Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Bus ride reading: Makeshift Metropolis

If you're interested in municipal issues and city building, few books offer an overview as quickly and effectively as does Witold Rybczynski's Makeshift Metropolis: Ideas About Cities. The depth of Rybczynski's work belies the short length of the very accessible book (just 199 pages), and is definitely worth a read while you're riding around town.

Rybczynski examines the theories of many thinkers at the forefront of urbanism, especially Jane Jacobs and Lewis Mumford, but also Charles Mulford Robinson, Ebenezer Howard, and Le Corbusier. With the benefit of retrospect in many instances, the author looks at where the ideas of these thinkers have worked in contemporary cities, and where they haven't.

There are many issues facing cities today, and in the latter parts of the book Rybczynski looks at where cities might need to go in the future to remain places people can and will want to live. The answer, in the mind of the author, is density. Not necessarily hyperdensity, as with cities like New York City and Hong Kong (although there are lessons to be learned from those examples), but simply an increased density compared to what is seen in most cities today. This is particularly important in Ottawa, where a relatively low population density offers ample opportunity for the city to develop within the city without needing to move out of it--an obvious reason why City Council has worked hard to limit and altogether avoid expanding the urban boundary.

In the end, Rybczynski concludes that good planning makes good cities, citing the Israeli city of Modi'in as proof. But rather than designing every detail of the city, Rybczynski calls for macro-planning, allowing for organic growth over time under parameters set forth. It's not the hyper-planned city of Le Corbusier, nor the anarchistic city of Jacobs, but something in between.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Transit Commission: OC Transpo added articulated buses and trips since September 4

Much was discussed on last Wednesday's Transit Commission meeting including the recent route changes/cuts/optimization, MacKenzie King Bridge congestion, and Presto smart cards. Here is the recap of that meeting (most of the information is referred to David Reevely's Twitter feed):
  • Six new trains for the O-Train were purchased for $35 million from Alstom and are scheduled to be in service in 2014. The purchase is in anticipation of the O-Train expanding to Leitrim, which will be assessed by consultants for its feasibility.
  • OC Transpo usually runs 175-178 buses on Slater during the PM rush according to OC Transpo Transit Design Manager Pat Scrimgeour. While Slater is close to threshold of 180, it is already experiencing significant bus congestion. From experience, walking from Metcalfe to Mackenzie King Bridge during the PM peak period is faster than riding any bus on Slater.
  • Regarding Mackenzie King Bridge, Scrimgeour says boarding and unloading is the issue, and not the pedistrian crossing. They are paying close attention to it. Last week, I saw what appeared to be OC Transpo supervisors assisting with closing the rear doors on the eastbound platform of Mackenzie King during the PM rush. I've witnessed this new procedure on two separate days at 5 p.m. and there hasn't been a noticeable improvement; buses were still backed up to Elgin.
  • OC Transpo ridership grew from August 2010 to August 2011 by 6.3%. Increased ridership and decreased service lead to overcrowded buses as experienced by many in September.
  • Maintenace Chief Larry Atkinson said around 30 routes per day are served by the wrong kind of bus. This is a high number, but it's possible that there was only one instance of that occurring for each route.
  • Since the route changes on September 4, OC Transpo has added articulated buses on certain trips on routes 4, 30, 34, 38, 41, 87, 93, 130, 134 and added trips during peak hours to routes 30, 131, 134, 136, 106. (Metro News)
  • Presto Cards are scheduled for April 2012. The smartcards will replace passes and tickets. In theory, there should be fewer lineups at pass retailers near the beginning of the month. While the program will cost Ottawa $25 million and the province $7 million, this is expected to cut costs on administration for tickets and passes. The city has discussed the idea for Presto since 2006.
  • Finally, Route 106 will serve the ring road around the General Hospital campus in late December. After continually modifying transit service to this area in the past month, it seems that Route 106 will be fully re-instated and operate like it did pre-September 4.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Deadly design flaws at Eagleson Park and Ride

Looking back, there was never really any questioning if someone would be struck by a car at the Eagleson Road Park and Ride; it was simply a question of when it would happen.

