Friday, May 26, 2006

What York Region Can Do

Next week on Wednesday evening, I'll be attending York Region's first set of meetings to discuss their Cycling and Pedestrian Plan. I work in York Region but live in Toronto. Before living in Toronto and a variety of other places, I lived a lot of my life in York Region, and I hope to see it make changes for the better. There are parts of York Region that I like a lot, and it would be sad to see it all lost to more wide suburban roads and traffic jams. This meeting could be the start of making the place welcoming to more cyclists and safer for everyone.

I've been thinking about what I would say at the meeting, since I expect I'll have to be concise and efficient with how I share my ideas. Yesterday I spoke to a reporter from the local newspaper group, which made me put some more thought into the issue. (More on that later. I'm really hoping I didn't say something supid!) I thought I would write down the key ideas that have come to mind.

1. Take advantage of the residential streets that cover the region.

The major arterial streets (highways) that form a grid in York Region are legal cycling space but not practical for the average or inexperienced cyclist. If the region wants more people to cycle for transportation, they need to ensure that there is a practical safe network of routes, bike paths and bike lanes that meet the needs of inexperienced cyclists. This may mean wide bike lanes on some of these higher speed streets. At the same time, residential streets are very comfortable for new cyclists to use, especially if the number of stop signs is reduced and replaced by speed humps.

2. Take advantage of the green spaces in the region.

Bike paths through green corridors (like the area south of Highway 7) could form useful, direct connections across the region. They would need to have traffic signals when crossing major streets. Ottawa has paths like this that are a major draw for people considering moving there. Ottawa's bike paths are often brought up in employment recruiting campaigns.

3. Connect disconnected neighbourhoods and industrial areas so cyclists can pass through without being forced onto major arteries.

Many neighbourhoods have useful streets that cross from one major artery to another, but when crossing to the next neighbourhood, that street becomes a dead-end or winds into a crescent.

There are also industrial areas which are entirely disconnected from residential areas. It's understandable that people don't want heavy car or truck traffic through their neighbourhood. All that needs to be changed in many cases is that a carefully located paved path is added to connect the two areas. It must fit with the rest of the bike network so cyclists are not weaving all over the place.

4. Provide safe crossings of expressways.

From a cyclist's point of view, York Region has huge barriers running through it that limit where we can ride. We're forced onto the major arteries to get across expressways. We need to have dedicated pedestrian/cyclist bridges (like those planned for Toronto along the Finch Hydro Corridor) or wide bike lanes along the major arteries. The major arteries should not have "on-ramps" onto them since these are terrifying for cyclists and promote drivers to speed and drive aggressively, forgetting that they've left the expressway.

5. Education for drivers and cyclists.

Cyclists will benefit from learning how to ride in traffic safely. Whether we are in a bike lane or not, it is important that we're aware of what the threats are that we face and how we can easily avoid them. Provide low cost cycling courses, and cycling education in schools.

Drivers of cars and trucks need to know that passing a cyclist must be done with care, at a slow speed and with lots of room. If a cyclist needs the full lane, the cyclist is allowed it. Look for cyclists and pedestrians every time you turn. Be alert while you drive. Don't be a bully. This message should be short and simple and drilled into people's heads through a quality advertising campaign.

6. Enforce laws for drivers of cars and trucks

People speeding in their cars, people making dangerous turns in their cars, aggressive driving, people running stop signs and red lights, all pose threats to all of us, whether we're walking, cycling or in another car. A real change in attitude is needed on our streets which will only come if there are some repercussions for people who are putting the rest of us at risk.

7. Change zoning practices for future development (this sounds a bit off topic, and may not be relevant to the meeting I'll be attending, but it's all connected in the long run)

I'm not opposed to the single family home; it just shouldn't be the only thing around. What I would like to see is for areas to give people more choice with the type of neighbourhood they live in, and in general for there to be more density, allowing people to walk places and take fast public transit. I've seen some of this happening in York Region, but it's limited. One way of measuring success could be to ask: can a student (college or university) live in this area without needing to own a car? What about someone who is employed nearby? Could a family live comfortably with only one car, by walking, cycling and taking transit? I've read many times that this is achievable through a mix of houses and low rise building styles. It doesn't need to include scary high rise buildings.

Stop building places of employment in isolated office ghettos. Some buildings look like they've been banished from town. The huge new State Farm building in "Aurora" (I put it in quotes because it's out in the middle of nowhere), which is obviously intended to be a big employer, needs to have a bus dedicated to driving people right up to the building. This bus may work now, but what about when they put a Walmart across the street? Will people really sit on a bus that drives from door to door of every building? Right now, if a bus dropped people off on the street, they would need to walk 15 minutes to get down the driveway and across the parking lot. This means more car traffic that could have been avoided if this building was fit in town somewhere. What a horrible waste of potentially useful land (and everyone's time).

8. Cycling and pedestrian traffic is good.

A quality bike network in York Region could be a major asset to the area. It improves health and general quality of life. It reduces car traffic, saving huge amounts of money on highways. It would promote businesses to locate here instead of other suburban regions. Seeing cyclists and pedestrians along a street is a sign of being "somewhere" instead of at just another intersection.

That was long winded, so thanks for reading. I'll need to be more concise at the meeting unless I want stuff thrown at me.

There's my current train of thought. If you think I'm off on something or have any kind of advice or thought on this upcoming meeting, click on the little Comment link below and have at it.

Darren J 5/26/2006 12:54:00 p.m.


Darren, those are thoughtful comments, and you should make them. You might be particularly careful to stay within the consultant's "scope" (your items 5-8 are probably outside that scope).

Another thought is to find out who the consultants are (MMM, I think), and speak to their project manager (or engagement manager) about participating outside the public meetings.

(Obligatory disclosure: the firm I work for also bid for this work, but lost. But it's not my area of practice, so I don't bring a lot of knowledge to it.)

Best wishes, Richard

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