Monday, December 10, 2007

Much Ado That Does Next To Nothing

In north Calgary there’s a Tim Hortons. Big surprise, you say. For the benefit of locals, I’m talking about the one on Country Hills Boulevard, by the Shopper’s Drug Mart. Anyone who’s been to that part of the city now knows why I’m talking about that one, because that strip of shopping centers along Country Hills is a testament to the absolute idiocy of city planners. Yes, barely had the pavement dried and road crews were tearing it up again. Flooding was a huge issue because they didn’t put in drainage, and for some reason they never anticipated the volume of traffic that the roads in that part of the city would have to deal with.

And so the shopping centers are something of a problem as well. For one thing, they divided them in a number of sections, thus forcing traffic back out onto the main road in order to get from one to the other. (Until you learn how to cheat and use the back roads for delivery trucks, which to my way of thinking is not a good idea.) There are a number of intersections without lights, and again, anyone who’s driven there knows why I’d curse at anyone who would go to one of those intersections, as I once added five gray hairs to my head during the wait to get across the road.

Add to all of that, they build a Tim Hortons. Nothing special about that, this is Canada after all. But I know people with bigger walk-in closets than the parking lot for this particular Tim Hortons. The drive-thru line is often overflowing. In fact, if I have to go there, I’ll plan my driving route around it.

On the surface, you might be inclined to think I would agree with a move to restrict drive-thrus, something that’s coming up in a number of cities where politicians now see drive-thrus as an environmental and safety issue. London council is gathering public input on a range of options, from banning new outlets to tightening zoning bylaws to make more areas of the city drive-thru-free. City staff have floated the idea of restricting the hours of operation for drive-thrus, and a decision is expected in the new year.
In Hamilton, Ont., where Mayor Fred Eisenberger describes himself as "reasonably anti-drive-thru," council is studying an environmental group's call for a moratorium on new drive-thrus.
In Kings County, N.S., one politician has argued that only people with decreased mobility should be entitled to get their food while in their vehicle.
"I think a pregnant mom or a disabled person or a person who couldn't get out of their vehicle or an older person, they could use the drive-thru," says Wayne Atwater. "But these people that are able-bodied men and women, I certainly don't see any reason why they can't get out of their vehicle."

Does that mean if you’re pregnant you’re not able-bodied?

What these politicians all conveniently ignore is how much time people spend with vehicles idling at intersections on any given day of the week. A percentage of the driving population uses drive-thrus. Every single driver on the road deals with intersections.

You drive, you’ve been there. Stopped at a red light. The guy in front stops picking his nose and putts through the intersection. The girl behind him finally notices the light is green and attempts to engage her standard with one hand firmly pressing her cell phone to her blonde curls. The guy behind you is honking, as though that will somehow motivate people, and finally, you get through…

Only to be stopped at the next intersection. And the next and the next and the next.

I can’t even got to Airdrie without being stopped at on average two intersections going in and two leaving the city. And I’m being generous when I say two. There are two sets of lights prior to hitting the overpass, and if I need gas before shopping I have to go through a third intersection. If not, I have to merge onto the highway. The road where that gas station is on has crosswalks, and that means often stopping along there as well.

Then, to go to the shopping center, there are two more sets of lights. It isn’t stretching to say that there have been times I’ve had to stop at 8-10 intersections. Putting the average at four per trip is generous.

And we haven’t even discussed the joys of parking lots.

Red Deer actually has a great system with their lights. They’re timed so that once you hit a green, if you drive the speed limit you’ll hit green all the way through. And why speed when you know you’ll make that next green light? It’s perfect.

Meanwhile, in Calgary, they continue to throw up lights in order to slow traffic down and keep them from speeding through.