Sadly, tragedy struck last week, when a 17-year-old girl running across the six lanes of high-speed traffic to transfer from one bus to another was fatally hit by a truck.

As it stands today, Eagleson Station is broken down into two stations: Eagleson East and Eagleson West, which each have parking lots for commuters and are separated by the fast-moving traffic of Eagleson Road. It's not uncommon for a rider to be dropped off on the Eagleson West platform and have to cross the street to catch their next bus at the Eagleson East platform. The traffic light at the intersection can be an agonizingly long wait, and can frequently be the reason for a missed transfer--made especially frustrating when you're stuck standing at a red light while the bus pulls in and then leaves the station you should be at, and the 15-20 minute wait for the next 96 bus. It's enough to drive lots of people to cross on a "don't walk" signal, despite the inherent dangers.

These design flaws are a matter of infrastructure failing to keep up to growth in the area. Even though it was opened in 1995, the Park and Ride was conceptualized in 1986, when Kanata was a much smaller area than it is today, and car traffic on Eagleson Road was significantly lower.

The only preventive measure currently installed along Eagleson Road is an eight-foot-tall chain-link fence running along the median between north- and southbound traffic. But rather than prevent people from crossing, the fence just funnels people toward a small section of median along the nearest intersection, and reduces visibility for both pedestrians crossing as well as automobile traffic driving.

That reduced visibility is significant, as cars barreling down the road can barely see people crossing the street, and pedestrians almost need to step into oncoming traffic in order to see where the nearest car is (along with the fence at the intersection is a large traffic light post, with traffic signs on it which further impede visibility).

The point of the fence is to encourage people not to cross, but it doesn't, and there's next to nothing the city can do to stop people from crossing. It's an example of infrastructure built to impede or block human nature, when the key to designing functional walkways is making it pedestrian-oriented. We need the crosswalk to fit human tendencies, not attempt to shape them.

The city must do something to improve the current configuration of the Eagleson Road Park and Ride. As it stands today, with parking lots and drop-off points on both sides of the street, people are almost encouraged to jaywalk despite the danger of six lanes of very fast (usually greater than 60 km/h) car traffic.

The simplest and most immediate measure costs nothing but time: Have every route traveling in any direction head into the larger station on the northbound side of Eagleson Road. It might add five minutes to a bus trip, but that's not what matters here.

Another choice is a pedestrian underpass or overpass, and some have called for a footbridge in the aftermath of the accident. A footbridge, though, would also take longer than crossing the road itself (so you may still see people jaywalking), and would likely be more expensive than what I think would be the best solution.

The best, and most long-term, option is a bottom-up redesign of the station. An easy comparable is Baseline Station, where buses traveling in either direction turn into the station, rather than dropping people off on one side of Woodroffe (which, like Eagleson Road, is six lanes wide). It's a fairly easy fix, and, although we need to do something regardless of the cost, it would not be terribly expensive. It might require a few parking spots in the already-overstuffed parking lot to be sacrificed, but that's a sacrifice worth making.

The design below (pardon the low quality) is one option for the redesign. Basically, the idea is that the three current drop-off/pick-up points (one on the west side of Eagleson, two on the east) are amalgamated into one larger station. This would be safer and simpler for riders catching their buses, and also for those waiting for their buses: In December of 2009 a man waiting at the park and ride was robbed at knifepoint, and a larger station would draw more people and likely offer a more secure place to wait.

The bottom line is something needs to be done, and quickly. Lives could be at stake.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Route changes effective today

Just a heads-up to OC Transpo users that, if you somehow haven't heard, very many routes are changing under the city's optimization project, and yours might be affected. The changes take effect today.

If you're not sure whether or not you're ride will change, check the OC Transpo website and find out.