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Chaos Theory and Traffic Control

Toronto, the city I live in, is experiencing severe problems these days maintaining its service infrastructure as senior governments solve their own (largely ideologically-inflicted) budget problems by "downloading" capital and service costs. At the same time, Toronto’s citizens keep demanding a safer if not necessarily aesthetically enhanced urban environment, with slowly-stewed NIMBY on every table and street corner.

In my particular downtown neighbourhood near College Street, this paradigm reached a strange sort of asinine apex a couple of years ago, when a mob of bicycle-using Anglo spiritual Vegans hijacked the neighbourhood’s ratepayer group and got the city’s mysteriously-flush Traffic Control Division to install "traffic calming" apparatuses throughout the streetscape. The ostensible purpose of the traffic calming was to put a stop to the antics of a dozen or so teenage jackasses who were using the long north/south streets as speed tracks for their customized Honda Civics and Toyotas, and thus jeopardizing a few slow-moving pedestrians and impinging on the bicylist’s God-given right to cycle the wrong direction on the mostly one-way streets.

The TCD soon installed speed control mounds every 100 metres along the streets, along with a ghastly-looking maze of concrete and brick impediments that cause traffic to swerve from one side of the road to the other, and theoretically, to slow down. These impediments (they have a suave-sounding technical term for them that I refuse to employ) also reduced street parking capacities by between 20 and 30 percent, which quickly became a sore point with the Italians who make up about half the neighbourhood population. The bicyclists who pushed the "calming" plan had gotten it through by insisting that there would be no reduction in street parking. (When I asked one of the leaders about this, he told me they’d lied about it because, well, the benefits outweigh the inconveniences, and that, anyway, aren’t we trying to get all the cars off city streets? They knew better, in other words.)

Among the many things I like about Italians is that they don’t like being lied to. This, and the fact that they damned well wanted their parking back, moved them to petition the City to rethink the entire program. After a series of acrimonious confrontations at public meetings, the TCD agreed to remove some of the impediments and increase the frequency of the mounds, provided everyone took a vote to confirm that this is what we wanted done. The citizens duly voted to remove, but even then the TCD dragged its heels, removing the impediments—by now nearly obscured by weeds and street debris—only after a fire truck found itself trapped in one of the mazes on Euclid Avenue by illegally-parked vehicles of College Street restaurant patrons.

Other flaws in the attempt to calm the traffic, meanwhile, had become apparent to anyone willing to spend ten minutes observing the new traffic patterns. The dozen kids in their Hondas and Toyotas were treating their former speed track as a rally course, decreasingly their overall speed only slightly, if at all. Less attentive and skilled drivers generated a whole new hazard by not noticing the speed mounds and losing control over their vehicles as they crossed. "Normal" drivers quickly learned that the speed mounds were sloped at the edges in order to permit water to pass along the curb gutters, and were regularly zipping within inches of the sidewalks, splashing unwary pedestrians and threatening infants in their baby carriages—and creating a brand new strain of maternal hysteria. Exacerbating all this, the professionals at TCD and their contractors installed the mounds with their customary attention to detail. Some mounds were higher than others, thus lulling test-the-limit drivers at one mound and punishing them at the next. This effect was heightened by the physics of roadway construction and vehicle weights, which created depressions in front of many of the mounds after a year or so of use, altering the other-side launch quotients still more.

As an ex-urban planner, none of this surprises me. One of the reasons I left the field was my discovery that there are really only two kinds of urban planners: those who are mis-trained and stupid, or those who poorly educated and excessively convinced of the moral rightness of their woefully-thin knowledge base. In my experience, the planners at TCD have tended to suffer from all of these disabilities at once. They are, for instance, trained to hate private motor-vehicles and to obstruct their use in whatever ways they can. They do this on the moral principle that if they can make life miserable for private vehicle users, they’ll stop using them. Unfortunately this is strictly a theory, since for those of us who aren’t obsessively anal and physically fit, there are no practical alternatives to the use of private motor vehicles short of unemployment and destitution.

The TCD folk don’t seem to give a damn about practical reality, nor do they appear to understand that immigrant populations occasionally notice that the facilities provided in their neighbourhoods don’t bear much resemblance to those installed for the comfort of wealthy Anglos living in the ritzier parts of town. The Euclid Avenue speed mounds, for instance, are barely a metre wide, and made of asphalt with white arrows painted on them—they’re ugly as well as stupid. The speed mounds in Rosedale, by contrast, are lower, at least three metres wide, are edged and bricked with ceramic or terra-cotta tiles and often have elegant planters which the city’s workpersons regularly fill with flowers.

This transgression of democracy might be forgivable if the traffic calming devices actually calmed the traffic. They don’t, because the TCD planners are as ignorant of the inevitable effects of Chaos Theory as they are devoid of common sense.

Chaos Theory, as it pertains to traffic control at least, boils down to this: Any increase in the complexity of a system exponentially increases the likelihood of its malfunctioning. The more complicated you make something, in other words, the more likely it is to screw up on you. Instead of a streetscape in which a few kids occasionally drive too fast, we now have one in which those same drivers are swerving and braking while they drive too fast, while nearly every other driver is swerving and braking while driving at more normal speeds. The number of near-misses of pedestrians has increased ten-fold, and now the danger is not merely to jay-walking pedestrians and wrong-way bicylists, but to everyone who has to dodge the out-of-control vehicles that now spend nearly as much time on the sidewalks as on the roadways.

The traffic calming devices have also obstructed any number of large emergency vehicles, and have inflicted serious mechanical damage to the running gear of any number of cars and trucks. They have also made street sweeping and snow removal an ongoing nightmare. In effect, traffic calming has not only failed to calm the traffic, it has made the streets of the neighbourhood less safe and much more dirty—just as any half-baked physicist could have predicted.

All of this is leading to a very simple piece of advice I’d like to deliver to the elected representatives of budget-poor municipalities, whether it’s the City of Toronto or the tiniest municipality in the Northwest Territories. Here it is: If you want to enhance the quality of life for your citizens, make your streets safer, and reduce your budgetary shortfall so you can spend what little you have on programs that actually help people, you might want to seriously consider disbanding your traffic calming programs, and reducing your traffic control divisions to the meterpersons who hand out parking tickets to the double-parking patrons outside Starbucks and Tim Horton’s.

1165 w. January 24, 2002

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Brian Fawcett

Brian Fawcett

Brian Fawcett is a Toronto-based writer.

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