Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Car Free in Sudbury, Day 6: Crossing the Street

Today is Alice's 5th birthday. One week from today, Brian will be celebrating his 4th birthday. For some time now, we've been planning a joint birthday party for our two youngest at the McDonalds on the Kingsway (ya, I know, I know....but McDonald's has something that's hard to find: food the kids will actually eat. Plus, the Kingsway location has a pretty sweet play area for kids their age. So...McDonalds). No surprise, our car free pilot project is complicating our plans.

Getting to and from McDonald's from our home on Riverside Drive is easy – with a car. Even to arrive at 5:00 PM on a Friday afternoon, if we can exit the driveway at 4:45, we'll still be there early (rush hour in Sudbury is not really something to fear). But as we've discovered, taking the bus presents some problems, one of which appears to be really problematic.

Rather than a 15 minute drive, riding the bus will take closer to 25 minutes, and cost us $15 (two ways – we'd use another Greater Sudbury Transit Family Pass). That's not bad – certainly, it's a shorter commute time than what we went through on Sunday with church. The alternative – taking a cab – would certainly cost a lot more – likely closer to $30, although we might save a few minutes.

But here's the problem. Although the bus ride would be just 25 minutes (including a transfer at the Transit Terminal), once we get to the bus stop across from McDonald's, we'll have a real dilemma on our hands.

How are we going to cross the street?

Seriously. The Kingsway. A little before 5pm. We're talking about 5 lanes of traffic (2 going east, 2 going west, plus the centre “turning” lane, which everybody in Sudbury uses not as a left turning lane for businesses off of the Kingsway, but as a lane of safe refuge for vehicles turning left out of businesses and onto the Kingsway – how often have I, as a driver, almost been hit by people driving cars, trucks, Handi-Transit, even buses, making illegal turns into these centre lanes? Anyway, point is, these lanes can be pretty chaotic for drivers – throw pedestrians into the mix and it could really be bad news).

There are no safe places to cross the street near McDonald's. The closest signalized intersection is about 400 metres west of McDonald's. We really would have little choice but to weave our way through 5 lanes of Kingsway traffic just to cross the road from the bus stop.

I'd do it. I've done it before. Something similar yesterday, as a matter of fact. I was attending a climate change workshop hosted by Greater Sudbury Earthcare. It was at the Lexington Hotel on Brady Street, between the underpass in the east and the Steelworker's Hall to the west (you know it – formerly the Howard Johnson, formerly the Holiday Inn). It's a nice facility – but it's a terrible location if you're on foot, especially in winter. There are no sidewalks on the north side of Brady Street, and the sidewalk on the south side actually ends short of the entrance to the hotel – so it's not like you can just scoot across the road. Throw in some snowbanks on both sides of the street, and let the fun begin.

Dodging traffic on Brady isn't as bad as on the Kingsway, generally speaking. I didn't have much problem doing it yesterday, even after jumping off of the snowbank. But I'm relatively able-bodied person. If I had any mobility issues, forget it. I'd have to take a cab to the Lexington, even though it's less than 5 minutes from my home, on foot. No buses run along Brady, either – it's in a pedestrian dead zone. In my comments back to the City on yesterday's excellent event, I made note that the City really should refrain from holding events at this location, due to the lack of accessibility. I'm sorry, Lexington – I really like you. I just don't like the idea of taking my life in my hands trying to get to you. One slip or trip and it doesn't matter how able-bodied I am – crossing the street can turn into a life or death choice.

Crossing the Kingsway at 5 in the afternoon with three small children? Forget it. We're not going to risk it. Sarah and I discussed this, and it took us no time at all to agree that the bus simply isn't an option for accessing McDonald's – a popular family venue on Sudbury's busiest commercial street. In retrospect, had we known that we'd be running this pilot project, we would not have selected McDonald's on the Kingsway for Alice and Brian's joint birthday party. It seemed like a good idea at the time – and it was – but times have changed, and now we're stuck dealing with the fallout.

We talked about riding the bus around the loop, staying on it until it circles back to drop us off on the north side of the Kingsway. We could do that. Yes, it would take longer – an extra half hour – but it would safely deposit us on the north side of the road, which is where we want to be. But something inside of me rebels at the notion of spending an extra half hour of my time simply because I can't safely get across 60 feet of asphalt. It all seems....a little unreasonable.

Something like this came up elsewhere in the City last year. Connect the Creek and Rainbow Routes had asked the City to look into installing a safe pedestrian crossing on Regent Street, between MacLeod and Ontario (Killer's Crossing) streets. Right now, the Junction Creek Trail (which is a part of the Trans-Canada Trail in this location) intersects Regent almost exactly mid-way between MacLeod and Ontario. To boot, there's a parking lot on the west side of Regent for Greater Sudbury Utitlities workers, whose building is located on the east side of Regent. If you want to get to the other side of the street here right now, your choices are: a) head south to the signalized intersection at MacLeod Street, going about 400 metres out of your way, just to cross the road safely; b) head north to the signalized intersection at Killer's Crossing, ignore the name/rep of this intersection, and travel 400 metres out of the way; or, c) brave 5 lanes of traffic on Regent Street – which generally isn't as bad as the Kingsway, but which can still be a bit of a trial, to say the least. Especially if one has children, or mobility issues.

