars are trying to drive through on their way to another destination.

Finally the speed changes once more now down to 50 when a driver will begin to notice residential housing, and yet the overall design of the road still has not changed at all. The lanes are just as wide and the environment just as uninviting as it was nearly a kilometre back. The only communication to drivers that this is now an area where the speed limit is 50 km/h is the posted sign; which in my observations is often ignored as cars will happily speed along at 70 through here.

Stroads are uncomfortable places to be, much like the futon. With nothing built to human scale, trying to walk along a stroad will make it seem like you are barely at a snail’s pace. Since businesses are located along stroads, it’s expected that people will be driving in order to visit them and so the landscape along a stroad is broken up by vast parking lots, and with all the vehicle traffic moving through, the noise level can be unbearable and attempting to hold a conversation is often futile. Our city has some excellent patios along Main Street during the warmer summer months, but anybody who has ever used them will attest to the unfortunate volume of traffic interrupting what should be an otherwise pleasant social experience.

Steinbach is following every other city in North America and is becoming a city of stroads. Our insistence on being the automobile city has led to a pattern of development where people are more concerned with being able to drive over kilometres of asphalt to get to their destination rather than with how that destination actually looks and functions when they get there, and it is vital that we refocus on building functional, productive, prosperous places that bring with them a sense of community and belonging.