Well, does it ever occur to the politicians and planners for a second that part of the reason people are using drive-thrus is because of all the time in their lives being eaten away sitting at intersections? Look, you want people to slow down? You’ve got photo radar (for all the good that does. I mean, it doesn’t slow anyone down, other than the observant drivers who spot the vehicles) and you’ve got cops. Pull them over and ticket them. Raise the fines. But the pressure has been on for a long time, to build a ring road, because currently the Trans Canada Highway runs right through the city. You want to see pollution problems? Try getting stuck behind the semis on 16th Avenue, light after light after light after light. (We used to live off of 14th and Northmount, so I’m quite familiar with traffic. In fact, since we could see two intersections from our front window, I’d say the only time vehicles weren’t lined up was during the witching hours.)

It’s easy to pick on drive-thrus, and play the environment card and make it look good. I can actually see the safety argument, to a certain degree, but all of this is more evidence of politicians wasting time and money doing what they do best – evading the real issues. The problem is, traffic congestion gets worse every year, particularly in Calgary, where growth has the city bursting at the seams. You would think they’d build the roads right the first time, but all too often they don’t. I have to wonder how much unnecessary pollution is generated from having road crews go out and do a job a second time to fix the mistakes that passed through planning first time around.

They actually did that here. We bought this house in the winter, so we didn’t realize the one road in front of our house wasn’t paved. The next year they ripped up the sidewalks and did a cheap version of paving the roads. The sidewalks were moved down right beside the road, whereas they used to be located at the edge of the owner’s property. For us, just on the other side of our hedges. When they moved the sidewalks down, they did a number of things:

a) narrowed the road so that there wasn’t as much parking
b) told the property owners they now had to cut the village grass between their property line and sidewalk
c) made shoveling the sidewalks in winter a real bitch, because the ploughs push snow up on to the sidewalks, and
d) caused a flooding issue, because they did this without putting in drainage.

Last summer we get notice they want to rip it up and do it again. Only they’re going to charge the homeowners an extra tax to pay for it.

We lobbied against it and defeated it.

I mean, is it too much to ask elected officials to make sure things are done right the first time? And maybe if they screw up they have to pay for it?

Do I see a potential problem with drive-thrus contributing to damage to the environment. Sure. But certainly no more than I see the potential problem from cigarettes, or from traffic congestion on the roads.

It’s just that drive-thrus are an easy target. It doesn’t cost much money and it looks productive. Fixing the roads would actually involve admitting mistakes have been made, and spending money. I mean, if you want a real solution, pedestrian overpasses. Stop having people walk across major roads, particularly four-lane roads. It’s not just to help keep traffic flowing, but to save lives. How much time does an emergency vehicle spend idling if they have to deal with a pedestrian being struck by a car? And this goes over to the idiocy of moving a sidewalk right beside a road – it isn’t such a big deal here, as we don’t have much traffic, but that’s how 16th Ave is (or was, as construction’s been going on there for about two years now, I think) and there was an incident when a man slipped on ice and fell in front of a vehicle and was killed. Then add in those bicyclists who think one minute they’re a pedestrian and the next they’re a car…

In other words, it’s a typical half-assed solution, the kind I’ve come to expect, and anyone who thinks they’ve come up with a novel plan to help save the world here is, bluntly, a moron.

And for the record, I really, really, really want moms with kids to use the drive-thru. One parent told me their coping strategy: get the food through drive-thru, then take the kids and food inside and eat. Genius. Anyone who’s been in line behind a mom with a couple of kids knows what a nightmare it is trying to keep a handle on them while you get food.

But selling this idea behind the idea drivers are able-bodied and should get the exercise opens a floodgate of points to consider. Smokers don’t need cigarettes. Hell, do any of us need fast food at all?

And for the record, ever driven by a school at lunchtime? Parents trying to avoid lunchroom charges and bussing fees picking kids up and dropping them off. If every child had paid-for bussing how much would that save in terms of traffic congestion and idling time in front of schools four times a day? (Drop off, pick up for lunch, return from lunch, pick up after school.) As someone who has worked in education, I’ve seen it on a daily basis. All because school boards and governments are too cheap.

