Monday, February 29, 2016

NIMBYism revisited

Last week my wife and I attended an information session in our neighbourhood on the proposed SW BRT line. I blogged about it here. You may wish to read that, if you haven't already. Many of you have, and even posted thoughtful comments, thank you very much for them and the retweets. The topic is still active on Twitter, with the hashtag #swbrt. I've been thinking about it and some thoughts have gelled.

Is there anyone that doesn't need to get around the city? We all have places to go. Work, home, social activities, shopping, the list is endless. Calgary is a big sprawling city, and it's been mostly designed around a car-centric culture. Why wouldn't anyone want to get in a car and drive where they want to, park nearby, do whatever, then drive to the next place, park, and repeat until you're done? Note the key words here, drive and park. We'll get to them.

We might all want to do that, but some of us can't. Not the under 16 crowd. Not the blind. Not the people with certain medical disabilities. Not some of the elderly, and eventually all of us will be so elderly we shouldn't drive. Not those who can't afford a car, or the various expenses that go along with it.  Not those with a philosophical objection to cars and the damage they do, and are willing to put their feet (so to speak) where their mouth is. It might not be any one thing, but a combination of them that puts a car out of reach.

There are other choices besides owning a car, but are car based.  For purposes of this blog, all powered wheels are considered cars. Services such as taxi, car sharing, handi-bus, and similar are all lumped together here. One might rent or borrow a car, but if you can't drive, that isn't any help. Perhaps you can ask someone to drive you, or pay someone to drive. That can get expensive quickly. None the less, some of these models work for some people, at least some of the time.

What else? Calgary transit operates an extensive fleet of buses and light rail transit vehicles. You could use a human powered vehicle, such as a bicycle, trike, or some of the enclosed versions of these. For the more adventurous there are skateboards and roller blades, though I don't see so many of the latter as I used to. You can go old school and walk. I need not go into the advantages or disadvantages of each. At the least, the distances, weather, or cargo carrying capacity impact all of these.

During my childhood there were many magazines predicting personal helicopters, flying cars, and jet packs. I don't think we have to worry about these coming along, and for the flying cars it's just as well. Too many drivers demonstrate on a daily basis that they lack the skills for the current driving environment; adding in a third dimension would probably add so much chaos it would end civilization as we know it. As an aside, I don't call them accidents. I call them demonstrations of driver incompetence.

One aphorism I liked during the bike lane debate was “counting the number of people swimming across a river doesn’t tell you how many would use a bridge.” Riding a bike on the street with cars driven by error prone humans can be a very risky activity. Being physically separated from the cars is a good thing. Every person on a bike instead of a car makes more room on the streets and parking spaces. Yet the debate around this gave me the impression that for some people it was the end of the world.

Pedestrians don’t have it much better. On average in Calgary a pedestrian is struck and injured every day by a car. You know the pedestrian doesn’t come out ahead in such a collision. I’ve had several occasions where I’ve stepped into a crosswalk on a walk signal, and quickly backed out again to avoid being struck. It's probably happened to you too. Calgary is experimenting with some “scramble” intersections where all traffic is to stop, and people can cross any which way they like. These were protested too. I mean, making drivers stop, it's against nature!

Even the parking piece is important. Cars take up a lot of space at each end of the trip, space that can't be used for much else even when empty. Depending on how it’s done, we can put 10 to 20 bikes in the space taken up by one car. Granted, if people want to go places by bike, there needs to be some space allocated to change rooms and places to wash up.

We need to be smarter about transporting us and our stuff around. Not just here in Calgary, everywhere. We need to escape the delusion that cars are the only solution, even if they're electric or self driving. We need to look at what’s cost effective and will serve everyone, not just the rich people that can afford cars. To me it’s a no brainer that transit should accommodate the handicapped. I’ve never understood why a rush hour LRT with 600 people on it is waiting at a downtown red light for a few dozen cars to cross the tracks.

A rich ecosystem of transportation options allows us to find out which ones work in the real world, not just in an engineer's model. It's worth the money to build it and find out. To put it in perspective, the projected cost of the SW BRT is $40 million. Not chump change by any means, but the annual budget for the City is $4 Billion. For comparison the interchange at McLeod Trail and 162 Ave is projected to be $68 million.

But this is what really gets my goat. I’ve never understood why it’s so difficult to even discuss these things. I can understand people getting upset when they learn a proposed LRT line is going to be mere feet from their their home, or worse, if the home will be replaced by tracks or a right of way. There's a process for these situations, and the very nature of it means someone is probably going to be unhappy at the outcome.

But a bus route, people? One that doesn't take out any homes, reduce the number of traffic lanes for cars, or even require any sound barriers to be moved. What is there in this to produce the ragey-pants Mercedes driver? I don't know if he actually belongs to the opposition group that will remain nameless here, but whether they like it or not, he's the face of their group on this issue. Even if you don't like the idea, there is no reason to lose it and go postal. Keep on driving and parking if you can afford it. The fact there is some construction work that has to be carefully done to accommodate existing infrastructre isn't a reason to not do it, it's a fact of life on every construction project.

Those aren't the only issues where people come unglued. Secondary suites, cat licensing, and fluoride come to mind, and there's probably others. For some people these aren't just issues they disagree with, worthy of a sternly worded letter to your city councillor, or maybe even showing up to speak at a public session. These have produced no-fooling, lose your shit, over-the-top tantrums worthy of Mercedes man. You'd think grownups would have more dignity and self respect, to say nothing of more respect for the people they're addressing.

We pay the City staff to spend our taxes to provide the services that make a city work. Calgary and other North American cities are amazingly complex things. The solutions that worked in the past, build more roads, bridges, traffic lights, freeways, don't work so well anymore. We need new solutions. We need smart and innovative professionals to research the various alternatives and come up with proposals. We need engaged citizens to provide reasoned feedback on those proposals. The city has to provide an opportunity for feedback at that crucial window where the engineers have figured out what's feasible, but the project isn't set in stone yet.

Let me stress the feedback has to be civil. People that yell at or otherwise abuse their employees are beyond the pale, and yes, Mayor Nenshi and all the city staff are our employees. That doesn't mean they do any fool thing some random taxpayer demands of them. They have to serve the whole city. All of it. All of us. There's far more detail to it than most people realize.

The key point here is that transportation is not a zero sum game. It's not like we're trying to share a plate of cookies, and you can't have a cookie that I've eaten. There's a concept most of us learned in kindergarten, called sharing. We all live here now. We need to build the city so it works for all of us.


  1. Fantastic piece, Keith. I couldn't agree more!! Good on ya, for saying what needs to be said. Cheers!

  2. I really enjoyed your two posts on this topic Keith. I feel very much the same way. Where I lived in Texas there was no public transportation to speak of and everything was so far away. You had to have a car to get around. I remember when I first moved there I was walking from my hotel to Walmart and people thought something was wrong and were pulling over to ask if I needed a lift. Calgary is also not very pedestrian friendly. Sidewalks are narrow. It feels like a game between cars and pedestrians at intersections. I wish we had more pedestrian scrambles throughout downtown as that might help to avoid all of those people that dash across the intersection with 2 seconds left before the light changes but cars are trying to turn.
    Again, things are very far apart. I would love to see more transit options here. Given the urban sprawl I think we need it. You would think that buying a home in a neighbourhood well serviced by transit would be a selling feature?
    Also, I appreciate New York where the subway system is the lifeline for people moving around that city and the sidewalks are huge. I wish Calgary were more like that.


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