I wrote to the City about this proposal (see: “Let's Make Regent Street Crossing At Junction Creek Safe For Pedestrians,” Sudbury Steve, December 3, 2016). I let the City know that there have been times that I've wanted to take the Junction Creek trail west of Regent with my kids, but I just didn't feel safe hustling them across Regent Street in absence of some sort of signalized crossing.

Pedestrian crossovers have started sprining up throughout the City. They've taken on various forms, but many have flashing amber lights, activated by pedestrians who want to cross the street. Some even have pedestrian islands, which allow those who aren't moving as quickly to take refuge mid-intersection (great for seniors and those travelling with small children!). Given the City's recent commitment to installing this helpful form of pedestrian infrastructure, one might think that a trail crossing used by several dozen GSU employees daily might warrant some consideration. The City's initial reaction, however, was to recommend signs urging pedestrians to take option A) or B) – travel 400 metres out of their way in order to use existing signalized intersections.

The good news is, that recommendation didn't go over well with the elected decision-makers. Now, the City will be looking at creating a safe crossing for those who will continue to cross the street in that location, with or without a safe crossing. Signs clearly were not / are not going to alter pedestrian behaviour in that location. And no one should expect them to.

All of this, of course, is symptomatic of a problem that's much larger than Greater Sudbury. It certainly afflicts many cities and towns throughout North America. In short, we've designed our cities for cars, and have neglected prioritizing the safety of pedestrians. And why wouldn't we? In most of our cities, there are more cars on the road than pedestrians. Why build sidewalks on even one side of the road when there aren't any people around to use them? Our car-dominated urban form was self-perpetuating: the more of it we built, the more of it we needed, so that we could accommodate an ever higher number of cars.

But it's 2017. The times are changing – although not uniformly. Before moving to Riverside, my family spent a couple of years in the Valley. If you don't know the Valley, it's a relatively flat area of the amalgamated City of Greater Sudbury that is, shall we say, a lot more spread out than the former City of Sudbury. Large lots. Few sidewalks. Hardly any mixed uses. Not just car-centred, but car-dominated. Pedestrians aren't just an afterthought, they're actively discouraged.

Despite this, the Valley is one of the fastest-growing parts of the City (although given Greater Sudbury's economic circumstance, let's keep that statement in perspective – the City is not growing fast by any stretch of the imagination – and we may in fact be losing population. But new homes continue to go up, and a good percentage of these are being built in areas outside of the old Former City – and many are in the Valley, East or West). Although Chelmsford, Val Caron and Hanmer have all seen a decline in commercial activity over the past several decades, residential growth is up. New subdivisions are being planted in farmer's fields (and floodplains!). Roads are widened to accommodate even more traffic. Property taxes are lower in these areas because there is a perception that they are not as well serviced as properties in the former City of Sudbury. New and costly roads are planned to facilitate more extreme low density development. Meanwhile, ridership on Greater Sudbury Transit is stagnant – or slightly down. And the City's infrastructure deficit stands at $1.4 billion (see: “City would need $1.4 billion to catch up on infrastructure deficit,” Sudbury.com, September 29, 2016).

I took the bus to and from work when we were living in Val Caron. It wasn't that bad – for me. There was a bus stop within a short walking distance of the house, and I work across the street from the transit terminal. It was generally ok. But the evening bus would drop me off on the east side of Municipal Road 80 in a location where the closest signalized intersection was about 800 metres away. There was no choice but to cross 5 lanes of traffic – generally travelling at more than the posted 60 km/h maximum – without the benefit of a safe area to cross. Transit riders getting off at these stops in the Valley are literally taking their lives into their hands every time they try to cross the street. The City must know this, but nothing gets done. And maybe that's a good thing, because given the Regent Street crossing example, I suspect the City's answer would be to pull up the signs and end having the buses stop in these locations.

Sounds crass, I know – but with municipality's increasingly focused on liability issues, it's something that might be around the corner. I don't know how I feel about this. On the one hand, limiting bus stops to signalized intersections would be a huge problem for transit riders in the Valley, both of them. Ok, that joke was in bad taste, but the fact of the matter is that people in suburban and outlying areas aren't using transit services to the same degree as those in denser, more urbanized areas – and maybe it's time that Cities like Greater Sudbury acknowledged this. We can't keep spending money on a transit service that doesn't attract riders. Rather than having a mediocre transit system for the majority of the City's residents who won't use it, let's have a really good system for those living in transit-supportive neighbourhoods – those of us who are already paying higher property taxes, and who are actually saving the City money (or at least costing it less) in servicing infrastructure, thanks to our choice to live in denser communities.

Maybe with some of that money we save by focusing transit services primarily in areas where there is an expectation for ridership growth, we can put up a few more pedestrian cross-overs in locations where people want to cross the street: at the Junction Creek trail on Regent, and somewhere along the pedestrian waste-land that is the Kingsway. One third of Greater Sudburians don't have access to a motorized vehicle. I suspect most of them don't live in the Valley. Let's make getting around on foot and by bus easier for those who want to get around on foot or by bus – and especially for those who have no choice but to get around by foot or by bus.

(opinions expressed in this blog are my own and should not be interpreted as being consistent with the views and/or policies of the Green Parties of Ontario and Canada)

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