Hell, this is the richest province in Canada and we can’t afford to do things right? Sure, sure, now let’s go pick on the people in the Maritimes and point fingers at them.

I think what we all want – and maybe, yes, need – is to feel we have time in our lives for ourselves. Drive-thrus are a convenience born of necessity. As people spend more and more time commuting, shuffling the kids from one thing to another they’re struggling to do the best they can. Has anyone ever noticed how many of these environmental issues rely on the individual changing their lives, while industries go on spewing toxins?

It gets a little wearying, being expected to bear the brunt of it all to save the world. And for parents juggling jobs and 2.4 kids and everything that comes with raising a family, I can imagine it’s both frustrating and overwhelming.

Rezone for those drive-thrus, make them safe. But if some politician comes up and tells me I shouldn’t use them because my vehicle will be idling, I’m going to point at all the intersections I just had to stop at and ask them what they’re doing about that.


JamesO said...

Ah, the good old traffic rant. And having driven through Calgary a couple of times, I know what you're on about, Sandra.

As for drive-throughs, I hate the very concept of them, but if people are going to be dissuaded from using them, it should be on the grounds of fighting obesity and its related health problems, not traffic congestion.

There's a strange dichotomy going on in politicians' and planners' minds when it comes to these things. On the one hand, they want to persuade everyone (except, of course, themselves) to get out of their cars and stop polluting. On the other hand, they need the billions in revenue that motorists pay every year.

If you've ever tried to use public transport to get around the countryside, you'll know that there isn't really much of an alternative to the car. Come to think of it, using public transport to get to and around cities isn't much fun, either.

In the UK, the motorist has been cleverly portrayed by the politicians and the media as the enemy, despite the fact that almost all politicians and media pundits are themselves motorists (we'll draw a discrete veil over our former transport minister who didn't even have a driving licence). The last time I looked, it was heading to a situation where only one tenth of the taxes raised on motoring in the UK were being spent on transport infrastructure; the trains are full to bursting, the roads choked up with trucks because there's no capacity in the rail network for freight, and all the motorists are being pilloried as mother-earth-rapists.

A nice, integrated transport policy, with far-sighted planning and incentives for environmentally-friendly options would be nice - investing some of our tax monies in a hydrogen filling station infrastructure perhaps, to kick start the fledgling fuel-cell vehicle industry. I can't see it happening soon, though.

I seem to have lost my train of thought here, but it's nice to be able to add to the rant;}#

Graham Powell said...

In our school district, they're so cheap that you must live farther than 1 mile from the school to use the bus.

Also, they stagger starting times for the schools so that they can use the same busses for elementary, middle, and high schools. So if you have to drop your first grade off at 7:45 and then head to work, what are you supposed to do with your middle schooler until 9:15?

As for drive throughs, you're usually only in line for a few minutes at the most. And almost all engines, including cars, generate much more pollution when starting than they do when idling.

Graham Powell said...

In our school district, they're so cheap that you must live farther than 1 mile from the school to use the bus.

Also, they stagger starting times for the schools so that they can use the same busses for elementary, middle, and high schools. So if you have to drop your first grade off at 7:45 and then head to work, what are you supposed to do with your middle schooler until 9:15?

As for drive throughs, you're usually only in line for a few minutes at the most. And almost all engines, including cars, generate much more pollution when starting than they do when idling.

Jim Winter said...

You live in an English-speaking North American country founded by Brits (No offense, UK. I'm just pointing out something about your two cousins to the west of Ireland) and you want something more than a half-assed solution to city planning?

Good luck with that.

In Cincinnati, they built a system of Skywalks to connect the convention center and hotels to the shopping in Carew Tower and on Fountain Square.

Since 1991, they've ripped out half the Skywalk, then did a study that concluded the Skywalk was ineffective.

Well, duh! You gutted the system, stupid!

