Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Editorial: The lack of vision of local governments is why our roads are congested and terrible

I recently attended a meeting of my region's Council of Governments (COG), which is a body made up of the leaders of the region's cities and helps to set priorities and plans for programs in areas ranging from community development to pollution control to transportation planning. It is this last area that was of interest to me as I was there to speak on behalf of an advocacy group that was seeking discreet funding for active transportation projects. Listening to a few presentations on the already established priorities and the current state of various projects followed by debate on the recommendation to offer discreet funding for active transportation projects, it became immensely clear that this body is one of the key reasons why our roads in much of the area are often terribly congested.

The main issue, in my opinion, is a combination of misplaced priorities and a lack of leadership vision. Every member of the council who spoke out against the active transportation recommendation did so on the basis that there were a lot of projects that already require funding and that further delays would put those existing projects even further behind and result in the COG continuing to remain behind its peers in completing transportation projects. On the surface, that sounds like a rather sensible argument. However, when examining the actual list of priorities for transportation projects, many of the largest ones centered around freeway improvements and expansions in some form or another. The problem with that is that recent studies conducted by North American based researchers found that increasing road capacity does not result in less congestion, but rather encourages more driving, resulting in the same or even more congestion. For the COG that oversees transportation priorities to fail to recognize that rather serious implication is pretty unforgivable, especially when genuine alternatives that relieve traffic congestion are already available.

The other issue is a lack of understanding, or perhaps willful and convenient ignorance, of how active transportation can help improve not only transportation efficiency, but also the quality of life for many of the less financially well off members of a community. As someone who now walks for at least an hour a day, I get to see how important good active transportation infrastructure is to the safety and sense of security of my neighborhood. The lack of bike lanes, for example, encourages less daring riders to pedal around on the sidewalks, putting pedestrians at risk since most sidewalks are barely wide enough for two people to pass side-by-side. Wide streets with no center median often encourage drivers to speed and be less attentive to both cyclists and pedestrians. But when good cycling infrastructure and pedestrian friendly roads are provided, more people are out on the streets, walking, talking, and enjoying the neighborhood.

I have the good fortune to live somewhere that has already put tremendous effort into solid active transportation infrastructure, but even the best cities are still not perfect. Most of the infrastructure is available in parts of the city where it is used mainly for recreation as opposed to commuting. Those communities that lack infrastructure are also the ones that need it the most. It is in those areas where residents rely on walking, biking, and public transit to as their primary means of transport. Many of those people do not have the luxury to drive.

Unfortunately, individual cities doing their best to provide infrastructure is not enough. If the cities are not planning together and connecting their active transportation infrastructure, then it is still of limited use to those who travel through multiple cities in order to complete their commutes. This is why the outcome of the COG meeting is so irritating. Even if individual projects include some active transportation measures, it does not get thought about in the context of the region as a whole. That results in small pockets of great infrastructure with no way to get between them, making them significantly less useful.

During the debate, one member of the committee kept stressing how any decision made would have a potential 40 year impact on the region. Given that argument, you would think that being forward-thinking and revolutionary would be of greater importance than simply looking for ways to maintain the status quo.

Help do your part to hold your local governments accountable for providing better and safer active transportation for everyone. If the opportunity arises to attend meetings like the one I went to in your area, go and take a moment to voice your thoughts. Let the government leaders know that you want them to make smart choices, not just convenient ones.