Although traffic calming continues to expand in North Vancouver and many other Canadian cities, some critics say the long-term beneficial results remain impossible to ascertain.  Initially the benefits were supposed to include reducing collision frequency and severity, increasing the safety for non-motorized users of streets, enhancing the street environment and increasing the quality of community life.  It seemed a good plan.  These days the vitriolic Vancouver crusade against automobiles may be added to the list, but it appears that trying to force people out of their cars through the installation of barricades has never worked in any city.

The history of traffic calming in Vancouver harkens back to the 1970s, when the campaign against freeways was successful but no clear public transit alternatives were offered.  The increase in population growth and traffic finally forced drivers to take back streets and alleyways to get to their destinations. When drivers started to use laneways as thoroughfares the traffic calming campaign soon followed.  Community safety was first attempted by building speed bumps, then speed humps, speed tables (longer in length), and speed cushions (a series of small bumps), narrowing traffic lanes by increasing sidewalks and adding bike lanes. Those initial attempts were followed by chicanes (artifical curves), raised pedestrian intersections, curb extensions including bus bulges and intersection shoulders, median diverters, cobblestones, one-way streets, yield barriers, chokers (reducing two lanes to one), cul-de-sacs, boom barriers, median diverters and median islands, traffic circles, and the list goes on. Many neighbourhoods of the Lower Mainland now resemble medieval mazes, with blockages and turns at virtually every corner.

Initial downsides to the initiative were an increase in emergency response time; vehicle damage and injury to drivers and pedestrians (mainly back and neck injuries), difficulty with snow removal and street sweeping, installation and ongoing maintenance costs; restricted neighborhood access to delivery personnel and visitors.  Most damaging was ‘traffic migration,’ or shifting traffic and accidents to other neighbourhoods. Now, however, so much of the Lower Mainland has been ‘calmed’ that other, long-term negative effects are starting to show up.

One expert report shows that creating road conditions that compel drivers to slow down decreases mobility while essentially having no effect on the accident rate per capita per year. The accident rate per unit distance driven actually has risen. The National Motorists Association in the U.S. claims that increased traffic on residential streets is caused by misguided management of the main arterials and collector streets originally designed to carry most of the traffic. The solution, they say, is not to further obstruct traffic flow by pushing the problem into someone else’s neighborhood but to upgrade and improve the traffic handling capabilities of main thoroughfares, including much more public transit.

Such arguments carry little weight among people who are focused on self.  Traffic calming remains politically popular and there is no end of community activists clamouring for more. The costs can range from a few hundred dollars for a traffic sign, to $1,000 for a speed bump, and up to $40,000 for a traffic circle. Corner bulges and pedestrian accesses comprise yet another big pot of money.  It’s fair to say that nobody has a real handle on the yearly or cumulative costs for traffic calming in the Lower Mainland, but a rough estimate – at perhaps $5 to $10 million per year – the total to date might surpass  $200 million since the concept first caught on.


Canada Safety Council report


Photo: This bus bulge is deliberately designed to stick out in the street and block traffic.

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