This from the city that started work in the 1910's on a world-class subway system that would rival New York's.

The tunnels sit empty more than eighty years after the project was abandoned. Not a single train has ever run through them. Meanwhile, city and county leaders scratch their heads wondering why traffic is so congested. And when they ask why the citizens are against building a light rail system to streamline traffic, their answer is (and I'm not making this up) they're afraid of cooties.

I'd leave, but unless I can afford San Fran, New York, or Chicago, I'm only going to find more of the same.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Ha! I love reading traffic rants. James, you're dead on about the lack of public transport in the country, so a vehicle is a necessity. And the city isn't much better. But the problem with UK trains is a real problem, and I hope they do something about that.

Graham, dead on about idling/starting. And school zones? In Calgary, why put them on MAJOR roads? I mean, duh. Slow everyone down to 30, put in speed bumps, and wonder why people are frustrated. You've got so many people stopping right on major access roads it's a real safety hazard.

Jim, classic. Cincinnatti sounds like the model for Calgary efficiency, although we do have the C-Train. But the tunnels? Priceless. Of course, we add to traffic congestive with above-ground trains that cross major roads and, you guessed it, stop traffic.

You can't win.

pattinase (abbott) said...

So hard to weigh what is environmentally sound with what is someone's idea of the same. My husband contends that they take all of our carefully deposited recycling material and throw it into the Detroit incinerator and poison us for spite. I say, "Be an Al."

Sandra Ruttan said...

Although I've heard that Al isn't anywhere near as environmentally friendly in his day to day living as George is.

But if they want to ban drive-thrus, fine. But they shouldn't act like that alone will save the world. It won't. Until we get companies on board...

John McFetridge said...

I have a friend who says he can't wait till the oil's all used up and we won't have these discussions anymore.

I lived in Calgary in the late '70's and it was a driver's dream. I guess it's too bad they filled the place up with people.

One thing, though, cities like Calgary and most North American cities that only really grew big after the introduction of cars have a tough time imagining life without them - and the people often get pretty emotional about it. Cities that were already quite big before there were cars (like Montreal where I grew up or many European cities) can much more easily see a way to get by without cars.

But why would we want to try if we don't have to?

Unknown said...

I was suprised to see the words Calgary and Congestion in the same sentence. A City Councillor in Toronto told me in 2005 that there is no congestion in Toronto, compared to other cities. He was right. The congestion you see now is nothing compared to what's coming.

Sandra Ruttan said...

I think because I grew up in a small town and vehicles were essentials, yeah, it is hard to imagine functioning without them. The infrastructure isn't there. I once looked into how much it cost to take the bus from my present location into Calgary, and it turns out you have to order your ticket at least a week in advance. So I can never hop on the bus and go to the city without carefully preplanning it. Ridiculous!

Bern, Toronto has... isn't it the QEW? It's been quite a while since I lived in Ontario and I made a rule to never drive Toronto. But I think they did put in better infrastructure, and they also have the subway, which helps.

Even over when I first lived in Calgary, 11 years ago, it's gotten a lot worse.

JamesO said...

If I want to get a bus from my home to the nearest town, I have to walk four miles to the nearest bus-stop. And that only works in the summertime. In winter it would be more like eight miles, by which time I might as well walk the fifteen to town. Except that coming home's a long, uphill slog.

And yet my car ownership is taxed pretty much the same as someone living in the middle of a large city with heavily subsidised rail and bus services as (admittedly not very pleasant) alternatives.

It would be nice if the politicians tried to address that problem, but they all live in the cities themselves, and so can't see what all the fuss is about.

Steve Allan said...

Mmmm...Tim Horton's. Just to prove that Maine is really just another Atlantic Province, we're getting a Tim Horton's on every corner. That and every other license plate at the mall is from New Brunswick.

Sandra Ruttan said...

I'm thinking about moving to New Brunswick next year. We'll see...