The Audacity of the Autocity

If you build more roads, they will be immediately filled with cars. So think about how people move around and the options you can provide to them.  This is one of the messages I gleaned from the latest installment in the speakers series hosted by the U of A’s City-Region Studies Centre.  The presenter was Eric Miller, a professor of civil engineering at the University of Toronto, and the Director of U of T’s Cities Centre.

We have been building autocities for 100+ years in Edmonton.  There is no denying the impact the car has had on how people move from place to place in their communities.  The car is prominent in new subdivisions, where the home is attached to the two-car (minimum) attached garage.  The car is prominent in our investment in freeway construction.  The car is prominent in older neighbourhoods as we complain about the state of potholes.  The car is prominent as we move all over the city to get to the services we need.   The car is prominent as we complain about how many cars are out there with us and the time it takes to get to where we want to go.  The car is prominent as municipal and provincial capital budgets are consumed by the need to create and maintain roads.   The car is prominent in the declining health of people – and Earth.   The car is even prominent in government efforts to revitalize failing economic systems.

Please do not infer that I am against the car – I own a car and I enjoy it.  I have to confess that I am hungry for some balance, however.  And this requires rethinking how we think about our city experience and providing transportation options.  As my engineer friend would put it: mode split.

First question is why would a city want to look at transportation options.  Immediate response is that the more people use alternatives to the car, there is more room on the roads.  Providing options actually makes the investments we have made more effective.  Further, providing options improves the health of people in cities by creating opportunities to walk or wheel to some of our destinations.  Or carpool or use public transportation, which decreases pollution levels, hence our health again.  All of these improve the bottom line for municipal budgets – less money spent on building endless bigger and bigger roads and bridges (that we eventually add to the list of capital assets that we have to maintain when cities have difficulty maintaining what we already have).

The big question is around what will it take to generate viable opportunities?  Again, it means rethinking what we think about the city by asking what it will take to make the options viable.  We should be asking ourselves what makes a place worth walking in?  What makes a place safe to cycle in?  What are the destinations that need to be on the LRT line for me to want to use it?  What makes a place worth living in?  This isn’t about what comes first, the planning or the engineering.  They ought to occur simultaneously – this is the new conversation.  That is the ultimate form of planning.

There are questions that should be explored in every planning decision –  Are the connections within communities created and strengthened?  Are places to enjoy the city and each other created and strengthened?  Are our choices in the city healthy for us?

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